Can we save Ireland’s native Atlantic Salmon?

Piece for Drivetime, RTE Radio 1

(broadcast, 6th July, 2017)

Irleand’s native Atlantic salmon returns from its feeding grounds off the Faroe Islands or western Greenland to spawn in the river of its birth. Photo [RTE]
The Atlantic Salmon is one of Ireland’s iconic species, celebrated on our stamps, coins and in the stories that we read to our children.

Yet the numbers of this powerful, tenacious migratory fish have declined by 60 per cent over the last 40 years and there are real fears that the conservation measures underway may not save the salmon from extinction in the long term.

Dr Niall O’ Maoleidigh,  fisheries scientist with the Marine Institute, and was my host for recent visit to the Marine Institute Salmon Research Centre just outside of Newport Co Mayo. Niall told me that records are available that show how bad things have become  for the native Atlantic salmon.


The Research Centre at Newport has been a base for research on the salmon since 1955. It lies lies just north of Clew Bay, and at the base of the Nephin Beg Mountain Range in an area of stunning natural beauty.

The site is located at the juncture of two connected lakes, a saltwater lake called Lough Furnace that connects to Clew Bay and the Atlantic Ocean and a freshwater lake, Lough Feeagh that provides access to the upriver salmon spawning grounds in the Nephin Beg Range.

This means that all fish movements upstream and downstream from sea to river, and river to sea can be precisely counted using salmon traps.

The adult salmon start to arrive back from their feeding grounds in the Faroe Islands or of western Greenland in the month of June. Some adult salmon may have migrated more than 4,000 miles across open ocean to get home to arrive back at the Burrishoole river.

I went for a walk with Ger Rogan, a researcher at the Marine Institute, who is in charge of the fish census, or counting, programme. Ger showed me the salmon trapping facility and explained how it works.

On the edge 

The scientists at Newport know that there are some 600 adult fish associated with the Burrishoole river. That indicates a population living on the edge, as 600 is also the so-called conservation number for this river, meaning the number of adult fish needed to replenish the population.

The Burrishoole river is an index river for the other 144 Irish salmon rivers. This means that the trends affecting this river are seen as indicative for native salmon generally. This suggests salmon across Ireland are living on the edge too.

Pat Hughes, is the rod fishery manager of the Burrishoole fishery and a local man, and he is concerned about the fall in salmon numbers since he began as the fishery manager in Newport in the late 1980s.

 I spoke to angler Brian Lovering from Bristol who has been coming for 20 years, despite the steady fall off in salmon numbers. He said he was attracted to the west of Ireland’s unique charm and the friendliness of its people.

Saving the salmon, will require adherence to the  strict conservation plans for each of our salmon rivers, added to strong international cooperation to identify and deal with the problems this magnificent fish faces while feeding out at sea.