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Ness District Salmon Fishery Board clamps down on salmon poachers in Highlands

By Andrew Dixon

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Chris Conroy.
Chris Conroy.

It has become more vital than ever to stop poachers in the Ness river system now that anglers are not around to report the lawbreakers.

That is the warning from the Ness District Salmon Fishery Board which is facing major challenges associated with the Covid-19 lockdown – but which is determined that its water bailiffs will be the ‘thin green line’ against illegal exploitation of their fragile salmon populations.

Chris Conroy, the board’s river director, said: “Fisheries management in Scotland is funded by levying a non-domestic rate on salmon fishery owners. Without anglers visiting our rivers, the fisheries have lost their income.

“This means our resources to protect salmon are at risk at a time when they are required more than ever. Many fishery boards, including ours, have been forced to slim down their operations.

“Despite this, a small team of water bailiffs are stepping up action against people seeking to exploit the lockdown by illegally poaching salmon.”

Scottish Government catch statistics for the 2019 season show salmon and sea trout populations are at crisis point, with the fourth lowest catches since records began in 1952.

Mr Conroy added: "Against the backdrop of this worrying decline in the numbers of adult fish returning to rivers across the north Atlantic, the clampdown on poaching is vital.

“Our team is carrying out regular patrols at all hours across the Ness catchment. With anglers and ghillies, the ‘eyes and ears’ of the river, currently confined to home, our ‘thin green line’ is likely to become more visible to the public in daytime as we focus on deterring illegal activity.

“It’s challenging to effectively manage exploitation of salmon in our rivers when fish are being taken and killed illegally.

“A typical female fish will carry 4500 eggs, and, through a range of factors, perhaps only one per cent of those will reach adulthood. Thus, the poaching of a single fish could deprive the Ness system of future adult salmon.”

He stressed: "This could have a serious knock-on effect on future generations, as well as the Ness system’s conservation status.

“This is why we won’t hesitate to report people found fishing illegally during the lockdown. They could face prosecution, a large fine and their equipment forfeited.”

The Ness water bailiffs have undergone specialised training and have unmarked vehicles, video cameras and night-vision equipment, including thermal imaging, to help in their battle against illegal angling.

They have statutory powers similar to police officers.

Salmon poaching is one of the six national wildlife crime priorities of the UK Wildlife Crime Unit and the Ness Board’s bailiffs are enforcing the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries (Consolidation) (Scotland) Act of 2003.

Mr Conroy said his board was grateful to anglers who have complied with lockdown guidelines. “We hope they will be allowed to pick up their rods soon as we’re pressing for angling to be one of the first sports permitted once the lockdown is eased,” he said.

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