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How healthy are our salmon populations?

September 13th, 2011 0 comments

The opportunity to increase salmon numbers

For over 30 years the River Frome in Dorset, once famed for its 30lb salmon, has been providing some of the best evidence of the Atlantic salmon decline in our rivers across the country. Over that period a large amount of monitoring equipment has been installed making it the most instrumented natural river laboratory in Europe. The Trust now has taken over these facilities to understand the process that has caused this decline and go to the next stage – to work out how to reverse the decline.

The ground work has been done: the scientists there have already tagged over 50,000 salmon that are now spread from the upper reaches of the Frome to the icy Arctic waters off south-western Greenland. It is crucial that, when these fish return, we are on site to collect the data to help us find the answers about the best freshwater river conditions that prepare salmon for the sea.  See our press release about how chalk stream research could unravel Atlantic salmon declines

4,000 miles in 18 months - join us for the journey of a lifetime

The story of the Atlantic Salmon rivals any that Hollywood can produce. It is one of transformation, danger, determination and, in most cases, death. Each year a new generation of salmon begin their incredible lives in shallow streams before leaving for the open sea to travel northwards to the feeding grounds in the waters off Greenland. They brave many dangers to feed and grow during their 4,000 mile migration, eventually returning, amazingly, to their native river. They then perform spectacular physical feats to leap over falls and barriers as they swim back upstream to reach their spawning grounds.

Numbers of salmon returning to the Frome

Despite the ongoing international conservation efforts to reduce over fishing at sea we lack the scientific evidence for managing our rivers better. We desperately need to identify which environmental conditions the fish experience in fresh water rivers best prepare them for their survival at sea. To reverse the 70% decline in returning salmon numbers over the last 20 years, and to see more 30lb salmon returning to our rivers, we urgently need to unlock these secrets.

We can do it. By implanting small electronic chips our sophisticated ‘hands off ’ equipment detects and records each individual fish as it leaves and returns to the river. We will build a better picture of how our freshwater river conditions affect migratory patterns and survival rates.

The next stage of research for their survival

The initial conservation focus was to reduce over-fishing of salmon at sea and there is little more that can now be done. We must now focus research effort on ensuring that the freshwater habitat produces salmon that have the best chance of survival at sea. This huge natural laboratory on the River Frome is of both national and international importance – we can study, fish by fish, entire populations of migrating salmon using its unique ‘hands off ’ monitoring equipment. The results will teach us how to best manage our rivers to produce more fish that will survive at sea and return to spawn.

Critical questions for the future

A great deal is known about salmon in the Atlantic - they adopt a silver coat to help evade sea predators; they must adapt internally and externally to survive the icy cold salt water; they can swim up to 100 miles a day during their 4,000 mile migration. But we know so very little about what can be done to improve the freshwater habitat to produce salmon that have the best chance of survival on their epic journey.

  • Is it down to the size of a salmon when it runs to sea?
  • Is it the time of year when it chooses to migrate? Do autumn migrating fish have higher survival rates?
  • Is it far more complicated environmental issues such as climate change, water or air temperature, river flows or rainfall patterns?
  • Are the conditions experienced in the freshwater river affecting the number of years a salmon spends at sea? The longer at sea, the bigger the fish - every salmon fisherman wants to see more 30lb salmon in our rivers!

The River Frome and its monitoring equipment will allow us to find the answers to these questions by conducting experiments that, quite simply, could not have been done before.

Your help is crucial for wild salmon

fish reader

You know the Trust has an enviable track record in the conservation of game and wildlife. In the coming years, this work on the River Frome will make a vital international contribution to our knowledge of the factors that affect the health of salmon populations in our rivers. Please be part of it. Your support will have a direct impact on the quality of scientific input to our endeavours to increase wild salmon stocks for future generations.

Photo:  fish tag readers in the raised position to clear debris

Why we need extra funds

  • The opportunity to save the huge data and knowledge bank waiting to be harnessed from 50,000 fish already tagged.
  • The opportunity to continue the crucial long-term monitoring research programme.
  • The opportunity of building on decades of goodwill built up with landowners adjacent to the River Frome and their huge co-operation.
  • To try and answer these questions in the future we would risk having to raise funds to build a whole new facility - many times more than the funding support required now to keep the existing site running.
  • The opportunity for the Trust’s science to contribute to the international recovery of salmon numbers would be delayed indefinitely, a source of significant concern for game fishing enthusiasts.
  • To summarise, the opportunity to contribute to the recovery of this key game species, the king of fishes, is unprecedented and deserves to be supported.

How your donation will help

  • £66 will cover the cost of tagging enough fish to send one juvenile salmon to sea, monitor its departure for Greenland and its return one, two or even three years later.
  • £268 will cover the cost of keeping the intricate ‘hands off’ monitoring equipment running for a full week (24/7), to record 30lb salmon returning to the river at the end of their migration.
  • £1,224 will cover the cost of keeping the juvenile ‘smolt counter’ working for 24 hours during one of the prime six weeks of their migration from the river at the start of their incredible journey.

Already we are discovering new insights into Salmon biology.

  • For some reason, but probably associated with conditions at sea the return on fish going to sea in 2007 has been very poor.
  • One of our Frome fish, smolted and went to sea in April and was caught by a trawler off Greenland and appeared on a fishmonger's slab in Sisimuit, southern Greenland.
  • Some young fish make the journey down the river in autumn, but don't go to sea, they just hang around the river mouth. Why do they do this, does this make them more vulnerable to predation?

Photo:  The fluvarium, set in a former mill race on the River Frome, contains two huge glass sided tanks sunk into the river channel.  These enable scientists to see the whole river content and record on camera each fish’s size as it swims by.

  • Atlantic Salmon Trust
    “It is now vital to understand and influence conditions in our rivers and inland waterways. We are supporting the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust because it can be entrusted to produce the science that will help rebuild thepopulation of this species.”
    Tony Andrews
  • Salmon & Trout Association
    “We thoroughly endorse and are supporting this research now being carried out by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. Finding out how to reverse the alarming decline in salmon numbers will help to ensure the future for game fishing.”
    Paul Knight
    Chief Executive

    For more information on this project and other information from the GWCT please click here.

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