Drift Netsmen Agree to Quit for the Salmon's Sake

LONDON, England, May 19, 2003 (ENS) - English driftnet fishermen, some of whom are the descendents of nine generations of netsmen, have decided to give up their way of life to conserve the dwindling salmon and sea trout of the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean waters.

The UK Environment Agency, which licenses fishing in England and Wales, has confirmed that a majority of driftnet fishermen have accepted a voluntary compensation scheme to quit drift netting to support the conservation of salmon stocks. The agreement follows two years of sensitive negotiations, brokered and administered by the Environment Agency.

The agency's Godfrey Williams said, "This hasn't been easy for the netsmen. It has an impact on their whole way of life. Regulations are already in place to phase out the use of drift nets - the buyout is about accelerating the process."

An unprecedented 3.4 million (US$5.55 million) buyout was accepted by 52 out of the 68 remaining netsman, the agency said. The deal will "dramatically" reduce the number of salmon taken from the seas off the northeastern coast of England by drift nets, officials say.


UK Fisheries Minister Elliot Morley at his desk (Photo courtesy DEFRA)
Welcoming this outcome Fisheries Minister Elliot Morley said, "Two years of talks have produced a better than expected result for this voluntary scheme which gives fishermen a choice. It shows what can be achieved when government and private interests work closely together."

Barrie Deas of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations said, "We welcome this voluntary scheme that allows those netsmen who want to surrender their license an opportunity to do so."

The latest Annual Assessment of Salmon Fisheries in England and Wales shows that less than 30 percent of salmon rivers have satisfactory stocks, against conservation limits set by the Environment Agency.

Last year, drift netsmen caught 42,000 salmon and sea trout as the fish headed for the rivers of northeast England and eastern Scotland. The new agreement could reduce the number taken by as much as 75 percent, allowing many more fish to reach their spawning grounds.

From June 1, just 16 fishermen will be licensed to use drift nets along the coast between North Yorkshire and the Scottish border compared to 142 license holders in 1992.


English fisherman with his salmon (Two photos by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto)
"It is a major step in phasing out a fishery that exploits salmon returning to many different rivers, so improving the long term management of salmon stocks in these rivers," the agency said.

The buyout was started by a 1.25 million (US$2.04 million) investment from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). The remaining funds were raised by the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (UK) through private contributions.

Andrew Whitehead, who led discussions for the North Atlantic Salmon Fund said, "This is a landmark act of conservation, towards which we have been working for a very long time. It would not have been possible without the support of DEFRA, the Environment Agency, organizations such as the Salmon & Trout Association and the netsmen themselves."

Morley said, "The good faith shown by everyone involved in supporting this agreement is a major step to improving management and conservation of salmon stocks."

Drift netting is the principal fishing method used in Northumbria and Yorkshire. Drift or hang nets have been used for catching salmon and sea trout since the 1800s. Reference is made to their operation around the mouth of the Tyne in 1867 and there is reference to "vast numbers of hang nets" being used off the River Tyne in the early 1870s some of which were "nearly two miles in length."

By 1890, drift nets were licensed in all of the Fishery Districts from the Yorkshire Esk to the River Coquet, with the Boards of Conservators enforcing restrictions on the length of net and weekly and seasonal close periods. Today the Environment Agency regulates salmon fishing in England and Wales and issues licences.

fish boats

Vessels at the North Shields Fish Quay ready to head out into the North Sea
A ministerial review in 1991 said that drift nets should be phased out because they take salmon returning to many different rivers making management and conservation more difficult. In 2000 a Government Review recommended that the phasing out should be speeded up.

New regulations, known as the 2002 Net Limitation Order, mean the number of driftnet licences issued will continue to decline.

The agency can only issue a drift net license to fishermen who have held a license in the previous year and who remain dependent on fishing for their livelihood. As licensees leave the fishery the number of licenses available will continue to fall.

The type of drift net in use off the North East coast is a plain sheet of netting with floats along the top and a weighted footrope along the bottom. Salmon drift nets are usually 600 yards long and hang eight to 10 feet deep.

Drift nets are normally set at right angles to the line of the coast; in theory, they remain stationary relative to the water, drifting parallel to the coast with the tides. In practice, however, surface water movements are complex and the nets must be hauled and reset at regular intervals to keep them straight.

The Annual Assessment of Salmon Stocks and Fisheries in England and Wales for 2002 is available online at: http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk.