As a boy, I was brought throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland by my grandfather and was introduced to the Gaelic language which is so much part of the Presbyterian tradition there. There I first heard the beautiful Song of Summer published by the poet, Alexander Macdonald in 1751, which in its original form is one of the most beautiful of all poems in Gaelic.
In English it reads:
“The swift slender salmon in the water is lively, leaping upside-down, brisk, in the scaly white-bellied shoals, finny, red-spotted, big-tailed, silvery lights clothing it, with small freckles, glittering in colours; and with its crooked jaws all ready it catches flies by stealth…”
This was the fish that the ancient Irish thought was the source of knowledge and wisdom. But man has changed the very nature of this salmon, for those raised in hatcheries have more aggressive feeding habits – that is, they spend most of their time at the waters surface looking for food, unlike the wild salmon which spends most of the time in deep water under cover. As a result the hatchery raised salmon consume most of the food wild salmon need to live and at the same time this aggressive feeding makes hatchery salmon more vulnerable to predators because they are near the surface. Hatchery salmon usually have less genetic diversity than wild salmon, which leads to lower resistance to disease and to other environmental hazards, so that they are easily infected with fish lice.
The Atlantic salmon is unique because unlike the various species of Pacific salmon they do not die after their first spawning, but return year after year to their breeding place with a remarkably specific migratory instinct. I have fished in the Puget Sound in the North Pacific Ocean with one of the finest local fishermen of all, George McShane, who is himself of Irish descent. One of the greatest sadnesses of his life and that of the Tribal Chief friend Douglas Luna is that less than 2% of the wild salmon population of the Columbia River Basin (including parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and British Columbia) remains and only one individual sockeye salmon returned into the Snake River in Idaho in 1994. Coho salmon in the Snake River have been declared extinct by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, as have 106 other salmon populations on the West Coast of America.
We must not allow this to happen here in Northern Ireland. Commercial netting was identified by our enquiry as a major contributor to the decline of the salmon population in Northern Ireland’s rivers. The River Bush Salmon Project makes an outstanding contribution to research on the management of salmon stocks and its continuation is a matter of priority. However, it does remain important that angling interests are given due consideration when managing and marketing the River Bush, the source of the famous Old Bushmills Whiskey and the ancient boundary of Dalriada.
The recommendations of our enquiry regarding the North Atlantic Salmon were that:
• Salmon net fisheries should be closed by buy-outs and government should accept responsibility for the initial capital investment.
• Salmon conservation measures including catch and release and bag limits should be considered for implementation, particularly for spring run fish.
• The salmon carcass-tagging scheme should be implemented as a significant tool in the interests of conservation and the fight against poaching.
• The River Bush project should be examined in relation to the management of salmon stocks and the impact of the Bush salmon on other indigenous brood stock.
• Stocking programmes should only be implemented with appropriates habitat assessment and restoration, when it is necessary, should always use indigenous livestock.
I know that the decline of salmon populations is now uniting environmentalists and fishers with industries which extract natural resources, such as hydro electricity, timber, and water, to find a compromise that saves both the wild salmon populations and the fishing industries that depend on the species continued health.
Our enquiry has given us the knowledge that the salmon represents in ancient Irish lore. I hope that we will find the wisdom to implement it.