I dive into Scotland’s ancient salmon net fishing industry and uncover the bubbling feud between the fishermen of the rivers and those of the coast

On a cool spring day it can be a choppy journey for the Armadale Salmon crew, riding the waves of the Pentland Firth where the North Sea collides with the Atlantic Ocean, to the bag nets stretched seaward at right angles to the shore.

Hauling the nets up and over the side of the coble, juddering with squirming wild salmon (weighing in at two kilo-plus each) – and regularly changing the nets at sea – can be backbreaking work, and that’s all before the weighing, packing and net mending back at the salmon station at Aramadale’s base in Bettyhill, at the head of Strathnaver Valley in the Scottish Highlands. It’s a job that starts around sunset and can end well beyond twilight.

But for 60-year-old James Mackay, salmon net fishing is more than just a job, it’s a role filled with passion and preservation: passing on the ancient skills to the younger generation and, more importantly, creating a lifeline of income in a remote location where there’s scant other employment.

“My father fished and his forbears before him so it’s in my bones I suppose, and it’s a nice old life,” says James, whose business is now entering its third generation. “I enjoy it more than ever.”

But it’s not just the north coast waters that can be difficult to navigate for James and those like him. For the last 30 years, a ferocious squall has been brewing between the netsmen on the coast and the anglers that fish the rivers, who believe that net fishing is destroying salmon stocks. Calm seas are not predicted anytime soon.

Catch of the day

For James, his fishing business has been a lifetime in the making. “I’d go out on the creeler boats as a seven year old and I loved the feel of it even back then,” he says. “I really liked being near the sea and outdoors with the birds and creatures around me.”

He and his father spent many years working for other fisheries before James was able to buy Armadale in the 80s, a traditional fishery that dates back to the 1800s.

“When the opportunity came up to buy it, I took it with both hands,” says James, now the chairman of the Salmon Net Fishing Association of Scotland. “My father was very pleased I’d bought it and worked for me until his late 80s.”

It’s certainly testament to his father’s strength that he was able to do the job at such a ripe age. Between April and August, James and his crew of four, which includes son Neil, can be out on the flat-bottomed coble from around 4am to 6pm Monday to Friday (depending on the tides), catching salmon on the coasts outside estuary limits before the fish slip into the River Naver at Torrisdale Bay.

They continue to use bag or ‘fixed engine’ nets – like their ancestors did for more than two centuries – with their three-chambered arrow shaped traps at the centre, held in position along the rocky shore by floated lines and anchors. And these traditional techniques ensure the fish can swim around within the net until they are caught.

“This approach ensures the fish do not end up with net marks, bruising or scaling and that the overall catch is a small percentage of the total salmon stock,” says James. “Annually, we’ll take 1,500 to 5,500 on a good season.”

While James cheerfully attests that “it’s nice work when the sun is shining”, a lot of the work isn’t in the water.

“Once we get back, there’s time for a snack in our harbour kitchen, but then we spend many hours fixing nets and grading and packing the fish.”

Much of the wild salmon is sold to local housewives and smokehouses, and, coming in at around 2-4 kilos, selling for £15-20 a fish. “On a good day we’ll get a 5kilo-plus fish, which we can sell for around £25 – and that’ll make a lot of tasty meals!” says James.

Preservation and protection

Modern equipment such as tractors and hydraulic winches have made life a little easier for James and his crew, and there’s now ice making machines and purpose built chill rooms to ensure the product is stored and preserved properly.

A century ago, fishermen would have gathered ice from the lochs by hand and stored it inside underground icehouses until the fishing season commenced in the spring. The ice was used to preserve the salmon and grilse (in some areas the fish was boiled or pickled too) and an old ice house still remains at Bettyhill, a region that continues to be known as ‘Mackay Country’ thanks to generations of the Mackay clan that lived there.

In the heyday of the industry, the salmon would have been transported via the railway line to markets all over the UK, with the bulk heading to Billingsgate.

Former fisheries scientist Willie Shearer, who now acts as consultant to the Salmon Net Fishing Association of Scotland, says while fishing in rivers dates back hundreds of years, it all changed when wealthy landowners took back the rights to fish.

“The commercial fishermen were ‘pushed out’ if you like and forced to move onto the coasts, and this is how the sea fisheries developed,” he says.

What also developed was a long running feud between rod fishermen, who continue to fish on the river and in long sea lochs, and the commercial coastal salmon stations.

“Anglers feel that net fishing is destroying stocks and giving them less fish to catch – an argument the net fishermen refute – but it’s been rumbling on for more than 30 years and will probably continue to do so,” says Willie.

So, while The Salmon and Trout Association (SATA) want to see a complete ban on salmon netting – accusing coastal fishermen of “indiscriminately killing one of the truly iconic species”, and of not managing stocks properly – fishermen like James feels each sector has an equal place.

“There’s no evidence that net fishing has depleted stocks or there’s been a reduction in spawning,” adds Willie. “The Scottish government keeps close checks on this, alongside the fishery boards at local levels.”

Ultimately, it is in all fishermen’s interests to protect Scotland’s valuable coastal and freshwater commodity sustainably.

“Scotland’s net fishermen have put in many measures to ensure that the stocks are maintained properly – after all it’s their livelihood,” says Willie. “They cannot fish before February or after August, or at the weekends during the peak season, and this has been in place for many years, with many fisheries choosing voluntarily to not start fishing until April or May.”

James agrees. “Fourteen years ago, we postponed the start of the season for six weeks for conservation reasons but we’ve had no recognition for it,” he says. “There remains a harvestable surplus of wild salmon available.”

Deep decline

Whatever your viewpoint, it’s easy to see how damaging the arguments have been to the industry.

“At its peak, there were hundreds of fisheries along the coast, and it employed upwards of 3,000 people, but over the last two centuries this has declined to only 10 or so fisheries,” says James.

Some blame landowners and anglers for this decline, suggesting they brought up the coastal fisheries to stop netting, but for many net fishermen the industry simply became uneconomical.

“During the world wars, many fisheries also closed because the young men were all off fighting,” says James.

There are also many environmental factors at play too. Global warming has affected stock levels with cold summers resulting in salmon going further afield in search of food.

“Our biggest challenge is weather change,” agrees James. “We didn’t get fishing until the end of May/early June in those cold summers a few years ago and it was a huge financial strain.”

Net asset

Willie Shearer is passionate about protecting Scotland’s wild salmon industry.

“Net fishermen are a major asset to Scotland, just as the rod fisheries are – and they’re both part of Scotland’s heritage,” says Willie. “And if James couldn’t fish, what would he and his family do? These remote areas would become uninhabitable without the fisheries, and in my mind would lead to real destruction of the wild salmon stocks by poachers and illegal fisheries.

“It’s incredibly important that the skills passed down the generations are preserved. Without the James Mackays of this world, the skills are lost too.”

Despite the ongoing conflict with anglers, James says he does see a future for the industry.

“I’ve got 25 more years in me yet,” he says. “And okay it’s a job and we earn money from it, but it’s also enjoyable. Catching fish at the end of a line is surely the same?”

This was originally published in Great British Food in 2015.