More than 60 illegal nets have been seized in the first few weeks of the salmon season by Loughs Agency staff fighting to protect dwindling fish numbers in the Foyle.
John McCartney, the Agency’s Director of Conservation and Protection says while the Foyle river system - that includes the rivers Finn, Mourne, Derg, Roe and Faughan - has long been seen as one of the best in Europe for salmon fishing, it is quickly becoming Ireland’s poaching hotspot.
He says most of the illegal fishing is concentrated on a stretch of river between Lifford and Clady, but says poachers are operating all the way along the Foyle. And he is quick to counter any romantic notion of the poacher.
“What we are dealing with is highly organised criminal gangs who are operating at the high end,” he told the ‘Journal’ this week.
In the first few weeks of the fishing season Loughs Agency staff have seized 64 nets, 18 rods and eight boats that have been used in suspected illegal fishing. Booby traps, including spikes on the river bank, and attacks on Loughs Agency staff who operate both daily and nightly patrols, are not uncommon.
“Two of our people have been hospitalised this year with quite serious injuries - one with a broken nose, the other very serious facial injuries,” John says. “But there is a determination, we really want to catch this people and we do have a good conviction rate, we have people going through the courts continually.”
John, who last week attended the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation (NASCO) conference in Edinburgh, says the fight against poaching, and pollution dominate the work of the Loughs Agency - work set against a backdrop of falling numbers of salmon globally. Within the Foyle system, salmon numbers are thought to be at their lowest ever. He says that in the 1970s for every 100 smolts (juvenile salmon) to leave the Foyle system , around 30 returned to breed. Now only around 3 or 4 return back into the Foyle.
To improve fish numbers a ban on commercial netting was introduced in 2009 and a limit on the number of fish anglers can take from the river system is now in place. On the Finn all fish must now be returned to the river. A Loughs Agency programme of redesigning headwater habitat, where the fish return to breed, is also ongoing in the hope of increasing the number of young salmon.
Meanwhile the Foyle Association of Salmon and Trout Anglers (FASTA) have introduced a raft of voluntary measures to further enhance salmon numbers - including the voluntary catch and release of salmon, a reduction in fish taken, the early closure of club waters and the creation of no fishing sanctuary along the river.
FASTA say these measures are “in response to a worrying trend of a fall in adult salmon returning to our local rivers in recent seasons. This action by anglers has been necessary in the absence of what we believe to be a restorative plan by the Loughs Agency in the public domain.”
FASTA say these voluntary initiatives are designed to reduce the overall catch of salmon “to ensure as many fish as possible go on to spawn in the late autumn.” John says while the Loughs Agency and angling clubs “do not always see eye to eye”, the angling community makes “a very big and positive contribution - I can’t underestimate the amount of work they do.”
He says many people are not aware that it is illegal to buy a salmon caught by rod and line. “If anyone is offered a salmon for sale that they think has been caught by rod and line they should notify us,” he says.
More information is available online at www.Loughs-agency.org