LOCAL politicians are at odds over how best to tackle the issue of dwindling salmon stocks.
With experts warning that some species of wild Atlantic salmon are on the brink of extinction, the Stormont Culture Arts and Leisure Minister, Caral Ní Chuilín, has urged commercial and river anglers to support a range of voluntary conservation measures this year. Coastal and Lough Neagh fisheries have been asked for a “voluntary cessation” and recreational anglers are being encouraged to return any salmon they catch to the water.
The minister’s approach is supported by East Antrim Sinn Fein MLA Oliver McMullan, but Ulster Unionist Assemblyman Roy Beggs Jnr has asked Ms Ní Chuilín why her Department issues licences for drift and bag nets along the coast.
Mr Beggs recently attended a Stormont information session at which, he revealed, one of the major issues raised by angler groups was the continued use of bag nets in coastal waters. Mr Beggs said the practice was “supposedly banned” by the UN and European Union Directives.
“From questions I have placed with DCAL, I am surprised and concerned to learn that licences for bag nets in coastal waters continue to be issued,” Mr Beggs added.
“The Department licensed two bag nets for salmon fishing in coastal waters around Northern Ireland last year.
“These nets are non-selective and damaging to population numbers for the North Atlantic salmon. They affect rivers right down the East Antrim shoreline, including the River Dun and the Glenarm River.”
Mr Beggs claimed the minister had been “resistant” to calls for updated legislation. “The Fisheries Act in Northern Ireland dates back to 1966 and there is an urgent need to update the law, not least to avoid the risk of EU fines being imposed on the Department and ultimately the taxpayer. Action needs to be taken now to conserve this great natural resource, so that the chance to exploit the tourism potential of leisure fishing is taken in the years to come,” he said.
“Wild salmon bring great enjoyment to the many river fishermen who strive to catch them. They can play a part in attracting more tourists and visitors to the Glens of Antrim to benefit the local economy. Their value to the environment and the community is much greater than the mere commercial value to the very few who profit from the use of drift nets and the even more effective bag net.
“The Glens Angling Club have shown their long term commitment to our wild salmon by practising catch-and-release. It is time that the nets which are endangering the sustainability of wild salmon are banned.”
Mr McMullan argued that DCAL had not issued any commercial licences this year, adding that the nets used are “not illegal”.
The DCAL committee member said: “I have had meetings with both the coastal net fishermen and the river anglers and I believe I have an overview of this situation, which I would hope would not become politicised because I think everybody is agreed on the need to increase salmon stocks.
“There could be many factors in the dangerous decline of salmon, including global warming, climate change and fishing out at sea and everybody must do all we can to prevent them going extinct, not least because it has been estimated that every salmon caught in our rivers is the equivalent of up to £1,000 to the tourist industry.”
Mr McMullan said Ms Ní Chuilín had taken legal advice on the existing legislation, adding: “This should have been investigated a long time ago, but now we have to wait to see what the legal advice is because we have to be seen to be dealing with salmon conservation in a proper manner, otherwise the European Union could impose fines up to £50,000 a day.”
In the meantime, said Mr McMullan, the minister had recognised that continued commercial exploitation of wild Atlantic salmon and killing of salmon caught by rod and line in the DCAL jurisdiction was currently untenable and he appealed to “all concerned with the state of wild Atlantic salmon stocks to support the minister’s call for a range of voluntary conservation measures for 2012”.