Angler Seamus O’Neill has been fishing in western Conamara for almost 30 years.
Wild Atlantic salmon, a species of fish with legendary status on this island, has always been abundant in the Dawros River.
But the number of salmon returning upstream to spawn has dropped dramatically in recent years.
“Nearly 20 years ago we had up to 3,000 adult salmon coming back. Today we see less than 900,” O’Neill told Prime Time.
During this time, he said, there has been an “almost complete disappearance” of sea trout from the river.
At the national level, the picture is more dramatic. In less than 20 years, the number of wild salmon in Irish rivers has declined by almost 80%.
In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, just over 150,000 wild Atlantic salmon made the return trip to their spawning grounds in Irish rivers, according to the International Council for Exploration. of the sea.
In 2000, 685,410 wild salmon returned at the end of their life cycle.
In the longer term, the decline of our fish stocks is even more marked. Although their numbers have always fluctuated, in the 1970s and 1980s the stocks of wild salmon in our rivers frequently exceeded one million, including 1.7 million in 1975.
As a result, this iconic native species has been classified as “Vulnerable” for over a decade.
The reasons for their decline are manifold. Chief among them, according to John Murphy of the conservation group Salmon Watch Ireland, is climate change.
The warming of the Atlantic Ocean is causing fish stocks to migrate further north to colder waters.
“Because now they have to travel farther, fewer survive,” Mr Murphy told Prime Time.
Another factor is the poor water quality of Irish rivers and other rivers in Europe.
“It’s a global problem – it’s not just an Irish problem,” Mr Murphy said.
Dr Michael Millane, of Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI), said there are also local factors.
Weirs, which are built across rivers to control water levels, can prevent salmon from moving upstream. Meanwhile, open cage salmon farming in estuaries is associated with higher levels of sea lice, which can make wild salmon susceptible to bacterial infection.
Over the past 30 years, the IFI has conducted a series of studies on the effect of sea lice from salmon farms on wild salmon and sea trout.
“Our research clearly shows that this is a significant problem affecting wild Atlantic salmon and sea trout. We are seeing returns to our rivers are significantly reduced,” said Dr Millane.
Under Irish and EU law, the government and public bodies, such as the IFI, are responsible for protecting wild salmon.
Every year, regulations are passed to limit fishing and keep wild salmon in our rivers. For example, this year it was only legally permitted to catch and land salmon in 48 of the 144 rivers where wild salmon typically occur.
In many of the remaining rivers, salmon numbers were thought to be too low or there was insufficient data to determine the stock. In 32 rivers, a so-called ‘catch and release’ policy was in place, which meant that once caught, the salmon had to be released safe and sound.
There is also a specific EU legal obligation for the government to protect wild salmon under the Habitats Directive, when they inhabit rivers in or near a Special Area of Conservation.
In these areas, any activity authorized by the government – such as construction, business development or licensing of aquaculture – must be assessed for its impacts on protected species “with a qualified interest”, such as the wild salmon.
Despite these complex EU legal obligations, the government is divided in its approach to the issue, particularly when it comes to licensing open-cage salmon farms on the Atlantic coast.
The Department of Environment, Climate and Communications, led by Minister Eamon Ryan, clashed with the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine, which is led by Minister Charlie McConalogue.
Earlier this year, in letters sent to Salmon Watch Ireland under the Freedom of Information Act, Minister Ryan wrote to Minister McConalogue warning him that the state’s current regulatory system was causing “effects harmful and unsustainable effects on wild fish stocks, particularly salmonids”. .
He said the available scientific evidence clearly demonstrated that “the undeniable impacts of sea lice emanating from fish farms are unacceptable” and a “significant factor in the decline of wild stocks”.
In response, Minister McConalogue said he was “fully confident that the current aquaculture regulatory system is in full compliance with all of the state’s environmental obligations”.
Describing the science on the harmful effects of sea lice as “unresolved”, McConalogue said his department operates an “independent national sea lice monitoring program” as a mitigation measure, which is “recognized by the European Commission as best practice”.
He said Marine Institute data indicated that 98% of inspections found sea lice at acceptable levels.
Mr Murphy said the Marine Institute, which provides the information to the Navy Department for salmon licensing, ‘suggests the impact of marine life on wild salmon stocks is minor and irregular’.
On the other hand, research by Inland Fisheries Ireland shows “it has a far greater impact than has been portrayed by the Marine Institute”.
As an environmentalist who closely monitors international scientific research on the subject, Mr Murphy describes the Marine Institute’s scientific papers as “complete outliers”.
Last year, the interdepartmental dispute moved to the courts.
In September 2021, Inland Fisheries Ireland published a notice stating that it was legally challenging the Department of Marine’s issuance of an aquaculture license at Shot Head in Bantry Bay, County Kerry, by way of judicial review.
In western Conamara, some locals are preparing to fight a pending aquaculture license application, for a large open-cage salmon farm with 22 cages, by Norwegian multinational Mowi in Ballinakill Bay.
Mr O’Neill, the long-time fisherman, believes that if the license is granted it will be ‘the death knell’ for wild salmon and sea trout in several rivers, such as the Dawros, the Ballynahinch River and the Culfin.
In a statement, Mowi Ireland confirmed to Prime Time that it had applied for an aquaculture license off the coast of Galway and that the application would involve a “full round of statutory and public consultation”.
It is not only in the Western Conamara Special Area of Conservation, where Ballinakill Bay is located, that there are real concerns that we are not meeting our EU obligations to conserve wild salmon.
Of the 40 rivers in Special Areas of Conservation, 18 were below conservation levels last year, according to the Salmon Technical Expert Panel Report (2022).
In August, Bord Iascaigh Mhara published a draft of its National Strategic Plan for the Sustainable Development of Aquaculture to 2030, which, after public consultation, will soon be forwarded to the government. The objective is to develop a transversal approach and to federate all the stakeholders.
The draft plan also states that aquaculture development will be forced to comply with our new National Marine Planning Framework which envisages the designation of Marine Protected Areas, where conservation becomes “a binding consideration for marine decision makers”.
He points out how a 2020 report by the Marine Protected Areas Advisory Group for the Department of Housing found “gaps in meeting international targets for…the protection of important species and habitats that are under threat. or declining” and that Ireland needs to set new targets. protect vulnerable species, including marine species, as part of the EU’s 2030 biodiversity strategy.
On a positive note, Inland Fisheries Ireland insists that salmon farming must be able to coexist with wild salmon. What is needed, he argues, is a shift to newer, albeit more expensive, technology in the form of land-based salmon farms that keep salmon in pens away from our bays.
Many, however, consider the government’s willingness to take effective action to conserve wild salmon to be too slow, especially those in the hospitality sector in West Conamara, such as Eoin Walsh, general manager of the Ballynahinch Castle Hotel. .
Mr Walsh noted that in 2019, before the Covid pandemic, around 2% of the 11 million tourists who came to Ireland came here for the angling.
“We are talking about just under a quarter of a million tourists visiting Ireland for fishing,” Mr Walsh said.
“We also represent over 10,000 people working in the angling industry. A lot of them are in rural destinations like Conamara, like Kerry. It’s very, very important to extend that and go forward to keep it.”
He said the future of his businesses is inextricably linked to the fate of wild salmon and so he cannot wait for the government to take more effective action.
“Fishing is our most important activity. People come here from the United States, from Central Europe, from France, just to fish. They come here just to fish and they come back every year. It is very important to protect this business,” he added. said.
But stocks of wild salmon in the local Ballynahinch River have fallen by almost 70% in a decade.
For this reason, the hotel has implemented a catch and release policy as a way to promote conservation.
“We were a little nervous at first because a lot of our anglers have been fishing here for over 40 years. But there was total commitment from all of our anglers,” he said.
“Everyone wants to do the right thing.”