The Great Byelaw Debate

By Dr Stephen Marsh-Smith - Chairman, The Wye Foundation

So quickly have events moved in the last twelve months that practically every time we wrote something, news rapidly became history there is no better example than the issue of salmon fishing byelaws.

The introduction of new measures by the Environment Agency in early 1995, held that no further restraints should be introduced until at least one or two generations (five or ten years) had passed. 1997 changed that thinking by being the second successive, worst ever, rod catch for salmon. Owners and fishermen braced themselves for more restraints.

The Agency conceded, following calculations of the Wye's spawning target and representations by both the Wye Foundation and the Wye Salmon Fishery Owners, that further restraint would definitely be necessary. This time last year there was fairly general agreement that all fish save grilse (fish under 70cms) should be returned in order to have any hope of securing the fishery for the future. We had every chance of byelaws by common agreement and even then we knew that this would not be enough for the river to achieve its spawning target.

Plans for Wye were overtaken by the introduction of National Proposals. These dealt almost exclusively with Spring fish, and covered all English and Welsh rivers. The key proposals were Catch and Release using fly or spinner only until 16th June and no netting until 1st June. The pages of the fishing press were full of it and so too were the letter boxes of the Agency. As I write today, St David's Day, we are still in the dark both about the national byelaws and equally importantly, about the earlier soecific proposals for our river.


Risking being upstaged by a further chanqe or "rethink" I would like to pick up some points made in the "Great Debate". The first is that catch restraint is only part of the process in restoring our runs of salmon. It treats the symptom but not the cause. On the Wye, it is clear that the massive degradation of habitat and water quality issues are overriding factors. In previous newsletters we explained why this river is so far below the performance of our immediate neighbouring rivers. Now we need every fish to fill the areas we are improving.

Next, the outrage of so many fishermen when confronted by the concept of C & R rather overlooked the fact that for the best part of a century it has been the law to release all kelts and parr alive. Mandatory release of salmon is nothing new. So far, the existing law has never been cited as a reason to stop fishing and I wonder whether any of these outraged fishers would turn down a trip to Russia on that basis!


The third point, "odd fish for the pot" -particularly a lone springer, is very damaging when multiplied by all those who do it and divided into the small number of fish involved. Jon Beer made this point very eloquently in The Daily Telegraph. He pointed out that if all the thousand or so objectors took just one or two, the current national catch of springers would be exceeded!

Finally, that age old problem of rods versus nets. A suggestion for the future of commercial fisheries came from the South West where fish are relatively plentiful. Their Spawning Target achievement is a good deal less precarious (av 77%)* than ours (Wye 22%) or indeed throughout Wales (av 44%). It is simply to buy off commercial interests permanently. Presumably based on the higher economic value of a rod caught salmon to the rural economy, they feel funding could or should be raised by government and increased rod licence payments. It is understood that this is to be an alternative to the proposed spring byelaws even though netting impacts mainly on grilse and summer fish. They have a point however, when three out of every four fish are taken in the nets for only a minuscule contribution to the economy and a market awash with farmed fish.

We know the value of a dead salmon - it is between £2.50 and £3.50 per lb. Its value when caught on a rod is £300 in rent and £3000 in capital value plus the wider contributions to the economy. What, however is its value today as a brood or stud animal, capable of restoring a run of fish that could bring £10,000,000 pa to our rural economy? It really is the time to rethink what value we put on our fish and therefore how we manage them. Maybe that is the most important message to take to the Review Group.


Four years of careful observation has helped the Foundation hone its ability to identify those streams and tributaries that would be suitable for salmon, fry and parr. Weather and funds permitting we plan this summer to open up three or four smaller streams that are currently impassable.

Previous fish pass work has been very successful and some streams now hold good densities of fry and parr purely as a result of our work.

This is highly cost effective work and we are actively seeking sponsors and willing hands to help our programme. Many of our previous projects have been sponsored by individuals and companies. If you can help please contact the foundation Chairman.