Sea turtles and salmon share some similarities. Both species evolved millions of years ago, both have suffered precipitous population declines in recent decades, and both share life cycles that make them uniquely vulnerable to human interference. This is because both species must return from their mainly oceanic existence, to either land or river, in order to reproduce — and in so doing, must interface with and overcome the hurdles of human development that have been placed in their path.
I have been lucky enough to witness the wild beauty of sea turtles making their way up a beach to nest and lay their eggs, and lucky too to meet and work with a number of people involved in the conservation and ecology of marine turtles. At no time have I ever heard, or expected to hear, that an important facet of sea turtle conservation is to be found by hunting them; that in order to better understand them, and enhance conservation efforts, it is important to catch and kill them, or snaring them while they are swimming upstream on their way to reproduce — then posing with them for a selfie. Such a suggestion would, of course, be preposterous!
Yet these are very arguments being promulgated by the wild salmon lobby. Salmon & Trout Conservation (S&TC), self-proclaimed as “The UK voice for wild fish,” seem to find no irony in their dichotomy: on the one hand, fund-raising by auctioning salmon fishing trips, or offering tips on how to net the best catch, whilst at the same time claiming the moral high-ground in discussions about the causative factors leading to the precipitous decline of their coveted prey, the wild Atlantic salmon. This surely does not make sense to most people.
In the midst of these muddied waters and this maze of duplicity, we have Corin Smith: owner of the guided angling enterprise, The Wild Rise Company; Communications Officer for S&TC, and founder of campaign organisation, Inside Scottish Salmon Feedlots (ISSF). On his website, Corin rates his life’s personal highlights, which lists achievements such as “First ever fly-caught marlin in Ghana,” and “First UK angler to compete in Tarpon Gold Cup in Florida”. According to his website, apart from hiring him as a guide on various salmon fishing excursions in Scotland, he can also act as your host and guide in other exotic locations, such as the Seychelles, Mauritius or Tierra Del Fuego. Perhaps this vocation was not quite lucrative enough for him, however, as in more recent times Corin Smith has sought instead to improve his cash flow by assuming the mantle of an anti-fish farming crusader.
Now, as a lifelong fisherman and a lover of fish, I have no problem with catching fish (to eat) — but I struggle to take anyone seriously who claims that angling actually helps the fish at the end of the line… Somehow, in Corin’s worldview, this is evidently the case; in a recent dialogue in Trout and Salmon magazine he argues that “Scientists have failed to recognise that wild salmon rely on the recreational salmon fishing industry delivering an argument for their abundance.” Astonishingly, while he purports that salmon farms are causing the decline of wild salmonids, and vehemently argues for their removal, he argues equally for the removal of scientific rigour in addressing the topic, stating that “The management of wild salmon in Scotland has been led by scientists. That’s been a failure of strategy.” At best, this blinkered mentality does nothing to help the plight of our wild salmon, at worst it attempts to exacerbate the situation even further by attempting to de-rail the collaboration and hard work of others.
Given the myriad of ecological impacts that are complicit in the decline of wild Atlantic salmon, now more than ever we need to be 100% focused on identifying and mitigating these factors, not turning our back on the experts. But on this topic, Corin Smith’s vendetta against the salmon sector remains unswerving and vehement: “Let’s not be silly and publicly talk about wide-ranging pressures facing Atlantic salmon,” he says, “Open-cage salmon farming in Scotland is the only game in town as far as the conservation of wild salmon in Scotland is concerned.”
The inconvenient and tragic reality is that salmon populations have been decimated throughout their range, in the complete absence of fish farms; the farms are not the cause. Even a modicum of reading and research will soon reveal that the Atlantic salmon used to be common in rivers across Europe, thus public discussion and awareness of the wide-ranging pressures faced by this iconic species is exactly what is needed if we are to avert the extinction of the ‘king of fish’. To stop the decline of wild salmon, we must urgently take stock of the real big picture and not allow obfuscation to hamper timely and proactive conservation efforts. With growing evidence that mortality rates are skyrocketing far out to sea (more than 95%), we must keep the plight of wild salmon front and centre and be led by evidence, not emotion and not ego.
With sponsorship from the Patagonia clothing chain in hand, Corin Smith has found a lucrative niche that allows him to take pot-shots at the salmon farming industry without having to be accountable for anything he says or does; it is much easier to defame and malign on social media, for example, than it is to correct and debunk. His focus remains solely on undermining and calling out the Scottish salmon farming industry — and whether it is at fault or not would appear to be irrelevant.
In this day and age of sound-bite news and social media, the complexities of nuanced topics, like ecology and fisheries, are often lost in the mix, but if the wild salmon are to have a chance, we must let facts lead the debate, not fiction. For example, Corin states that the Scottish governments’ two recent parliamentary inquiries into the salmon sector found an “Overwhelming body of evidence pointing to the damage being caused by salmon farms,” which strongly suggests that he didn’t actually read these documents, since they didn’t say this at all. They were rather technical though, so perhaps he was banking on his words reaching the ears of an audience who hadn’t bothered to read them either.
If Corin Smith, along with his backers and supporters, does actually care about saving our wild salmon, he should start by doing some proper research and become adequately informed about the big picture, listen to some of the views of people that don’t agree with him, and perhaps even try legitimately visiting a fish farm for once. Let’s let science and not sound-bites guide us forward on this paramount and pressing issue.