Widecombe History Group Talk on The Life of the Salmon in the Dart and its Tributaries

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Talk on "The Life of the Salmon in the Dart and its tributaries"

Mike Maslin has been Fishery Officer for the Dart for the last twelve years. He began his career by being Warden of the Lower Dart in 1989 but now also covers the Dart, Teign, Avon and Erme for the Environment Agency. He gave the group an interesting illustrated talk.

Particularly interesting to the meeting was his explanation of work being done by the Environmental Agency in the East Webburn to encourage the salmon to spawn. He also mentioned the West Webburn, the East and West Darts and the Wallabrooke.

The salmon and all the other fish need a good clean gravel bed in which to make their ‘redd’ or nest. Gravel varying from the size of a walnut to an orange is the ideal. Several gravel beds have got contaminated by mud and silt and it has been found that with the aid of a two inch pump a lot of the sediment can be washed away and thereby creating the ideal site for the salmon to breed. Spawning of the salmon in this area takes place in November/December, where the sea trout tend to spawn in October/November. The female fish, the hen, creates the redd by flipping her tail and shaking her body, thus creating a hollow in the gravel in which to lay her eggs. She lays approximately 700 eggs per pound body weight, the male fish, the cock, then fertilises the eggs in-situ with his sperm ‘milt’. The first process of hatching is when the egg becomes an ‘eyed ova’, which is a little black dot in each egg. When they hatch in March they are known as "fry" and for the next two or three weeks the ‘egg sac’ is still attached to them, then termed "alvin". As they get larger, four to five inches, they are known as "parr" and during these stages, many are eaten by bigger fish during this period as much as 80% of the hatched fish are eaten by predators. When big enough to migrate out to sea "smolt" , they leave the rivers and head for the North Atlantic, Iceland, Greenland but some only go as far as The Faroes, they are by then big enough themselves to eat other fish. If they return in one year, weighing approximately four to five pounds, they are known as "grilse" but some don’t return for two, three, four or even five years of sea winters. Numbers have drastically decreased in recent years particularly the multi-winter season fish, the reasons for this are not clear, could it be global warming? or could it be shortage of food? or could it be over fishing? Most of the one winter season fish spend their winters feeding around the Faroe Isles and as they return they tend to come down the west coast of Ireland, they tend to swim only a few feet below the surface and here they often have to run the gauntlet of drift nets up to fifteen miles long. It has been known of ships landing 30/40 tons of fish at one time. If they negotiate them they can find long coastal nets awaiting them, at one time there were hundreds of these nets, but now this is illegal. Once entering the estuaries, incidentally they do return to the rivers from whence they were born, they come up against another series of nets. These are licensed nets, the net fishermen are governed by strict by-law rules, but once the fish re-enter the fresh water of the river, it is totally illegal for any fixed nets to be used to catch them. This is where the Environmental Officers, Water Bailiffs and River Wardens, have the difficult task of stopping the poaching of this beautiful fish, this is sometimes carried out with illegally laid fixed nets . The Environmental Agency also put in a lot of work in helping the fish to get up stream to their spawning grounds. The erection of weirs over many years, a man made obstacle, creates problems for the fish and now fish passes have been erected to by-pass them, that is only part of their job, a salmon needs three-times its body length in depth of water for it to "jump" a weir or similar obstruction. One can see that the salmon are really up against it and have many obstacles, as well as poaching and pollution, to overcome to continue its survival. The cock fish can be recognised from the hen by an upward curving front of its lower jaw, this could be form of weapon for when two cock fish are fighting over a hen!. Contrary to belief, many hens, some 10 to 15%, do return to the sea after spawning as "kelt". This years heavy rainfall seems to be encouraging the fish farther up stream than most years, could this be good news for the fish stock? Hens will make more than one redd and cocks will mate with more than one hen. Tagging has been used to try to follow and record the movement and life cycle of the fish but very few are in fact recaught. Habitat improvements are very much part of the work of the Environment Officers, some are carried out in conjunction with the Dartmoor National Park and its bio-diversity project. Like the previously mentioned pumps to clean the gravel beds, shifting the fine silt out of the gravel, coppice work along the banks of the breeding areas to improve the light in the rivers, compacted gravel needs loosening, the removal of weeds that choke the river beds and one of the most noxious weeds is Hemlock, as well being a problem for the fish and river life in general, it can cause problems for farmers with stock grazing the banks, as the tuberous roots are very poisonous.

There were several comments at the end of Mike’s address by local rod and line fishermen, farmers and interested parties, all thanking him for a most interesting and informative talk.

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