Salmon are a keystone species and an iconic indicator of a healthy, clean environment and highly valued by the general public and by those who fish for them. Every year, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales report on the state of our salmon stock levels, to help determine any actions that need to be taken to protect this species. The latest Salmon Stock Assessment for 2022 shows that Wild Atlantic salmon stocks remain a cause for concern in England, with results showing a marginal improvement from last year.
There are many factors impacting salmon both within freshwater and the marine environment. Our changing climate is resulting in significant changes in the marine environment as well as driving warmer winter river temperatures. Other pressures come from marine and coastal fisheries exploitation, barriers to the free movement of salmon through our river systems and the habitat and water quality and flow in our rivers and estuaries which are all vital to salmon throughout their lifecycle.
The Environment Agency remains committed to improving the future outcomes for our salmon, actively working to update and develop a new salmon implementation plan for England. We are engaging with NGOs, angling organisations and other key stakeholders and interested parties to develop this, taking into account all of the pressures facing salmon. Work is also taking place to improve water quality and reduce the exploitation of salmon by both net and rod fisheries. What is clear is that the EA cannot achieve all of the required actions in isolation and collaborative working is at the heart of efforts to improve conditions in both freshwater and the marine environment for the benefit of saving salmon for future generations.
Kevin Austin, Deputy Director for Agriculture, Fisheries and the Natural Environment for the Environment Agency said:
Today’s assessment of Wild Atlantic Salmon populations in England’s rivers remains a serious cause for concern. Although a great deal has already been done by EA and others to protect stocks here in England, climate change, marine exploitation and barriers to fish passage are all significantly impacting the numbers of salmon returning to our rivers to spawn.
Coordinated action between governments, partners and industry will be needed to alleviate the combined impact of these pressures and prevent the extinction of this iconic species in our lifetimes. The EA will continue to work with others and use our funding and regulatory powers to give salmon the best chance of survival.
The latest results show that Wild Atlantic salmon stocks remain a cause for concern in England, with 85% of the 42 salmon rivers in England categorised as being ‘at risk’ (71%) or ‘probably at risk’ (14%). This is a marginal improvement from last year's results which found 88% at risk.
While overall salmon stocks have not declined from 2021 they continue to be at unsustainable levels. This assessment warns that without future collaborative action, Wild Atlantic Salmon could be lost from our rivers in our lifetimes.
The role of the EA
The EA regulates commercial and recreational fisheries for salmon and, in recent years, has closed all commercial salmon net fisheries in England. In 2019 we implemented the closure of salmon net fisheries in England until at least 2029, and the anglers we work alongside have delivered an overall catch and release rate in rod fisheries of 95% through both voluntary and mandatory controls. The current stock assessments suggest that many rivers in England should have minimal exploitation of salmon and the EA is actively considering options to maximise future adult salmon spawning success.
Our work to remove migratory barriers, improve water quality and reduce exploitation has already seen some real successes, particularly on the river Ouse, Don and Tyne. In the last year, the EA has improved numerous fish passes at weirs or barriers across English rivers giving salmon better access to spawning grounds. A new 200m fish pass at Colwick on the River Trent is also due to be completed later this year, which will become the country’s largest fish pass restoring miles of river and aiding migration.
To safeguard river flow and improve water quality, the EA has also identified improvements through the Water Industry National Environment Programme (WINEP). In 2022, we completed 137 schemes that will bring benefits to salmon. 73 of these were on our Principal Salmon Rivers and 64 on recovering salmon rivers. The schemes were predominantly to investigate the impact of water quality, flow and physical modification pressures. In 2023, there are 21 investigation and improvement schemes scheduled on both Principal Salmon Rivers and recovering salmon rivers.
Ensuring clean and plentiful water is one of the biggest challenges we face and is a priority for the Environment Agency and government – and needs to be for everyone else too. In 2023, the EA has already concluded five prosecutions of water companies – 4 for pollution offences and 1 for over-abstraction, with more prosecutions progressing in court. The EA has also launched a major criminal investigation into possible unauthorised spills at thousands of sewage treatment works, operated by all water companies that discharge into English waters.
The Environment Agency, Defra and key partner organisations continue to deliver on the Salmon Five Point Approach and NASCO’s implementation plan to co-ordinate effort and drive forward actions that will benefit all aspects of the salmon life cycle. But we still have a way to go, and collaborative action is needed to improve the quality of river habitats to stabilise and allow salmon populations to recover. Anyone with an interest in Atlantic salmon should talk to us and our partners to help us develop a new salmon action implementation plan. This will seek to address both existing and emerging threats that limit salmon population recovery.