Salmon and sea trout plan of action for Wales 2020: overview

This Plan was compiled from the results of discussions with stakeholders in Autumn 2019 and following further debate with Welsh Government.

These both pre-date the unprecedented circumstances arising from the COVID19 pandemic. Some of the committed work referred to in this Plan will be affected by the instructions issued by the UK and Welsh Governments. Notably environmental monitoring, including fish stock monitoring, and fieldwork to support project delivery, amongst other activities, are likely to be affected for an uncertain period. This is also the case for at least some of our delivery partners.

We are adapting working arrangements due to the coronavirus pandemic.

For more information see our main page on coronavirus.

angler practising salmon catch and release

Foreword

This important plan of action describes, and then provides details of, the actions required if we are to restore healthy and more sustainable populations of our iconic Welsh salmon and sea trout.

I do not underestimate the impact of the changes that follow from the decision taken by the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs to confirm the recent fishing byelaws. However, for maximum impact, these changes need to work alongside wider measures and action across Wales.

I have continued to emphasise the importance of working proactively with a wide range of partners. Despite the challenges involved in changing practices we must work collaboratively if our endeavours are to succeed. As well as working with partners across Wales to identify the ongoing pressures and seeking views on priorities for action, we will also be looking to deliver through others, reinforcing good working relationships to gain the positive outcomes for salmon and sea trout stocks.

I am therefore delighted to confirm that, working with Welsh Government and through our grant programme, we have identified significant new funds to support the delivery of this plan by working with partners across Wales. We will do all that we can during the coming year to ensure this work succeeds.

Alongside our grant programme, we will support work through our broader remit. This Plan therefore considers NRW’s work on habitat and land management, water quality, and metal mine remediation, amongst many others, each of which has the potential to mitigate the challenges facing our fish populations. We need to work across the broadest possible remit if we are to achieve our goal of sustainable and resilient fish populations in future.

I look forward to working with all our partners to tackle the challenges and seize the opportunities associated with improving and sustaining resilient environments for our iconic fish populations for many years to come.

Clare Pillman

Chief Executive Officer, Natural Resources Wales

April 2020

Why we've created a plan

This plan sets out the actions to which we commit in order to secure the protection and restoration of populations of salmon and sea trout in Welsh rivers.

Both are iconic species, requiring high quality freshwater habitats to thrive. They demonstrate to society the environmental quality of our catchments, whilst also providing important opportunities for healthy and valuable recreation.

In common with most other countries across the North Atlantic distribution of salmon and the European range of sea trout, populations have declined over the past few decades. This has been most evident for salmon, but recently a sharp decline in Welsh sea trout stocks has also occurred.

Our response to these declines has included two decades of investment in habitat restoration, working in partnership with the rivers trusts that have emerged in this time. However, this has been localised and constrained by availability of resources, whilst there is much still to do.

Together with anglers we have also ensured that more fish survive each year to spawn: this has been achieved by a transformation of angler practices to greatly increase the uptake of voluntary catch-and-release fishing. This has been welcomed but the serious declines, firstly in early-running ‘spring salmon’ and now by all sea age components of salmon and, more recently, sea trout has led to mandatory fishing controls. It has become increasingly important to protect the spawning resources each year, as other actions are underway. Today, all salmon caught by rods and nets in Wales and, in certain circumstances and locations, sea trout must be returned alive and well after capture.

In confirming the new protective byelaws for salmon and sea trout. The Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs required NRW to:

…take the lead on a Welsh specific Plan of Action for the protection of Salmon and Sea Trout, working with stakeholders. The Plan will need to pull together all the current work being taken forward by all relevant parties, as well as identify the gaps and actions to address these. I ask you to look in particular at the issues raised at the Inquiry. My officials will work with you to contribute to this, as I hope will anglers and supporters of angling, as well as others, with an interest in this issue.

This plan is the result of work with our stakeholder groups across Wales. It sets out the measures and initiatives required to address known pressures on salmon and sea trout stocks in order to halt and reverse the declines.

Our vision for salmon and sea trout in Wales

We commend a shared vision for salmon and sea trout in Wales:

“To protect, through the application of best-practice science and management, the sustainability of our natural resource of wild salmon and sea trout stocks in Wales.”

Success will see our stocks flourish once again, achieving the targets we set for ourselves but importantly also contributing to better socioeconomic outcomes. We can contribute to achieving many of the wellbeing goals for Wales:

  • a resilient Wales with healthy functioning ecosystems that support social, economic and ecological resilience and the capacity to adapt to change. For example, climate change, which drives us to ensure that our sensitive upland streams are prepared to buffer the worst effects of a warming climate
  • a more prosperous Wales through increased uptake of valuable recreational angling
  • a healthy Wales with more people enjoying the opportunity to experience healthy populations of fish in our rivers

We will achieve our vision and underlying objectives through deploying the resources available to us in order to fulfil our statutory duties, delivering against the statutory guidance that we receive from Welsh Government, whilst proactively seeking further opportunities to tackle the many challenges that exist to stock sustainability.

Background

Salmon and sea trout are important species to anglers and net fishers, not least because of the opportunity for healthy recreation and the socioeconomic value that arises from well-run fisheries. However, they are also important to society as a whole for whom the presence, or absence, of these iconic fish is widely regarded as a potent indicator of environmental health and quality.

In the past, stocks were more resilient to environmental challenges and were able to sustain significant mortality in rod and net fisheries. However, as the range of pressures has increased and new challenges have emerged, threatening the survival of fish in both the marine and freshwater environments, the status of stocks has progressively declined. Declines are generally ongoing, threatening the future of our populations of fish as never before.

The plan indicates that Welsh Government, NRW and our partners and stakeholders understand the current severity of the status of salmon and sea trout stocks and the multiple factors affecting them, and that together we will take steps to address and resolve these.

NRW has sought and received contributions from all partners and relevant stakeholder groups who share our ambition for fish stocks and the fisheries they support. We will continue to work closely with Afonydd Cymru and the rivers trusts, fisheries non-government organisations (NGOs), Local Fisheries Groups (LFGs), and fishery owners and anglers to achieve the ambition of this Plan. We will continue to regularly communicate with them and all stakeholder groups across Wales in future, integrating working by all relevant bodies, and reporting on delivery of this Plan and development of a future longer-term Forward Delivery Plan.

Importance of salmon and sea trout in Wales

Both species are protected in law. Salmon are a species designated under the Habitats Directive, supporting classification of six rivers in Wales as Special Areas of Conservation, whilst sea trout and non-anadromous brown trout are recognised in the national Biodiversity Action Plan.

We assess the status of our stocks annually, and almost all river populations are performing poorly: all 23 salmon stocks in our ‘principal salmon rivers’ are ether ‘At Risk’ or ‘Probably at Risk’ of failing to achieve their management targets until at least 2024. and most are in ongoing decline. Over two-thirds of our sea trout stocks are similarly classified.

Angling in Welsh rivers is economically important, currently supporting over 700 full-time equivalent jobs and producing an annual household income of about £20 million, with scope for more. There is therefore an opportunity to grow the angling economy back to former higher economic levels, providing greater health and wellbeing benefits, and therefore supporting our shared wellbeing goals.

Most of the actions previously taken to protect and restore fish populations, and many of those required in future, lead to broader environmental restoration and enhancement outcomes – they therefore represent an important investment in the sustainable management of natural resources.

Restoring our stocks to the abundance last seen 30-40 years ago will not happen overnight. Action is needed both to address the easily recognised pressures on stocks today, such as the adverse effects of inappropriate land-use, but also emerging and new pressures such as the impact of climate change on habitats. Some pressures may be outside our immediate control, but even there we need to exert what influence we can.

Diagnosing the problems

The current ’salmonid emergency’ has arisen against the backdrop of current management practices across many sectors, and it is therefore important that we determine where those practices need to change and how we bring that about.

Partner workshops

Between October and December 2019 NRW hosted special meetings of the Wales Fisheries Forum and all Local Fisheries groups. The many pressures identified are reported separately (contact fisheries@naturalresourceswales.gov.uk for more information), however the principal pressures that damage habitats and fish populations identified by all stakeholder groups were:

  • the damage to many of our rivers arising from agricultural pollution
  • the poor status of habitats in our rivers that constrains fish distribution and survival
  • the unsustainable predation on impoverished juvenile salmonid populations by predatory birds. It was noted that predation is a natural phenomenon, but that this must be sustainable and potentially controlled when stocks are in very poor condition, as many are now

However, NRW recognises other constraints to stock resilience. The over-riding significance and implications of potential climate change in the marine and freshwater environments is clearly a major concern. There have been substantial reductions in the marine survival of salmon over the past two decades.

It is also inevitable that there will be synergies between some pressures, for example the impact of intensive agriculture and a warming climate.

It is of course noteworthy that, whilst river habitat restoration delivers for fish, it also contributes to the wellbeing of other flora and fauna that depend on good quality rivers. It is therefore an important investment in the sustainability of our natural aquatic resources and as such should be a valuable initiative for a range of other stakeholders.

The plan's purpose

This plan is for the remediation of adverse pressures on salmon and sea trout stocks where it is in our direct capability to do so. But it will also influence actions on pressures arising outside our immediate jurisdiction that also threaten to damage our stocks. We will need to adapt our plan and strategies as pressures change and as novel issues emerge.

This plan summarises the ongoing and new actions needed to address the pressures affecting our fish populations. There is general agreement amongst partners and stakeholders on the identity and, in most cases, the nature of these pressures that - sometimes in isolation but often cumulatively - adversely impact upon our stocks. The wellbeing of our stocks depends on favourable conditions at sea and in our rivers. Together with our stakeholders, we have reviewed and identified the pressures damaging our stocks. It is clear that there is much to be done.

Together, we need to transform river quality so that it is optimised for fish survival and production. The fish saved by new fishing regulations must have the best chance of successful breeding and their progeny must survive to maximise smolt output. It is important to note that successful optimisation in this way will deliver multiple benefits such as ecosystem resilience, improved condition status of Natura 2000 features and WFD target outcomes.

Our other corporate actions

We are also currently engaged in important strategic initiatives that will support our shared aspirations for healthy and sustainable fish populations.

NASCO Implementation Plan

Together with the Environment Agency (EA) and Cefas (Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science), we are co-authors of the current NASCO (North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation) 5-year Implementation Plan.

This is an important commitment to deliver a range of outcomes for salmon and has been approved by Government ministers in Wales and England.

Water Framework Directive (WFD) River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs)

The third WFD cycle (2021-2027) plans will have greater ambition of scale and approach, prioritising whole catchments for action.

Area Statements and Opportunity Catchments

We will, following the requirements of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (2015) and the Environment (Wales) Act (2016), adopt a place-based method to deliver SMNR (the Sustainable Management of Natural Resources) in a suite of Opportunity Catchments across Wales. In these catchments we will focus on supporting partnership delivery of multiple benefits for waterbodies and well-being. Our recommended list will represent the strongest mix of opportunities for integrated catchment management in each NRW operational area.

The Area Statements reference opportunities for catchment solutions.

In Oct 2020 we will publish the list of Opportunity Catchments within the draft RBMP3 consultation. Marine and estuarine waterbodies will be included - a departure from the freshwater focus targeted waterbodies in RBMP2. Area Statements are to be live documents, and future iterations beyond March 2020 will refine the priorities for each catchment.

Opportunity Catchments are a vehicle to integrate RBMPs and Flood Risk Management Plans (FRMPs) by featuring in both plans. Opportunities for nature-based solutions and natural flood risk management will exist in some Opportunity Catchments, and whilst specific projects won’t be detailed in the RBMPs and FRMPs such initiatives can be taken forward by place-based work programmes.

Actions by third parties

In addition to the work currently underway by NRW, many other partner organisations also undertake work that will deliver benefits for rivers and their flora and fauna. The environmental work of the water utilities was also noted. These relevant actions and initiatives already underway. Contact fisheries@naturalresourceswales.gov.uk for more information.

Resourcing

Resources are critical if we are to make a difference. We will continue to commit ongoing staff and project resources to fisheries work in 2020/21, however, the full range of the challenges recognised in this Plan must also be addressed.

Further resources have been provided by Welsh Government to implement a range of work in 2020/21 that will restore aquatic habitats and bring benefit to fish populations. These include investment in:

  • National Forest
  • Natura 2000 Network Maintenance and Enhancement
  • Metal Mines Programme
  • National Peatland Restoration
  • Water Quality Improvements – including fisheries habitat restoration programmes
  • River Restoration

The total value of this investment is approximately £15 million, and the specific investment in the fisheries habitat programmes is approximately £2 million.

It is essential that we work with all stakeholders and relevant partners to identify and build on shared interests. Much work is already underway, and it is anticipated that this plan will further raise the profile to encourage more timely action.

It is important to note that a range of work undertaken by other NRW business areas also delivers outcomes that also bring benefit to our fish populations. For example, remediation of the legacy of some polluting metal mines will improve water quality in tens of kilometres of upland rivers.

Addressing the gaps

This is a strategic plan for Wales. It is also important that local detailed plans are developed with local stakeholders, drawing on the information in this paper. These Fish Habitat Restoration Plans are currently in production and will identify the ‘gaps’ between work that has and is currently being delivered by us and all partners, and those that are needed in coming years to address pressures and restore sustainability to our stocks.

The full set of catchment-based plans for Wales will be completed during 2020/21.

Existing known pressures, and those that are emerging, cannot be quickly resolved. Therefore, in addition to this Plan, a forward-looking plan will be required. This 3-year ‘Forward Delivery Plan’ must go beyond 2020/21, and production of this is a commitment made here.

Assessing outcomes

The outcome of investment in many of the proposed works must be assessed in order to learn what works and what does not, and to demonstrate progress. Existing fish monitoring and assessment work will generally suffice, however, some further work is required and is included in this Plan.

Working with partners and stakeholders

NRW cannot deliver on the ambition of this plan alone, and we therefore need to build on existing partnerships with Afonydd Cymru and their family of rivers trusts, the Wales Fisheries Forum, other fisheries bodies, fishery owners and water utilities amongst others.

A high priority during 2020, as Year 1 actions are implemented, will be the development of a 3-year ‘Forward Delivery Plan’ for 2020/21 - 2023/24 to continue work to deliver solutions to environmental pressures. This will cover, but not be restricted to, matters such as restoration of river habitats and tackling predation by fish-eating birds.

Delivery of the work described in the Action Tables and development of the future longer-term ‘Forward Delivery Plan’ will be the subject of ongoing engagement with our partners.

The plan will be reviewed at each LFG meeting by NRW and our partners, notably the Wales Fisheries Forum. This will be a fully transparent process that will be shared with all stakeholder groups and partners.

We also need to identify and work with new partners who may also have an interest, and a stake in our river environments and the flora and fauna they sustain. We will work to establish these relationships.

Detailed action tables

It is important to recognise that the life-cycle of most salmon and many sea trout stock components is of four, or five, years duration. The Plan must therefore be regarded as a medium to long-term commitment and will be liable to change as outcomes arise and lessons are learned.

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