For the king of fish, the journey across miles of ocean to their Scottish river spawning grounds is as impressive as it is epic.

Even more so when wild Atlantic salmon face the challenge of overcoming the manmade weirs, culverts and concrete dams that hinder their progress and are blamed for adding to the sad demise of fish numbers.

But while impressive work has been done to free up certain waterways enabling unimpeded passage, concern is mounting in others over the pace of change and whether the body charged with fixing the issue by 2027 can hit its ambitious deadline.

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Indeed, a perceived lack of urgency by environmental agency SEPA in some areas has set alarm bells ringing for a species already in crisis, with a 70% decline in 25 years and fears it is heading for extinction.

Such is concern over a key elements of the organisation’s progress, that its work is being scrutinised by Environmental Standards Scotland (ESS), the body set up to monitor the effectiveness of environmental law in Scotland and public authorities’ compliance with it.

It follows an approach by a group worried over the time being taken to carry out crucial barrier work, and concerned that SEPA appeared to be failing to carrying out responsibilities to ensure river barriers over one metre in height are licenced.

Licences require owners of weirs, dams and other obstructions to take action to ensure migratory fish such as salmon, trout, eels and lamprey can reach their spawning grounds.

Ineffective licensing is said to have an adverse impact on efforts to improve river habitats, hindering action to assist in their removal and leaving owners with the impression there is no great urgency to tackle the issue.

Without licences in place, concerns are growing that it will take even longer to remove almost 200 identified fish barriers dotted around the country.

ESS has said it is now reviewing SEPA's progress.

The Herald:

The Scottish Government’s Wild Salmon Strategy, published in January last year, talks of a "dynamic, adaptive approach… to support salmon restoration", while at least £65 million has been committed to the issue through the Nature Restoration Fund.

A key action in the strategy is the commitment to remove all barriers by 2027 including active barriers related to distilleries, hydropower and public water supplies, and historic barriers built to support industrial activities such as long redundant mill works.

SEPA's most recent River Basin Management Plan, launched at the end of 2021, identifies 244 artificial barriers to fish migration, of which just 16 have so far been removed or eased. A further 44 are said to require no action.

However, observers have criticised what they say is a lack of clarity over what work is being done and how SEPA aims to meet the looming four year deadline.

"It is very difficult to suss out what SEPA’s performance is and to work out how many of these fish pass issues have been sorted out," said one. "Finding out how much money has been spent is also difficult.

"I’ve been to board meetings to see how they are reporting performance and you don't get a feel at all for what they've done.

"In their operating plan each year, they don’t identify exactly what they plan to deliver, they just say 'we will continue to work'.

"But it can take three years to put together a project to remove a fish barrier, from design to tendering to getting contractors on site. Then you have to do the work during summer.

"Time is ticking and when you don’t hear a thing you assume nothing is happening."

Since 2008, SEPA has made almost £8 million of funding available through the Water Environment Fund to help community groups, fisheries trusts and environmental charities clear redundant man-made barriers including weirs, culverts and dams.

Although Water Environment Fund annual reports appear on SEPA's website, the most recent dates from 2018.

There is said to be particular concern over the pace of work on the River Tyne in East Lothian where four obstructions, including ones linked to hydropower schemes and a distillery, are having a "significant impact" on fish migration.

While £2.35m was granted last year to the Water Environment Fund, just £26,000 was spent on the River Tyne, for a single hydrology survey at one weirs.

The figure in 2019-2020 was just £6,792 – significantly less than the £11,500 spent that year on videos to showcase other areas of work. None of the £1.02m of funds issued in 2018/19 for improving fish migration was spent on the East Lothian river.

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Similar work to successfully remove barriers in West Lothian on the River Almond – now nearing completion – has spanned almost a decade. The construction of just one fish pass, at Mid Calder Weir, cost £670,000, while the final phase, involving Dowies Mill Weir in Cramond in Edinburgh, is to cost more than £1million.

Forth Rivers Trust, one of a number of bodies involved in the River Almond work and which took the role of project manager, said has not yet been approached to discuss similar work on the River Tyne.

Alison Baker, director of Forth Rivers Trust, said: "Our rivers are an important part of the landscape and important to communities. This work is incredibly important, particularly as we have a biodiversity crisis, we have a climate change crisis and a world salmon crisis.

"All of us needs to work together to repair the damage that has occurred in the past and allow species to come back.

"We are keen to work with SEPA, all other agencies and communities to ensure this happens. We would very much like better communication from SEPA as to what their plans are."

Jonathon Muir from the Atlantic Salmon Trust, said: "Barriers to migration are not only impacting returning adult salmon travelling upstream to reach their spawning grounds, but are also disrupting the downstream migration of young salmon 'smolts' on their way out to sea.

"Wild Atlantic salmon travel thousands of miles on their epic migration from their home rivers to sea and back again, some swimming as far off as Greenland. We cannot allow the final stage of their great life journey to be blocked by concrete.

"If we want to have thriving salmon populations in our rivers again, we must urgently seek to remove barriers altogether, as quickly as possible. By doing this, we can allow more salmon to reach their spawning grounds to create the next generation of fish."

A spokesperson for SEPA said its latest River Basin Management Plan, published in 2021, ensured "action is targeted where it can have the greatest benefit on the water environment".

They added: "The plan identifies 244 artificial barriers to fish migration. SEPA will ensure all barriers requiring action are licenced under the Water Environment (Controlled Activities) (Scotland) Regulations 2011. Of the 244 identified, 16 have been removed or eased and 44 assessed as requiring no action.

"Last year alone, two weirs were eased on the Garrell Burn in Kilsyth leading to the return of salmon fry for the first time in 100 years.

"Barriers were also removed from the Bronie Burn in Aberdeenshire and River Eden in Fife, again allowing fish to freely access upstream habitat for the first time in more than a century.

"Similar goals are included in the plan to address artificial barriers on the River Tyne, which has four causing a significant impact on fish migration. These barriers will be assessed, and any necessary actions taken to remove or ease them by 2027."

The plan for the River Tyne allows for three years between early assessment and works being complete on each barrier, they added.

"Work is already underway with owners and operators, starting downstream, through a combination of the Water Environment Fund for historic structures and regulation for active structures.

"SEPA remains fully committed to addressing the remaining 184 barriers before the end of 2027."