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The Highland Line: a valuable historical perspective on salmon netting

It was reported recently that the Salmon and Trout Association (Scotland) is submitting a formal complaint to the European Commission over what it claims is the Scottish Government's failure to protect Atlantic salmon.

It believes a failure to assess the impact of commercial netting on salmon means Scotland has not complied with the European regulations, which aim to safeguard salmon populations in Scottish rivers designated as Special Areas of Conservation under the Habitats Directive.

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Part of the Scottish Government's fairly robust response was that the independent review commissioned by ministers into the management of wild fisheries in Scotland specifically includes reference to the management of net fisheries.

This inquiry, under former SNH chairman Andrew Thin, was announced in January. As luck would have it for Mr Thin, a few weeks earlier, at the end of last year, a comprehensive history of salmon netting was published which should have been required reading for Mr Thin.

The Highland Line has just laid its hands on this authoritative piece of scholarship, entitled The Salmon Fishers. It is by Iain A Robertson, a retired economics lecturer at Perth College. As a student he had a summer job salmon netting on the Tay and in the1980s did a part-time PhD on the subject.

It is the first history of salmon netting in Scotland and covers the Tweed right round to the Solway, including the islands. It really starts in the early19th century when the development of netting effectively began to grow into an industry which prospered for the best part of 200 years.

There are only half a dozen commercial netters left, most notably Usan, south of Montrose, whereas there used to be over 100 right round the Scottish coast, employing thousands. Now they are mostly only remembered in fading photographs of men in thigh waders, setting nets on poles after the tide has ebbed, or on broad boats with characteristic sterns going to and from their nets.

Given the fierce dispute still raging between the angling and netting interests, not to mention Mr Thin's commission which is supposed to find a way forward, the book's publication has been well timed. But it's already held to be partial by some of those who favour the rod. They do, however, commend it as "admiringly well researched and meticulously referenced".

Mr Robertson denies the charge of bias. He said a few months ago: "I am not an angler and not a netsman, I am not a member of either camp. I try to be dispassionate but I think the netsmen have a case that has been obliterated by the large number of anglers who have a louder voice. I would just like people to be better informed."

Anyone reading this extraordinarily detailed work, certainly will be.

It is perhaps ironic that one factor that helped undermine the highly profitable business of netting, was the arrival of cheap salmon produced by the fish farmer, the angler's other great enemy.

But one of the many things that this blogger had been unaware of was the contrasting approaches of the Labour-Lib Dem Scottish Executive and the SNP minority and then majority Scottish Governments.

Apparently the first Scottish Executive in 1999 "...appeared to believe that a Scottish salmon net fishery, river and coast, was an anachronism which would inevitably disappear due to economic pressures. A change of administration in 2007, however, brought a change in attitude. The SNP Government was prepared to look at all sectors of the salmon fisheries with a view to ensuring that all contributed to Scottish economy."

But Mr Robertson says this has not yet led to a new dawn for netters. Indeed he says that there has been considerable momentum, both in Scotland and in other North Atlantic Rim countries, to bring about the demise of salmon netting companies. He suggests the funding and influence of angling interests are behind this..

But he concedes it has not always been that way. "In making the case that there has been a significant and mostly unjustified discrimination against coastal netsmen during the latter half of the 20th century, it should be remembered that the discrimination arose because of an imbalance in influence wielded by the rod and net sectors, and that the imbalance had been in favour of coastal nets in the 19th century."

He concludes: "The legislation which has been passed by the Scottish Parliament since devolution has enhanced the powers for government intervention. It remains to be seen whether the 'common profite of the realme' will be promoted to the benefit of netsmen AND rod fishers, or merely one or other of them has been the case at least since 1862."

So really it's over to you Mr Thin, and then back to ministers.

*The Salmon Fishers is published by The Medlar Press Price £30 Hardback.

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