In last week’s article, we learned that the majority of wild salmon die during their “marine phase” (while they are in the ocean).
However, we also know Irish rivers are vastly different environments for native fish species today than they were even just three decades ago.
Agricultural run-off and municipal and household waste have made river habitats less liveable, as have industrial actions – removing gravel from riverbeds for construction, making dams or otherwise disturbing river habitats.
Salmon come to fresh water systems to lay their eggs (spawn) in nursery areas known as redds. An adult salmon will always come back to the same place in the river where it was born to spawn before dying naturally or going back to sea. Meanwhile, the eggs hatch in the river and baby salmon live their young lives in fresh water. The destruction of spawning grounds is certainly a contributing factor to declining salmon numbers.
What can be done?
Farmers may not have control over industrial or household factors, but they can mitigate water pollution coming from their land. Teagasc’s Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP) advises farmers on how to tackle water quality issues. The services it provides are free and 100% confidential.
ASSAP manager Noel Meehan says the success of the programme depends on the level of engagement it achieves with the farming community. Without this on-the-ground relationship, ag-related water issues can never be fully resolved.
“In 2009, the first River Basin Management Plan was created by the Government and unfortunately it was not as successful as was hoped,” he says. “In fairness to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, they reviewed the plan and added a more community-based, bottom-up approach to the existing regulatory approach.
“[As a result], they developed the second River Basin Management Plan [2018-2021] and we now have a localised targeted advisory service to talk to farmers and help them.”
Areas of action
Working closely with the Local Authority Waters Programme (LAWPRO), ASSAP advisers work in Priority Areas for Action (PAAs). Where agriculture is identified as affecting water quality, LAWPRO refers this to ASSAP and an adviser calls to farms in the area to try and identify the issues.
“ASSAP advisers wouldn’t necessarily know the farmers [in these areas], so we quickly try to build up a relationship with them,” Noel says. “We have a very good rate of farmer acceptance. Around 96% of the farmers we come into contact with are open to us coming in to assess the farm for any issues.”
The most common ag-related water issues are the loss of phosphorus and sediment through overland flow pathways. In heavy soil areas, after heavy rain, a lot of sediment and nutrients can be washed into nearby fresh water systems. Noel says drinking points for animals can also be a problem, as well as incorrect nutrient management.
“Applying nutrients at the correct time is really important,” he says. “If you have 16 weeks of slurry storage, depending on housing date [and your location] you should get to late February or early March before your tank is full and you should hopefully be past the worst of the weather, at that stage. If, you’re farming on land that is typically wetter, heavier ground and you’re under a bit more pressure, you need to target the fields to spread slurry that have the least connectivity [to freshwater systems].”
When it comes to water quality, how do you measure improvement? There are bio-indicators – maybe certain birds, otters or fish have returned to areas which were previously too polluted, perhaps the water itself is looking cleaner. Noel says actual measurability can be difficult because there are so many factors at play.
Water quality measurements are completed by the EPA every three years. For the areas where ASSAP advisers are working, the EPA publishes a report which shows if water quality has improved or not. He says there have been cases where farmers do all they are asked only to discover the lack of improvement is because of a non-ag-related issue. Additionally, if there is extreme damage done to a river, it can take a long time to see improvement. Ultimately, having mitigation measures implemented is key to seeing water quality improvements.
“If we ask a farmer to put in a riparian margin and to keep cattle out of a watercourse, you’ll know it’s been done once you’ve revisited,” he says, “but for behavioural or practice changes – you’re never done with that. You need to be very careful with slurry – that’s an ongoing thing – as is management of critical source areas (CSAs). It can take time to get measures implemented. The time of year might prevent some measures from going in straight away or farmers may be waiting to avail of ACRES or other schemes. We have had a very positive response from farmers in agreeing to put in measures and this will hopefully contribute to improving water quality.”
Advisory systems work
The EPA’s most recent report (2018-21) shows that in areas where advisers (ASSAP or other) are working with local communities and farms, there are greater levels of improvement in water quality. The biggest downside to this is that ASSAP does not have enough advisers to make a bigger impact.
“The criticism we get – which is probably justified – is the scale of it,” Noel says. “There are 40 [farm] advisers dedicated to water quality out of 800 in the country. That’s not to say the wider advisory service isn’t concerned about water quality, but we have a long way to go yet.” CL
Farmers definitely have a role to play in restoring wild salmon numbers, but regular citizens and anglers also need to play their part. Inland Fisheries Ireland recently put out an advisory warning of an invasive species of salmon (called Pacific pink salmon) which may now be found in Irish fresh water systems.
Because of this species’ two-year life cycle, 2023 is a year where we will be seeing them in rivers as they find their way inland from the sea (and again in 2025, and so on). IFI urges the public to report any sightings of this distinctive-looking fish (notable for a large hump on its back).
Pacific pink salmon can pose a threat to wild Irish salmon as they pose “a competitive threat to survival”, according to IFI’s senior research officer Dr Michael Millane.
Sightings should be reported to IFI through its 24-hour hotline 0818-347424. IFI also ask anglers to do the following: