In Part 1 of this article, we discussed what we know about sea trout and the pressures the species is under, as laid bare in the diagram below showing catch date for Scotland. In Part 2, we will move on to discuss what needs to be done on the front of sea trout conservation – and how you can actively get involved.
We ended Part 1 in an upbeat frame of mind on the basis that sea trout could benefit from increasing public engagement with conservation. The fact that people genuinely care about their environment is evident in many areas of society, for example, the focus on water quality is now regularly front-page news, highlighted by campaigners such as Fergal Sharkey, various wild swimming groups, and Surfers Against Sewage, who have been able to leverage public disgust at water companies for dumping millions of tonnes of raw sewage into our rivers and seas.
A Shift in Public Mindset
In addition to water quality, there is a sense that the general public is starting to really care about issues such as the environment, climate change, biodiversity, and rewilding. This is helpful to our sea trout because the same set of conservation measures apply. To illustrate, if water companies could be prevailed upon to stop dumping raw sewage into rivers, it would be of great benefit to wild swimmers, kayakers, anglers, and a wide variety of aquatic species too. Some initiatives are slightly more controversial, for example, the reintroduction of beavers, however, it is possible to see how even these will place greater emphasis on protecting river habitat and creating safe havens for wildlife, which would again benefit sea trout, holistically.
Of course, there are those activists that in some people’s view go too far. We are not commenting on the methods they use in this article, but we note the strength of feeling in favour of our environment that these campaigners have.
A Marketing Problem: How then should we engage the Government with sea trout?
We know the reasons for the decline in sea trout stocks, which split into in-river issues and the marine environment, and we know the steps that need to be taken. The problem is not a lack of understanding or the need for more research or data. No, the real problem is that the Government has so far been unwilling/unable to act. Or, to look at things another way, anglers and others that care about fish, have been unable to persuade the Government that the issues are important enough to force change and policy. So, this is really a marketing problem.
How then should we engage the Government with sea trout? Building pressure on as wide a front as possible is a good place to start. To achieve this, taking a holistic approach to river systems is likely to be more successful than if anglers continue as single-interest groups. Improving the health of a river from source to estuary is the end-goal, and along its meandering route, there will be numerous walkers, artists, photographers, twitchers, wild swimmers, paddlers, sailors, and of course anglers, that all take an interest in a pristine wild environment. This suggests that anglers will have to keep working with folks they traditionally saw as competitors for the river, but moreso now are becoming allies.Perhaps the Government doesn’t need as much of a push as we might think. It is interesting that Government policy already includes the ambition to be ‘nature positive’ by 2030, which is also the date for the switch away from petrol/diesel cars, on its way to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035, and ultimately net zero by 2050.
Much of the legislation is in place to support this journey, and in the shorter term to bring offenders to heel. For example, the law around water quality gives the Environment Agency significant powers of enforcement, but due to chronic underfunding it is unable to bring forward more than a handful of cases. Again, this appears to be unwillingness by the Government to ‘take on’ major commercial interests such as farming, house building, sea trawling, or salmon farming.
Adapting our Sea Trout Angling Methods
As anglers we can do our bit to conserve sea trout too by throwing our weight behind the conservation initiatives in our areas. We can also accept that our angling methods need to change by considering:
- compulsory catch and release – especially important for larger fish (>6lbs);
- longer close season;
- catch limits, or if you have to kill then smaller bag limits;
- method restrictions such as barbless hooks and no spinning;
- areas of river set aside for spawning;
- rewilded areas where river weed, marginal plants and trees are allowed to grow;
- removing obstructions eg weirs and installing fish passes;
- no onwards sale of catch;
- stocking programmes for sea trout eggs and parr;
- reconsideration of stocking brown and rainbow trout in rivers where they potentially predate/compete with sea trout.
On this last point, wild brown trout numbers are much healthier than sea trout numbers and are not under threat. They are faring better than sea trout and salmon, by seemingly coping better with climate change and other pressures, and avoiding the need to migrate to sea with its attendant dangers. In some rivers, stocking of brown and rainbow trout may put pressure on sea trout, by bringing them into conflict for habitat and foodstuff. Although it has been observed that even stocked brown trout can turn anadromous and migrate!
We’ll conclude this article with a call to action for anglers across the UK & Ireland: make some noise! Unite! Join a sea trout interest group such as IFM, Wild Trout Trust, WildFish or the Atlantic Salmon Trust. Cooperate with other like-minded river users, river trusts and boards. Write to your local MP, your local Scottish Environment Protection Agency or Environment Agency manager, and the chairman of your water company. Become more vocal on social media. If we act now, it is not too late to protect our fabulous sea trout.