• Ian Gordon

Reply To Tony Andrews, Former CEO of Atlantic Salmon Trust


For ease of reading, my answers to Tony's questions to the last post - Lost at Sea, are in red.

A REPLY TO IAN GORDON after viewing the new film 'Lost at Sea'

Ian, you were clearly inspired to write your most interesting blog after seeing the film, ‘Lost at Sea’. I love your passion for wild Atlantic salmon, and your personal commitment to a less greedy approach for exploiting them. Most of all, I like the optimism expressed in your last paragraphs. You are a true 'fisherman' in the best sense of the word.

In my last job I led the Atlantic Salmon Trust for eight years into the fields of work in which that charity is now engaged. The underlying principle of AST’ work is that all its findings and recommendations should be based on scientific fact, avoiding where possible speculation or personal opinions. That fixation on facts - call them ‘truths’ if you wish - means that we depend on science to help us understand the wild Atlantic salmon as a species.

Hello Tony,

Many thanks for your reply to my blog. I'd like to firstly say that my statements below are observations made over a long period of time and, rightly or wrongly, are my personal beliefs and I stand total by them. I also think that differences of opinion are part and parcel of Salmon Fishing in general and I never like pushing my opinions down the throats of others but am very happy to help if someone asks. Basically, we're all individual, have our own views on everything, from flies, methods where and when to fish etc. The main reason for this is - The Salmon is an "Enigma". Apart from a few obvious ones, finding facts is not easy in the world of the Atlantic Salmon. Something that makes it a very thorny subject for any scientist!

You mention facts, but actually, I see very little facts. I see incomplete data and more research required, but not many conclusions or facts. Frankly, the science of the past, what has been produced at great expense and loss of time, simply isn't good enough. Does this surprise me? Given the contact Ive had personally with those people in the last 30 years, not in the least. Like good politicians, good scientists are worth their weight in gold. However, the standard of research work over the past 30 years has been so poor. An idiot like me can pick holes in almost every part of it. In fact, so bad was the data on the Spey, much of it [Juvenile survey work and in all probability much more] was discarded and not used after the first scientist left.

Its totally ridicules. What do you think a politician with ulterior motives/agendas will do with it!?

‘Science’ has to some people in the angling community become a dirty word! In my experience of working with scientists I have never met one who knowingly misrepresented data they were commissioned to obtain. However, I cannot say the same of those who commissioned their research. The truth is that politics often takes precedence over scientific data. Take the example of Dick Shelton, who was director of the Government’s Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory at Faskally, and his colleague, Dr Andy Walker. Both these eminent scientists were muzzled by their employers, the government’s civil servants, and discouraged from making any statement that might be detrimental to the profits of the salmon farming industry.

I don’t think science is a “dirty” word in the angling community. I think anglers are frustrated. Frustrated that, after all the time effort and money, the data remains incomplete and those in the scientific community continue to use words such as Might, maybe, could and possibly as a matter of course. Never actually coming forward with firm conclusions/facts that potentially, could be used by the modern media to pile pressure on politicians to act in a positive way to protect salmon, be it in farms or from predators.

As soon as those words [Might, may, possibly] are used, they don't represent fact/ truth or science. Instantly I hear, well, its not an exact science! Well, I'm sorry, but to me, and every bent politician, this is a green light to question or move the debate to wherever my agenda takes me, irrespective of what you or anyone thinks, if you don’t have the facts to prove otherwise you're sunk! You and I know that incomplete data is no more science than that of the observations of a hundred sets of eyes and minds!? Especially those who have been around the river a long time. Its quite interesting that, having been treated as second rate citizens by the scientific community for decades, now that they see value in those observations the buzzword now is "Citizen Science"! Why now? Well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work that one out.

A good friend of mine is one of the countries leading statisticians, a "genius" with numbers. Not a two bit guy who had nothing else to do for a few years, but a real scientist who in his lifetime has made a huge difference in his chosen area of expertise! Another friend, is one of the countries 3 leading scientific advisors on Huntington’s. If I have a question about any of those, I ask one of them. Why? Because I “know”, as "leaders" in their field, they have the answers. Can you imagine any politician arguing with Professor Hugh Pennington over Mad cow, or Salmonella? Before the outbreak and him becoming regarded as the leading expert yes, but after, not a chance!

The problem as I see it is, we don’t have any of the answers and the reason we don’t is, our people are simply not good/strong enough, or have faith in their convictions to stand up in a political arena and spell out what need to be done. Half baked truths are the stuff of dreams for politicians, or people like me, who question.

A little like politicians, who themselves are mainly poor, until we have "real" experts in the scientific community, providing complete data and properly written reports, then the status quo will remain and salmon will continue to decline.

In your years working with AST - How many "conclusions" were reached that produced political change in favour of the salmon? Is there anything you can remember you could put hand on heart and say, yes, we have found this to be 100% true regarding the Atlantic Salmon and we made a difference?

To this point do you think science has failed the Atlantic salmon? As a scientifically minded guy myself I certainly do.

On his retirement Dr Shelton became free to give the public his personal views on salmon aquaculture, unmuzzled by government and making his statements based on scientific data, which he has done most eloquently in his book, 'To Sea and Back: The Heroic Life of the Atlantic Salmon' (Atlantic Books 2009)

Playing devils advocate on behalf of our politicians; words such as possibly, might and could, in any scientific report, provides so much potential for me to spin my story/reply whichever way I please, whatever that story may be. In the case of fish-farming, the fact those men failed to speak out at the time has done them, us, and the salmon a disservice. It begs the question, what else were they muzzled about?

I’m sorry, but if Dick and Andy knew otherwise, irrespective of their pension, they should have talked, they made a good living from salmon and in their moment of need, failed them. You and I know there are people who would have protected their pensions if the whistle had been blown and the can of worms opened. We desperately need mainstream media to get involved in the salmon debate and this was an opportunity missed.

Why did he write the book after he retired? Anything written in a book after they're retired, even if, as was the case with Dick, 100% truthful, is water off a ducks back, lambs to the slaughter for any politician, who can simply label anything in it as “Sour Grapes” from a cynical old man. The politician ways up how many people will read it and act accordingly. How many copies have been read by the greater public, is the book of any interest to mainstream media who may kick up a stink?? Well, I rest my case!

I have long felt that it was a great pity that both Orri Vigfusson and that populist hero of the River Tyne, Peter Gray, apparently failed to appreciate that it was not the scientists who were lying; it was the people who commissioined the science - and then distorted the results for political ends.

Orri and Peter saw it as it was and is, poor quality people returning poor quality data!

The Scottish Government was particularly guilty of obfuscation in its efforts to protect the salmon farming industry at any cost! And what a cost that has proved to be! The chicken has now come home to roost because it is now widely accepted that the salmon farming industry is unsustainable in its present form. My friend and inspirational marine ecologist, Jens Christian Holst, formerely of the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen, warned a gathering of scientists in 2009 that the explosion of sea lice in Norway's salmon farming industry would prove unmanageable, and that is now the reality in Norway and elsewhere.

The frustration is that while change has now become inevitable, implementing that change will probably take years. Meanwhile, our west coast ecosystems remain severely damaged by the impacts of poorly sited and badly managed salmon farms. A fishery owner on the Isle of Lewis said to me in 2008, “It is our sea trout that are suffering most and where our reputation and tourism are being damaged most”. To wild fishery managers her statement was obvious because of the very different lifestyles of Salmo Salar and Salmon Trutta L., where the localised feeding habits of sea trout put them in perpetual danger of sea lice infestation, whereas salmon can sometimers successfully run the gauntlet.

As far as stocking and ranching are concerned (the Tyne and Iceland’s Ranga respectively) the debates will continue. One point of correction about Iceland's Ranga is that the River has no viable indigenous stock of wild salmon because recent volcanic activity has removed spawning and juvenile habitats. All its fish are ranched, which means that it is to all intents and purposes a ‘put-and-take fishery’, because no successful spawning takes place in the river or its tributaries. The Ranga management objective is clear; to maximise the return of ranched smolts for tourism - and thereby generate as much revenue as possible. It has been a huge success: noone can deny that. But, if you stop ranching (at great expense per smolt delivered), the fishery stops too. The Ranga could never be described as a 'natural' fishery: indeed, it is as far from being natural as a rainbow stocked stillwater fishery. There's nothing wrong with that, provided we recognise that such a fishery is unlikely ever to be self sustaining.

You’re right, it cannot be self sustaining, which is why it requires the hatchery is there for one reason. Fishing tourism, community and cash. The stats here speak for themselves and “prove” this to be a workable method for that particular river. My scientific brain tells me this is “Fact”, no need for adverbs such as mights or maybe.

Stocking is far more controversial, and a topic of cotinuing heated debate, which of course includes restoration of wild Atlantic salmon stocks in the Tyne. I cannot deny that there is a place for stocking a river that requires a kick-start following severe depletion or extinction of its stock. Cleaner waters, a better river environment and good riparian management did far more for the Tyne in terms of numbers of wild salmon spawning than Peter’s vitally important kick start to the process. At the end of the day I will always choose the ‘wise’ female salmon to 'select' its mate(s) and the precise location for depositing her eggs, over a man with a bucket of randomly collected ova and milt.

Again this is yet another failure from those involved. Here I am, 54 year old and been reading about the pros and cons on Stocking for 35 years. 35 years for god sake! Pathetic people! How long should it take to answer a question? And yet, 35 years on, and its still not answered. Again, a politicians dream, what must they think of us all? No one can actually say yes or no, or come up with "Fact"!

How easy would it be to have a national case study into whether or not this could actually work here and finally put the whole issue to bed? We could then pull the community together to answer bigger questions, but no! Typical of the salmon fishing community and those charged with looking after it, instead of actually getting on with the science, we argue with one another over petty issues and end up with our political and other enemy's laughing at us, seeing us for what we are. A bloody Joke!

If you took two rivers, commercially void of salmon. On one we adopted the same old (hope the fish come back) strategies seen here over the past 40 years, whilst on the other, you got experts from Iceland apply something similar to their proven method and run the project for 5 years. Question answered! No more bullshit.

Getting salmon rivers to do what they have done since the last ice age is surely the best approach? The research and management work of Dr Ronald Campbell of the Tweed Foundation is the best example of proving the conditions for salmon to thrive in the a salmon river catchment.

If this is your agenda, then yes. However, for those working on the river and those relying on visiting fishermen, I’m afraid this might not be the case. In a business sense, a greater part of The Tweed is going into unfamiliar territory. Yes, there will be many times in the past 10,000 years, were the rivers populations have been this low. We know sea surface temps in the past were higher and less favourable to salmon. However, mine and a great many others interest in those fish is business, jobs and the economy of the catchment. There comes a time when things must change. However, that change can come in many shapes and forms. My final paragraph alludes to this.

AST and most wild fisheries organisations are now focussed on what is happening at sea, and rightly so because that is where the main problem lies. Fact???? The focus is on what happens to smolts in lower sections of rivers, estuaries and in the littoral coastal zones. Other organisations such as NASCO are dealing with the ocean. In all these efforts science is the basis from which data (facts) emerge.

TA

Given what I’ve witnessed myself, I can call it Citizens Science now, I don’t believe that statement to be true. Who is right here, you or I? Imagine our politician, Christmas and Birthdays all together!

All I have to back this up is in my memory, but I keep very good records in diaries and what I “know” is, the Spey is not producing the same number of juveniles as it did during times of abundance late 1970s - 1980s. Our neighbouring rivers, The Lossie, has next to no salmon running and little or no Smolts. The Deveron is similar to the Spey.

Ask yourself this question - We know that the salmons natural defence in the ocean is to shoal, and that the bigger the shoal, the better the chance of survival, what happens when the bait ball gets smaller and predators increase? It doesn’t require science to answer this. I could go on and talk about my Grandfather and his observations and those of his father fishing Drift and Seine nets in the Moray firth, for between them, 80 years, but its getting too long.

Taking to Sarah earlier this year, I was really interested in what she had to say about the study on Smolts leaving our rivers. In my opinion all the recourses of the AST should be channelled toward finding the "Answers" here. It’s the single most important question that, potentially, will make a difference. However, what's even more important is, until the data is complete, I’d shy from publishing anything regarding this. This is such an important study with the potential to provide “answers”, and should not be pulled apart by politicians after being presented half baked.

Hopefully those involved get the message.

I don't want to trade insults on here, those are simply my own views, facts as I see them. I would conclude by saying. Tony and I share the same view in that, without solid, factual data all governments can play around with figures to their own end. For me, this, along with a holistical lack of clear leadership and planning, is why we have done little to help salmon in the last 40 years.


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