Proposed new fishing byelaws have been approved by Board members at Natural Resources Wales (NRW) with only minor modifications.
They now await final rubber-stamping by the Welsh Government.
Anglers are horrified at the prospect of compulsory catch-and-release (CR) rules for salmon and larger sea trout.
Curbs on bait fishing, and restrictions on the use of barbed hooks, have also prompted fears of an exodus from the sport.
But the outcome could have been much more severe, NRW has said – at one time closing all rod and net fisheries was an option on the table.
Here, its fisheries experts answer some common concerns about the new byelaws.
Will there will be a big drop in angling participation?
Our proposals represent an investment in the future: if we do nothing then further declines in stocks and rod fishing are likely. To continue to kill fish from heavily depleted stocks makes little sense.
NRW is aware the proposed controls may lead to a fall in fishing activity. However, it is important to note that we propose ending the killing of salmon (and, in some rivers, sea trout), not of fishing itself.
Participation has been declining since at least 1995. We believe this is much more about fish abundance and the scale of rod catches than a CR regime.
If there are few fish, then angling numbers will fall anyway.
A reduction in uptake of fishing was observed when the Wye mandatory CR byelaws were introduced. However this was temporary and was reversed after a year or so.
Nevertheless, it is possible that there will be a reduction in fishing and we will do what we can to minimise the risk.
We are considering proposals to help clubs promote their fishing to a wider audience before the 2018 season begins.
Why is bait fishing being prohibited?
Not all bait fishing is being banned.
We have proposed a ban on worm fishing for salmon (already in place before June 16) as there is a high likelihood that released fish will die.
We have allowed fishing with shrimp and prawn for salmon after September 1 when, generally, water temperatures have declined and survival is higher.
We have not banned fishing with bait for sea trout – the proposals require a small barbless hook and a single worm, to reduce the risk of accidentally catching salmon.
Using a barbless hook helps to reduce unhooking and handling times, and thus fish survival.
Why aren’t there any river-specific measures?
Twenty of the 23 main salmon rivers in Wales are either “At Risk” or ‘Probably at Risk’ of failing to achieve their 2021 targets.
All but four of our stocks – Wye, Usk, Taff and Dysinni – are also projected to decline.
As these rivers are performing poorly, it is logical that salmon stocks in smaller rivers are also performing poorly. We have therefore extended our proposals to include these rivers to.
We are prepared to consider river-by-river differences for sea trout. Six rivers are already excluded from early season CR proposals as their stock vulnerability is considered to be low.
Are the byelaws are based on sound science and data?
There is a perception the data is flawed because of the low catch return rate – the number of rod licensees submitting a return from 2010-2014 has averaged around 60%.
In using these returns, we are of course aware they are incomplete. We have therefore raised the declared catch figure by 10% to account for under-reporting.
With adjustments for different licence holders, and for the on-line catch recording system, the overall catch correction factor is about 30%.
Not all types of licence carry equal weighting for adjustment – hence the apparent problems represented by a low catch return is not as great as it seems.
Are bird predators to blame for declining fish stocks?
Predation of fish is a natural phenomenon. For example, predation at sea by dolphins and sharks is known to occur, along with predation by otters in rivers. However it is often the emotive issue of goosanders and cormorants that concerns anglers.
As the licensing authority in Wales, we determine applications for licences to shoot birds that damage fisheries.
Our position is that licences are granted only as an aid to scaring bird away from fisheries.
However we are aware of the contentious nature of this subject and NRW has initiated a review of the subject.
How will the byelaws will be observed / policed given the declines in bailiff numbers?
NRW wants to create a fair environment for legitimate anglers and net licence holders. We recognise that some anglers without licences are likely to be ignorant of the proposed byelaws, therefore risking the survival of vulnerable species.
Ensuring compliance is one of our key enforcement priorities. We will take a robust approach where byelaws have been contravened.
Will riparian owners who lose income be compensated?
NRW believes it has demonstrated the proposed measures are proportionate to the threat faced by salmon and sea trout.
NRW also notes that the byelaws would not prevent people from fishing for salmon and sea trout provided that they then return them to the river.
The question of compensation under the Water Resources Act 1991 has been raised by some anglers.
NRW’s position is that the power to pay compensation under section 212 of the Act is not triggered.
How will the byelaws affect estuarine netsmen?
To return to sustainability, closing both rod and net fisheries was an option we considered – however we are mindful of the socio economics involved.
Total catches of salmon by Welsh nets is low – less than 200 on average over the last five years. Net fisheries mainly target sea trout, averaging around 1,600 annually.
If handled correctly, the survival of net-caught fish can be high, as shown by tracking studies on salmon and sea trout on the Tywi and Dee in the 1980s and 1990s.
Some coracles and seine net fisheries have been practicing CR since 1999. This is an important precedent, and we have no evidence that CR fishing has been unsuccessful.
Why aren’t hatcheries being re-opened?
A full review of stocking and its impacts, carried out by NRW in 2014, concluded that all salmon and sea trout stocking in Wales should end.
There is an increasing consensus that hatcheries do not achieve any meaningful outcome, are inherently risky and do not increase catches or protect native fish.
Therefore, no further stocking schemes, other than those for targeted research and, in very extreme cases, restoration, will be permitted.
What else is being done to restore migratory fish stocks?
Actions to improve river habitats have been underway in Wales for at least 25 years. These have been undertaken by NRW and its predecessor bodies, but increasingly by partner organisations, notably the rivers trusts.
NRW has now awarded a contract to Afonydd Cymru to compile all sources of habitat pressures into whole-catchment action plans.
These will be used to seek funding for river restoration, starting with the Teifi and Tywi.
What happens next?
We will now seek the approval of the Cabinet Secretary. Once we have a decision we will set out what it means for each river, with water quality the focus of our efforts going forwards.