During our Scottish tour we went to visit Peter Cunningham, a biologist from the Skye and Wester Ross Fisheries Trust who has spent years researching wild trout and wild salmon in that area of Scotland. Peter’s in depth knowledge about the wild fish population and the pressures they face highlight important conservation issues. We caught up with him to hear what he had to say about the future of vital fish populations in Scotland.
Peter and his team of volunteers work tirelessly to monitor the current state of wild salmon and sea trout. When they go sea trout sampling in the sea, they sample around 30 fish each time and can record their health by measuring their length, weighing them and counting the amount of parasites on the sides of the fish. Peter is able to recognise some of the trout just from their markings!
However, we learnt the sad fact that in this part of Scotland the wild sea trout population and wild salmon population has been in decline. This, he put down to two main reasons.
1). The rise of parasitic salmon lice from fish farms
2). The decision in 1984 to lift a 3 mile trawling ban off the Scottish coast where herring lay their eggs. Both sea trout and salmon feed on smaller herring.
So, although the fish farms are good at keeping down the number of sea lice on their farmed salmon, improvements are still needed for wild fish populations around the farms to be healthy. This is because there are millions of farmed fish in the area, so millions of parasites on the farms even when each farmed fish has only a few salmon lice. Something still needs to be done to protect the wild fish from picking up parasites – Peter suggested keeping the salmon in enclosed cages to prevent cross infestation by salmon lice between wild fish and farmed fish
The dredging for scallops near the coastline may have damaged herring spawning grounds, contributing to the reduction in the wild herring population, which once helped to support the sea trout and salmon numbers, so limiting a valuable source of food.
Scallop dredging along the coastline can disturb the areas where the fish spawn and use as their nursery grounds. Andy Jackson, a film maker, recently filmed the area and caught something spectacular – herring eggs on the sea bed. In June 2018, the West Coast herring stocks were at an all time low, but thankfully some areas are now protected and are starting to bounce back.
Environmental changes continue to create new issues that we need to face head on, one of the major ones being microplastic and debris in the sea. Peter told us how the local school is researching microplastics as part of their biology lessons. The local community is also lending a helping hand, completing beach cleans to tidy up its shoreline. Global warming has resulted in Scotland having more extreme weather, with more cases of droughts and wildfires recorded.
Peter told us how the ‘whole eco-system is not what it used to be’ and how it is vital to help the herring now to protect the fish population for the future. He continues to work at the Skye Wester Ross Fisheries Trust and always welcomes volunteers, who can offer a helping hand.
If you would like to find out more information, or wish to volunteer for the Skye and Wester Ross Fisheries Trust please visit https://www.wrft.org.uk/