The haaf-netters’ lament



Mark Messenger and his son Ben with a haaf-net, 2011

Mark Messenger and his son Ben with a haaf-net, 2011

“It’s one of the last wildernesses in the country, the Solway Firth. And I think haaf-netting is probably the best excuse to go and stand out in that wilderness” – haaf-netter Mark Graham on the recent BBC Radio4 Open Country’ about the Solway. But now it seems that haaf-netting, a ‘heritage fishery’ that is unique to the Solway coast, might be squeezed out of existence.

I’ve written about this ancient tradition, which brings fishermen into intimate contact with the Firth, in detail elsewhere because I have experienced it myself, wading out into the incoming tide, ‘helping’ haaf-netter Mark Messenger hold the enormous frame to which the net is attached, as the grey-brown water rose up to my chest and the current sucked the sand from beneath my feet. We caught, and released, a small plaice. Haaf-netters may catch a range of sea-fish, such as grey mullet, plaice and sea bass – but it is the catches of sea-trout and salmon that are causing controversy.

Haaf-netters in Solway Firth (before the Chapel Hill cooling towers came down: thanks to Tom Dias for this photo)

Atlantic Salmon stocks have been declining everywhere, and on the one hand, the Environment Agency in conjunction with conservation groups has been making big efforts to improve the rivers and tributaries to enable salmon to spawn. But clearly, also, the fewer fish that make it to the river-mouths or move up-river, the less chance there is for the salmon population to survive at a sustainable level.

This year, the Environment Agency – because we are talking now about rivers – is proposing to further decrease, to three, the total number of salmon that each licensed haaf-netter can take from the Solway.

In recent years the haaf-netters – but especially those on the English side of the Firth – have come to feel that their tradition, in some cases their livelihood, is under increasing threat: the season has been shortened; they can only fish for 12 hours in the day; last year the kill limit was capped at 10 salmon per licensee; the annual licence including tags costs £143. This year, if the limit of three fish is brought in, Mark Messenger says “That could easily be the demise of this fishing. It’s getting to the point where nobody will go fishing, it’s just not worth it.” (Note that the two countries do things differently: on the Scottish side, just across the narrow finger of the Firth, the salmon limit is currently five, and the licence fee is only £60 – but according to the EA, Dumfries and Galloway Council is now considering applying the lower kill limit.)

So why is this new lower limit being proposed?

There are several players in this game: the haaf-netters (currently 58 licensed netters on the English side); the rod-and-line fishermen on the River Eden; the Environment Agency; and the EU. And, of course, those handsome and well-travelled animals, the returning and spawning salmon.

map of the R.Eden (from the VisitCumbria website

map of the R.Eden (from the VisitCumbria website

For an explanation, we have to look at the River Eden itself, which is designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), under the EU Habitats Directive. Within SACs certain species are listed as important in terms of conservation, and the Atlantic Salmon is one of the notified species for the Eden.

The EA
Using the Freedom of Information Act, I asked the EA for further explanation, and they replied that “The Eden salmon population failed to meet its conservation limit in 2013 and unfortunately again in 2014 which means as a 2 year out of 5 failure, this feature of the SAC is deemed to be in unfavourable condition.” If this isn’t remedied, the EA might even be taken to a European court.

The EA estimates there were just over 3000 salmon in 2013, “while 2014 looks like a stock assessment of approximately 2500 salmon”. They estimate that for the stock to remain sustainable, the conservation limit should be double that, around 5000 salmon: “This is the population level that we don’t want to fall below as that should provide a level of catch for both the rod and net fisheries, while also allowing sufficient salmon to escape the fisheries to spawn and reproduce the subsequent generations.”

So – leaving aside environmental factors such as too much or too little water in the river, changes in temperature, weather patterns and so on – who kills the River Eden’s salmon?

Stake-nets on the Scottish Galloway coast

Stake-nets on the Scottish Galloway coast

“In 2014 the English haaf nets killed 203 salmon, the Scottish haaf nets killed 249 salmon, the Scottish stake nets killed 387 salmon and the River Eden rods killed 96 salmon out of a total catch of 422 salmon caught on rod and line.” (My italics: note too that Scottish nets mainly affect rivers on the Scottish side of the Firth rather than the Eden.)

Stocks continue to decline, therefore the haaf-netters’ kill-limit should be further limited.

But what of the rod-and-line fishermen on the Eden? The River Eden and District Fisheries Association (REDFA) has noted that the number of salmon is likely to be 50% below the conservation limit, and “is committed to lifting the overall [Catch & Release, C&R] rate from 71% in 2013 towards 90%.”

The EA has “been working with the Eden rod fisheries” and REDFA will be introducing a (voluntary) tagging system from June 16th, with Migratory Fish Conservation Measures for a kill limit of 1 fish per day, with a maximum season kill limit of 6 fish. When a rod licence holder has used up his 6 tags, there should be 100% C&R. A further (voluntary) recommendation aims to reduce the kill limit to 3 salmon.

And the salmon?
This brings me to the salmon themselves. To keep to the quota, haaf-netters and rods can continue to catch salmon as long as they release above-quota fish.
A haaf-netter knows immediately when he has a catch: he upends his net and either kills or releases the fish. The process takes two or three minutes, no hooks have been used, the released fish is unharmed and able to swim away at once.
This is not the case for release of salmon hooked by rod-and-line. Both Mark Messenger and Mark Graham say that as many as 20% of salmon caught this way might be damaged and may die – it should be noted that research using radio-tagged salmon in the River Dee suggests that, as long as handling and unhooking and release is carried out using recommended techniques, survival to spawn might reach 84%.

What next?
In response to my query, the EA stated: “The Solway Haaf and Border Esk and Eden rod fisheries are regulated by a Net Limitation Order and 10-year byelaw package which was put in place in 2007 when salmon populations were in a much healthier state than unfortunately they are today. The next review of these regulations was due ahead of 2017 but given the ongoing decline in salmon stocks we intend to bring this forward to 2016…”

So, on June 14th and 15th, the haaf-netters will be appealing against the new limit of 3 salmon per licensee. At this time also the EA will be reviewing all regulations in relation to salmon fishing, both by haaf-netting and by rod-and-line fishers.

Will haaf-netting disappear from our British heritage? We – and the salmon – await the outcome of the haaf-netters appeal, and the proposed revision of the NLO and bye-laws for salmon fishing in the Solway and its rivers.

(This article “Contains Environment Agency information © Environment Agency and database right”)

Read what it’s like to go haaf-netting, and learn about the boak, the breisting and the baggie, on Solway Shore Stories.

Watch haaf-netters in the Solway in a local BBC news report

Listen to BBC’s Open Country about the Solway (haaf-netters, ex-miner Tom Norman, and me taking the BBC team on a shore-walk)

(And research shows that fish are considerably more complex, behaviourally, than you might think.)

UPDATE, 27th July 2015

Mark Messenger, Mark Graham, Tom Dias and 10 other haaf-netters went to appeal with the EA in mid-June and, in 4 separate groups, presented their well-argued case with cogent points (relating to the quality of the scientific data; the absence of warning of the change; the fact that the salmon are returned almost immediately and undamaged; and more). They noted that the average catch per licensee in the River Eden area was less than 4 salmon per season.

They won their appeal, and the seasonal quota of 10 salmon per licensee will remain, to be considered again when the current Net Limitation Order comes up for review in 2017.

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