There are different ways of thinking about salmon, but the gulf between such fishy thoughts can be oceans apart. There’s the muddy tasting salmon we can buy in supermarkets or the slightly greasy layers of smoked offerings we consume on canapés around this time of the year – then there’s the big, wild, sleek, magnificent beast that are the monarchs of our rivers…
To know about that creature – and I mean to really understand why the salmon is master of the Westcountry’s waterways – it helps to both see these amazing fish out in the wild, and to understand something about their extraordinary lifestyle.
The Western Morning News was invited on to the high moors of Exmoor to do just that, now that the annual spawning has finally got underway.
There is something very special indeed about spying a huge sleek creature lurking in a tiny stream and knowing that, after it was born in this exact same place, it travelled more than 2,500 miles and faced hazards too numerous to mention.
The chances of the creature achieving such an adventure from hatching to mating or egg-laying are many, many thousands-to-one.
Which is why each salmon could be described as a gleaming, silver, miracle.
No wonder people like Nick Maye and Ben Simpson are willing to spend so much of their time keeping an eye out for these incredible fish.
It’s part of Nick’s job – he is fisheries officer with the Environment Agency (EA) and in that role looks after the entire River Exe catchment – but you get the feeling that he is so passionate about salmon that he spends far longer out on the river banks than his job description demands. Ben doesn’t get paid for looking after the salmon at all – but as a committee member River Exe and Tributaries Association (RETA) and a riparian owner, he shares the passion for wild salmon.
Before we follow them up into the higher reaches of the River Barle – which is the main tributary of the Exe on Exmoor – let’s remind ourselves of the big salmon story.
How a fish can survive so many lethal foes in youth, make it out onto the high and dangerous seas – then somehow return to the same river and find the exact same spot where they were born – seems a feat beyond reason and logic, especially when you see starving fish that haven’t eaten a thing for maybe six months leaping up torrents that would knock a man down.
All the more reason then, why a salmon deserves to be able to do what it’s programmed to do – i.e. procreate, spawn and fertilise eggs, and thereby kick-start the whole crazy romantic cycle all over again.
The trouble is that salmon that have returned to the high moors in order to spawn are relatively easy to catch. They are wearied beyond belief (although that doesn’t stop them belting about after females) and they tend to gather in shallow pools, which makes them an easy target for those unscrupulous souls who are after making a few fishy bob.
Here’s the strange and rather sad thing, though. By the time the fish have reached the spawning stage at this wintry time of year they are emaciated – and what flesh they do have left is just about inedible, being pale instead of pink and devoid of flavour. So there’s no good reason why anyone should be out there taking them from the river anyway.
“Essentially this is a culmination of my year,” said Nick when we met on Exmoor earlier this month. “We are out looking for salmon spawning – checking numbers of fish – where they are, really to find out what sort of year we are having in terms of spawning success.”
It’s exactly five years since the last time the WMN joined Nick out on the moors for a special article on salmon – and this is the update he gave me: “Since we last spoke salmon numbers have remained pretty constant over the first four years, but this year I’d say it’s been poor. We’re not seeing the number of fish at the headwaters that I’d expect.
“There are a number of factors for that – we’ve had a very dry summer which means fish can come into the estuary, but they can’t get up the river – and this is particularly the case with the Exe.
“The salmon have got 17 weirs to negotiate before they get up to the spawning grounds. Six of those are in Exeter. We’ve seen fish coming into the estuary throughout the summer, but they haven’t come up river.
“There’s a lot of research on that,” added Nick. “Sometimes a fish going into an estuary – that can’t get into freshwater – will simply turn around and go back to sea. Where they go – whether they go up another river, or return at a later time – nobody really knows.”
So you can already begin to see the kind of problems salmon face – and that is after they’ve returned from the perils of the high seas. People like Nick and Ben cannot influence what goes on out there, but they can help make things better on the river.
Or rather, could. Cutbacks have meant that the old water-bailiff role has been seriously depleted on Westcountry rivers. The Exe, for example, used to have four – now there’s only Nick.
As we wandered upstream to a lonely bit of the Barle I asked him what that meant when it came to the thorny issue of poaching…
“Poaching is ever-present – but the levels of poaching activity vary,” he shrugged. “I would say that most of it goes on down on the estuary – but as you saw last time you were up here with me, it is relatively simple to take fish off the spawning beds at the top of the river. So yes, it’s something we have to be aware of – and we have to use various means of intelligence (to counter the problem).
“I use what people are telling me to target areas and put myself in the right place.
The EA, as with all other enforcement agencies, has become increasingly intelligence-led – we don’t have the staff to go out routinely patrolling bits of river like we used to. So essentially we rely on people – whoever that might be, whether it’s fishermen, people walking dogs or just out in the countryside. And we try and increase awareness of what is suspicious and get people to bring it in – either through our freephone number or through interested local parties like Ben’s association.
“You might see someone with implements that could be used for taking salmon – whether that’s a net or a gaff, or a snare with a bit of wire attached. People might see cars parked in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night or lamps in the river.
“I’m not asking for people to go out on a witch-hunt – people might have a legitimate reason for being there,” said Nick. “But it’s all good intel’ – I can use the car numbers and so on.”
As we walked up the riverside Ben joined in the conversation: “It’s like a big version of Neighbourhood
Watch,” he said. “We are the eyes of the river as well as Nick. The association has got about 200 members and they’re all either riparian owners or fishermen who fish regularly on the Exe.
“Going back a bit – 20 or 25 years ago – the salmon stocks on this river were really good, but they’ve been on the decline ever since. When they’re out at sea we can’t do anything to help them – but when they come in the river there are quite a number of factors where we can do something.
“There’s a lot of predation – cormorants, for example, never used to come inland very much, now they’re on the increase dramatically. Things like goosanders (or common mergansers) – 20 years ago there weren’t any on the Exe at all, now there are a lot. They are all fish-eating birds – very partial to small salmon.
“Also, as Nick was saying, we have 17 weirs the salmon have to negotiate,” Ben continued. “They were all built 200 years ago or more – they’ve all got very old-fashioned fish-passes and, with climate change the way it is, you get problems. The fish are impeded coming up river and, equally, going down.
“So we, as an organisation, are doing all we can in-river to preserve the stocks of salmon. Over the past eight years RETA has raised a huge amount of money – and we’ve been doing things like putting in new spawning gravel so that the fish have more areas in which to spawn. We’ve done a lot of fencing and coppicing to let more light into the river to allow the juveniles to eat better and grow more.
“Game fishing in the South West brings in millions to the local economy,” said Ben. “But because the stocks are diminishing we have a protocol on the river which means we try and encourage all fisherman to release or put back 60 per cent of what they catch. It’s not just about preserving stocks for fishermen – it is about conserving the species generally.”
As we gazed at half a dozen big fish in a secret pool on the Barle, Ben mused upon the miracle that is the wild salmon: “The moment they start the return journey somewhere up in the Norwegian Sea, they stop feeding. They don’t feed at all in freshwater. Earlier in the season you get fresh fish coming in that are big, fat and strong. But they might have come in during March or April and stay in the river until December before they spawn – so they’re not eating, they’re losing body weight all the time, and all the energy goes into creating the eggs etc.
“Their flesh turns white and pale. When they finish spawning and they try to make their return trip to go back to sea again, they are just long thin sticks – what we call kelts.
“It’s difficult to tell how many get back,” said Ben. “More hens get back than males. Unlike Pacific salmon which all die, a percentage here do get back – but I would reckon no more than 20 per cent. Then they go back and do the whole thing again, if they are not predated.
“And, again, they have to get over the 17 weirs. But it’s surprising how quickly they mend. And as soon as they get in to the saltwater – they’re off…”
If a normal salmon is a miracle fish – how would you describe one of the super-salmon which go back and do the whole crazy perilous 2,500 mile thing a second time? Such a creature is a million miles from the lump of fatty pink farmed flesh you might have eaten this Christmas.