Passion and vigilance, allied to a lifetime’s experience and local knowledge of tidal trigonometry, delivers a return

The salmon drift-net fishery has sustained fishermen and their families along the coast of northeast England for generations. Whitby skipper Martin Hopper is one of 11 netsmen, fishing over 100 miles apart, who are fighting for their future, as anglers and riparian owners continue to apply pressure on ministers to stop the traditional fishery. David Linkie reports

The family traditions that are strongly associated with the salmon drift-net fishery were immediately underlined when skipper Martin Hopper, who has been a licensee for 30 years, stepped onboard Courage accompanied by his son Shaun.

After the all-important flasks and pack were securely stored under the aft thwart, Martin Hopper carried out his customary checks, before bringing the Ford 4D engine to life and giving it a few minutes to warm through, during which time he contacted Whitby bridge on the VHF to request the 6.30am bridge. At the peak of spring tides, the plan of action was to be shot in time for the highwater slack, some two hours later, so a considerably later than usual start was possible.

Courage returning to her pontoon berth 11 hours after…

Courage returning to her pontoon berth 11 hours after…

With the remnants of a fairly heavy ground swell still running on Sandsend beach, conditions were unsuitable for J-netters, so Courage, Whitby’s solitary remaining drift-net coble, would be well and truly on her own for the day, with her closest companion some 50 miles further north off Sunderland.

When the eastern half of Whitby’s distinctive swing bridge opened, Courage passed through before going alongside the fishmarket to pick up a couple of baskets of ice, which would hopefully be put to good use later in the day.

Five minutes later, Courage started to lift to the

decaying swell on passing through the pier ends, before Martin put the tiller over to port at the start of a 10-mile steam south towards Ravenscar.

 

Coming after weeks of flat calm seas, constant sunshine and unusually high temperatures – not an ideal combination for drift-netting, as below-average catch returns conclusively proved – the return of more usual conditions, including a rolling sea and grey skies, were welcomed – unlike the strong tide, which meant that continual effort lay ahead.

The extent to which potting effort continues to increase along the Yorkshire coast was made immediately apparent by countless pot dahns, some of which were all but submerged, as Courage, running before the motion and a whistling flood, quickly passed under Whitby Highlight lighthouse.

… passing through Whitby’s swing bridge

… passing through Whitby’s swing bridge

Towards the end of the previous week, when neap tides prevailed, Martin Hopper had successfully fished under the cliffs at Maw Wyke, four miles east of Whitby, where a small area of soft bottom, which meant no pot end for some 400m, provided sufficient seaway to work a drift net. However, with spring tides ruling out this preferred shot, as the net would have had to be hauled almost as soon as it was in the water, Courage continued to head on towards Ravenscar, on the southern side of Robin Hood’s Bay.

An hour after Courage left Whitby pier ends astern, and going to a more or less dictated starting position tight to an uptide pot dahn, Martin turned the coble’s head out to sea as 550m of drift net was cleanly shot off the deck over the starboard gunwale. Lying at the off-end and looking back along the line of white headline floats, the small scale of Courage’s net compared to the open sea was immediately put into perspective by the dramatic towering cliff.

The ever-present threat of a seal taking a fish from the net, often within a minute of it striking, requires the crew to keep a vigilant eye along the net at all times for any signs of activity. With no sign of a fish hitting the upper section of the net after 15 minutes, Martin took Courage slowly along the net, when the hoped-for telltale sign of a fish lower down the net, in the form of a slightly dipping float, did not materialise.

On reaching the inside end of the net, the boat hook was made ready, at the same time as the hydraulics for the Rapp Hydema Piccolo hauler were clutched in. Although only in the water for 20 minutes, the off-end of the net, which continued to be subject to the full weight of the flood, which was now starting to ease closer in, had been pulled around 90° and was lying down through the tide, parallel to the shore.

After a non-productive first haul, Martin took Courage closer in to the foot of the cliffs, looking to gain maximum benefit from the highwater slack, which would initiate along the shore before moving into the sea.

With Martin constantly checking Courage’s heading on the boxed compass, his constant companion aft, the net was shot for a second time. On running along the net five minutes later, the first fish of the morning was spotted halfway in, about a dozen meshes down from the headline. After coming gently astern, the landing net was used to safely bring a 9lb salmon aboard.

Shooting the net away for the first time…

Shooting the net away for the first time…

Continuing to look along the net yielded a second fish in the form of a well-formed grilse (a young salmon less than 3.63kg), and Courage was up and running.

As the offside end again trailed away south with the last of the flood, Shaun had started to flake handfuls of headline down onto the deck boards, when the smooth routine of hauling ceased for a minute as a second similar-sized salmon, meshed near the lead line, was carefully lifted over the gunwale.

Shot in a similar area and manner to the second, the third shot yielded another two fish. One of these was thought to have been seen oversetting some 20 yards from the net while Courage was lying at the inside end for a couple of minutes, while Martin and Shaun tagged and recorded the first fish of the day.

Although the only predictable thing about netting is its unpredictability, the highwater slack was showing encouraging initial signs of delivering. These continued on the next shot, when on the first check of the net, a telltale heavy flat not only provided indication of a grilse, but also a second bigger fish deeper down. With Courage threatening to blow across the gear, this had to be left for a few minutes, before it was successfully taken aboard when the net was immediately hauled, along with another two fish.

… and hauling after 20 minutes for nothing.

… and hauling after 20 minutes for nothing.

With the first signs of ebb beginning to appear inshore, with slightly coloured water displacing the clearer flood, Martin subtly brought a lifetime’s experience into play by positioning the net slightly further out on the next two shots, in order to repeatedly straddle the tideline, which fish have a tendency to follow.

At the same time as gradually moving further offshore, the angle that the net was shot, relative to the shore, was carefully judged and constantly adjusted in respect of rapidly changing tidal patterns, in an attempt to extend the time the net would fish effectively by a few minutes.

In less than 15 minutes, giving just enough time for a quick look along the net, which yielded the third grilse of the day, it was hauled back onboard as it quickly pulled round.

As the clearer water continued to move eastwards, Courage tracked it offshore as Martin endeavoured to increase the count of salmon and grilse which, approaching midday, stood at three and seven respectively.

Looking along the net shortly after it was shot for the second time…

Looking along the net shortly after it was shot for the second time…

With ebb now running fiercely, and the net moving quickly northwards towards pot dahns, it was taken back onboard twice in little more than 30 minutes, during which time another two grilse were securely lifted aboard when hauling.

Rather than face the prospect of doing similarly for the next three hours, Martin opted for plan B, which was to move closer to the shore again, where it was hoped the tide would not be quite as strong, and would continue to ease as low-water slack neared.

This course of action meant returning to the coloured water, and that if any fish were netted, they were more likely to be sea trout than salmon or grilse.

Therefore it was slightly surprising that 10 minutes later, the first look along the net resulted in a grilse being taken aboard, followed by a good-sized sea trout some 25 floats on. As the net set northwards, the 400yd gap between pot dahns reduced rapidly, so it was hauled back onboard, together with two more sea trout, lying well down towards the footrope.

The next two shots followed a similar pattern and yielded another three trout, all around the 5-6lb mark. This good class of fish highlighted the selective nature of all forms of gill-netting, in which the size of fish caught is determined by mesh size. Looking to secure maximum financial benefit for the fish caught, Martin Hopper uses 4¾in mesh, which is generally more suited to taking larger fish. Although this means that considerable numbers of smaller trout and even grilse will pass through the net, the benefits of this policy are clear to see, in that one double-figure salmon considerably outweighs a dozen small sea trout.

… resulted in the first fish of the day being spotted…

… resulted in the first fish of the day being spotted…

The 200yd sheets of 4¾in x 60 mesh-deep 0.65mm super-soft monofilament netting are taken in by the half during rigging, when every three meshes are hung at 7in intervals on the headline. The spacing is increased to 8in on the footrope (no. 2 leadline), to give the optimum amount of slack and allow the netting to lift when a fish strikes. This combination of mesh size and rigging method allows 4lb sea trout to be retained as well as 20lb-plus salmon.

Apart from a young pup, clearly still learning the ropes and honing the skills associated with mauling migratory fish in a net, the day had been relatively seal-free until now, although this was about to change.

Another reason why the highwater slack is generally viewed as providing more favourable conditions is that adult seals have a tendency to swim ashore and lie on scar ends for a few hours. The downside of this is that as the tide starts to turn, well-rested seals take this as a signal to return to the water, and almost inevitably start feeding. In the late morning, over 100 seals were basking in the sun on the rocks, and several groups of tourists had walked down Ravenscar cliffs to view them close-up.

As the first flush of flood materialised, the number of seals lying on the rocks quickly diminished, and it was not long before five adults started to patrol Courage’s net. How many migratory fish seals kill in a year is unknown, but given the huge numbers of seals along the coast of northeast England, allied to their well-documented dietary preference for salmon, the number of fish lost to these predators probably runs to thousands.

Shaun washing a beautifully conditioned glistening salmon.

Shaun washing a beautifully conditioned glistening salmon.

Although constantly watching the net for any telltale splash of fish playing up near the headline, when Courage can be there within two to three minutes to take the fish out, Martin regularly comes second in a two-horse race, to be faced with a seal mauling a fish. Known losses in any one week regularly run into double figures, and those are only the ones seen in the top part of the net.

For whatever reason, Courage’s net, as well as the mouths of the seals on sentry patrol, remained empty on the next haul. Rather than put in further effort for no return, and with highwater not an option as it was not until after the daily close time, the net was kept aboard after being hauled for the 14th time in eight hours.

Finely tuned to local conditions, netsmen like Martin share the common characteristic of readily identifying when to fish, and when attempting to do so would only be riddling water. Although restricted to 65 days a year and 76 hours a week, netsmen frequently opt for a combination of late starts (as was the case on this day), early finishes, and returning to harbour for a few hours in the middle of the day, rather than attempting to maximise the time they can fish, as some observers imply.

Under the terms of the three-month licence issued by the Environment Agency, salmon drift nets can be fished from 6am to 8pm on a Monday, from 4am to 8pm on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and from 4am to 6pm on a Friday. Previously, licence holders were able to fish from 6am on a Monday morning through to 12pm on a Saturday.

The length of the season has been similarly reduced, with the traditional opening date of 28 March being moved back to 1 June.

Pride in their work – Shaun holds a superbly conditioned salmon.

Pride in their work – Shaun holds a superbly conditioned salmon.

From a purely personal perspective, being given an opportunity to spend time at sea with netsmen is a privilege. Gaining an insight into their ways of reading local conditions, together with their passion and commitment to a form of fishing they have devoted their lives to and supported their families with, is a unique opportunity.

From the moment Courage passed through Whitby pier ends, until steaming home to Whitby, when Fishing News was entrusted with the watch, Martin Hopper’s hand never left the tiller, apart from a few brief minutes to fill out the daily catch sheet as soon as fish were caught and tagged. Half-cups of coffee and sandwiches were quickly taken while remaining at the helm, constantly on watch while monitoring the position of the net in relation to pot dahns and passing yachts, which frequently need to be diverted clear of the gear.

The concentration and skill required to keep an open boat in position, when hauling and looking along a net in close proximity to it, cannot be overstated. While many skippers rightly benefit from the advantages associated with autopilots, satellite compasses, radars, sonars, and the like, such equipment has no place on traditional netting cobles, where a skipper and his crew rely on their lifetime’s experience, together with instinct and constant awareness.

Netting the last salmon of the day over the port side…

Netting the last salmon of the day over the port side…

With Courage stemming the full weight of the flood, the steam north to Whitby took 50% longer than it had done 11 hours earlier. Shortly before 5.30pm, Martin took Courage alongside the fishmarket quay to land the day’s catch. Consisting of four salmon (21.2kg), 14 grilse (37.9kg) and seven sea trout (17.1kg), the fish – which were as stiff as boards and in superb condition, having been boxed and lightly iced as soon as they came aboard – were weighed and laid out, ready for auction the following morning.

Having frequently landed less since the 2018 season started, as well as throughout his long netting career, Martin Hopper was quietly satisfied with the return, in much the same way as he would have been with fewer or more fish. Stoicism has long been of paramount importance to netsmen, who are accustomed to looking forward to the next day, in the knowledge that long-term security and sustainability are of greater importance than short-term gain.

Continued below…

Lifelong passion and commitment under increasing threat

Six months ago, the small group of netsmen who remain in northeast England won a significant victory, following a strong campaign of opposition on their behalf by the NFFO, with the announcement that proposals by the Environment Agency (EA) and DEFRA to close the traditional drift-net fishery with immediate effect, and severely curtail inshore beach fisheries for salmon and sea trout, would not be implemented for the 2018 season.

Yet even before the recent three-month licensed fishery closed at the end of August, netsmen were already engaged in a further fight for survival, despite the fact that they have worked closely with DEFRA and EA ministers and officials over a long period. During this time, they have embraced a wide range of measures, including a marked reduction in permitted fishing time, to promote the long-term sustainability of the traditional inshore fishery on which they and their families are heavily reliant.

This small-scale fishery is widely viewed as one of the most regulated, well-documented and transparent fisheries in the UK. In addition to daily and weekly start and close times, netsmen are required to submit detailed daily catch returns, including putting individually numbered tags through the gills of every salmon and sea trout caught.

Martin Hopper has been a highly committed netsman for 36 years.

Martin Hopper has been a highly committed netsman for 36 years.

At a time when seasonal returns from the licensed fishery are following an upward year-on-year trend, netsmen are dismayed that they would appear to be being treated as an all-too-convenient scapegoat, and hung out to dry to appease anglers and riparian owners, who continue to implement a well-funded campaign to eliminate commercial salmon netting in its entirety, to further boost the number of fish available for rod anglers to catch on rivers.

Faced with what they view as heavily biased and unfair claims based on questionable data, feelings among netsmen are running understandably high.

Netsman Martin Hopper said: “When the overlying issues are stripped back, the bottom line is that leisure anglers want to eradicate any form of commercial salmon netting, and therefore deprive netsmen and their families of their livelihood. This is fundamentally wrong, particularly in view of the flawed data the authorities are using to justify bringing the drift-net fishery to a premature end.

“While every single fish caught by netsmen is recorded to give indisputable 100% factual catch data, the same cannot be said about the EA’s figures for salmon returning to rivers. Rather than direct assessment, as we provide daily, these are based on estimates from the declared rod catch, so are clearly unreliable.

“There are many questions to be asked regarding the validity of data sources, but this seems not to have been considered during the process. I have personally questioned the methods of data collection on many occasions. How reliable are rod catch returns at assessing the stocks? How experienced are these anglers? When/where are the fish counters positioned in rivers?

“Removing a traditional source of income from anyone is a huge step to take. Basing this decision on what can only be described as questionable evidence, is totally irresponsible, and highly disrespectful to committed and dedicated people who have devoted their lives to salmon netting.

“From recent correspondence received from the EA, it would appear that all evidence being considered for this case is only ever negative, rather than considering the true benefits of an effectively managed fishery.

“For more years than I care to remember, I have attended numerous stakeholder meetings with DEFRA and EA officials, in an attempt to engage in meaningful discussion to promote the long-term sustainability of salmon stocks and therefore licensed netting. As part of the NFFO team, I also went to Brussels to successfully negotiate on EU proposals to ban drift-netting across the whole of Europe.

“As time went on, it became increasingly obvious that while we were led to believe we were being listened to, this was, at best, polite lip-service, as we were not being heard, and that the hundreds of hours of personal time given up by netsmen was probably a futile waste of our time.

“Despite dedicating a lifetime to the industry, I am coming to realise the true facts of the matter. We are being led by a minister who is clearly driven to pacify the wishes of the angling lobby, rather than to support traditional fishermen.

“The latest NASCO data reveals that stocks are actually improving, contrary to the EA findings, which paint a very different picture. It appears that the EA is unable to provide an explanation for the positive trend in drift-net catches that has prevailed for the past decade.

“We are accessing a stock which has the opportunity to pass thousands of square miles of sea on its return journey to spawn, during which time we have no control over whatever happens to it, and how the fish adapt their lifecycles in response. At the end of the day, however, if these fish were not returning, we would not catch them.

“Netting is a passive method of fishing, as the fish come to the net rather than us chasing them. Even if we wanted to – which we don’t, as there is no need – using bigger nets, more powerful boats/engines, etc, are complete non-starters. Although frequently mentioned in relation to other fishing methods, so-called technological creep plays no part in the increasing catches we are seeing, which are simply due to more fish coming to the net. In any other form of fishing, this would surely be described as a good news story, rather than one that is turned on its head to beat netsmen with.

“Courage was built over 30 years ago, to enable me to fulfil a lifelong ambition of owning and skippering an inshore boat purpose-built to engage in well-balanced seasonal fisheries – longlining, netting and potting.

“The cod longlining option is long gone. Now netting, which generates around 65% of my business’ annual income, is on the line, even though, like all other netsmen, I am following the regulations to the letter. Longlining and gill-netting are the two most selective and sustainable fishing methods there are, so why can’t we continue to use these traditional methods that have sustained generations of inshore fishermen?

“Removing netting would have catastrophic effects for myself, my crew, my family and the future viability of my seasonal business, which I have sustained for over 35 years. I am proud to have supported my family and future generations through a lifetime of being an inshore fisherman. At least nobody can take that achievement away from me.

“Potting effort along the northeast coast is already at all-time high levels. Increasing this further, which would inevitably happen if netting is stopped, makes no sense at all, not least coming on the back of the berried lobster ban.

“In recent drift-net seasons, my catch returns have increased year on year, since a period recognised in the late 1990s when stocks were low. During this time, many colleagues in the industry made the decision to accept the financial offer for a buyout, which I declined, after considering a business plan that would see me continuing to practice traditional inshore fishing methods for the remainder of my working life – a decision which was mine to take.

“My seasonal returns have increased each year for the past 10 years, clearly supporting my predictions that stocks would return, as a result of continuing conservation measures deployed. My experience of the industry has enabled me to witness these changes, and recognise the noticeable shift in numbers of fish transiting our waters on migratory routes. By spending considerable time at sea, I have had an opportunity to witness this at first-hand.

“If the proposals are to be passed, then I will become one of the majority targeting demersal whitefish and shellfish, increasing the pressure on an already vulnerable stock. The job that I love will be taken from me, favouring the ambitions of riparian owners to have sole benefit of the nation’s salmon and sea trout stocks for themselves.

“With the introduction of Net Limitation Orders (NLOs) 20 years ago, the remit was to protect and provide a sustainable fishery for all, without prejudice for specific beneficiaries.

“The current proposal would see the NLOs failing in their primary obligations, as this would clearly impact on commercial fishermen’s livelihoods at the bottom of the ladder.

“The government should realise that we are all stakeholders of a national asset that is clearly sustainable. What more proof is needed than increased catches?

“Byelaw changes in 2012 have already marked an end to my livelihood in 2022. Surely this end date should be enough of a victory for netting opposition, rather than for them to continue to advance this closure, for no reason other than self-satisfaction and personal greed.”

NFFO salmon committee chairman Derek Heselton said: “The anglers/EA, on advice, are on shaky ground with regard to their classification of rivers and voluntary catch and release.

“The proposed byelaws will prevent netsmen from catching salmon and grilse for a living, yet on the rivers Coquet, Tyne and Wear, as well as the Esk at Whitby, anglers can keep any salmon and grilse caught – which, of course, a certain proportion will.

“If these so-called conservation measures are to work, then they have to be across the board, otherwise it is just preservation of salmon from one group of stakeholders to give to another.”

Effort at all-time low

That the level of salmon netting in the UK is at an all-time low is an indisputable fact.

The level of effort today is probably less than 1% of what it was less than two generations ago, as Fishing News readers with five or more decades in their wake, raised in areas where salmon played a key role in supporting local communities, will readily testify.

Tiers of stake nets were a traditional sight each summer on beaches, including Aberdeen. Bag-net fisheries were located in numerous locations on rocky foreshores along the east coast of Scotland. The Dee, Tay and Tweed are just three of the rivers on which wear-net stations were an intrinsic part of local life.

Seven stations, each crewed by seven men, fished for seven months of the year in less than the first mile of the river below the bridges. More than double that number of stations were located further upriver. Individual shots of 100 fish were fairly commonplace around the time of the main grilse season in late July. Catches of around 500 fish per station for four hours’ fishing were not considered exceptional, nor were daily totals for the river of several thousand fish.

In less than two decades, the vast majority of netting stations ceased to exist, mainly as a result of a buyout by the Atlantic Salmon Trust.

Although fish stocks generally respond positively to effort reduction, often more quickly and strongly than anticipated (eg, North Sea whitefish stocks in the past 10 years), this has not been the case for salmon, even though 99% of coastal effort has been removed.

That salmon stocks in some rivers are classified as ‘probably at risk’ by the Environment Agency would suggest that other factors apart from localised netting are in play. From leaving rivers as young smolts, salmon swim many thousands of miles in the North Atlantic, during which time they are exposed to various threats, the true extent of which is not fully known.

Probably in response to ever-changing sea conditions, the number of single-wintered grilse returning has dropped, as a result of these fish staying at sea longer and returning as salmon, as evidenced by higher catches of salmon in recent seasons, and lower numbers of grilse.

Water quality in rivers is another crucial factor. In addition to long-term measures to improve water quality, some river authorities have created fish passes and enhanced redds (spawning grounds) to make conditions as favourable as possible for salmon.

Fifty years ago, spawning salmon appeared not to need such measures, as nature looked after its own. Given the vast reduction in catching effort, if all other factors had remained unchanged, record-high numbers of salmon spawning in rivers today could be expected.

In what is clearly a complex issue, this is not the case, for reasons that are yet to be determined. Until they are, eliminating one of the smallest commercial fisheries in the UK will be of negligible benefit.

Summary history of licensed salmon net fishing

The northeast coast net fishery comprises the tidal waters from close to Berwick-on-Tweed to Spurn Point, and extends from the high-water mark seaward for six nautical miles. The drift-net fishery is split into two areas, described as Northumbria and Yorkshire.

T nets, consisting of a leader of up to 230m in length and a double court headpiece, and the simpler J net, incorporating a leader of up to 370m, are also fished by separate licensees.

In 1991, a ministerial review of salmon net fishing in northeast England and eastern Scotland was undertaken (the Salmon Net Fisheries Review). The review concluded that, “The net fisheries (in northeast England) exploit several salmon and sea trout stocks and account for a substantial proportion of the catch from a number of different river systems. The dependence of the drift-net fishery on a multiplicity of stocks makes the task of conservation and management more difficult.”

The review recognised the risk to the management and conservation of stocks breeding in each of the rivers that was posed by the fishery, but concluded, “This review has not produced evidence of an immediate threat to stocks and thus any justification for depriving existing licensees of their licences at a stroke. It would, however, aid and improve the management of individual east coast salmon and sea trout stocks if the drift-net fishery were to come to an end. We consider, therefore, that it is desirable to phase out the drift-net fishery, but gradually, so as not to cause unnecessary hardship.”

Following the 1991 review, the National Rivers Authority replaced the existing Net Limitation Orders (NLOs) with a single NLO for a period of 10 years. This NLO restricted the issue of drift-net licences to applicants who had held a licence in the previous year and could demonstrate dependency for their livelihood on fishing. This began the ongoing phase-out of the drift-net fishery as licensees left the fishery voluntarily on retirement.

In 1999, national byelaws to protect declining stocks of early-running spring salmon were introduced. This had the immediate effect of preventing salmon being captured in the fishery before 1 June. As a direct consequence, the drift-net fishery was shortened by two months, to begin on 1 June.

The Review of Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries in 2000 recorded, under the heading ‘Mixed Stock Fisheries’, that conflicting evidence had been presented regarding the northeast net fishery. It had been argued that the phase-out of drift nets under the 1992 NLO was unjustified, but the counter-argument that the fishery should be subject to immediate closure was also put forward. The review stated, “We did not consider that a case had been made for either of these extreme options. We conclude, however, that it would be desirable to accelerate the phase-out (of the drift-net fishery), and we recommend compensation be offered to netsmen to encourage them to leave the fishery on a voluntary basis as soon as possible.”

The review further concluded that ‘accelerating the phase-out of the fishery would have substantial economic benefits for rod fisheries, and that those who benefited, in particular riparian owners and anglers in both England and Scotland, should contribute a major share of the cost’.

The 1992 order was reviewed in 2002, when it was concluded in principle that the drift-net fishery, as a predominantly mixed-stock fishery, should be phased out.

In 2003, following the 2002 review confirming the NLO on the drift nets, and the Review of Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries report in 2000, compensation arrangements were agreed with netsmen. A voluntary buy-out of drift-net licences, jointly funded by DEFRA and the North Atlantic Salmon Fund UK, was implemented. As a result, the number of drift-net licences dropped from 67 in 2002 to 17 in 2003, at the same time as the number of days fished by drift-netters fell from 3,367 in 2002 to 774 in 2003.

In 2007, a mid-term review of the 2002 NLO was undertaken, which concluded that current restrictions under the 2002 NLO would enable salmon and sea trout stocks in the northeast rivers to continue to increase, and that therefore no further regulation was necessary.

Under the terms of the NLO, drift netsmen surrender their licences when they retire. Based on current rates of retirement, fishing activity will cease within the next 20 years, thereby allowing individuals and communities time to adapt to the social and economic impacts of reducing the fishery.

Working closely with the Environment Agency, netsmen have facilitated a new generation of genetic evidence based on carefully collected scale sampling, to consistently demonstrate that the stocks which the NE fishermen catch are stable, improving, and above their conservation targets in nearly all English and Scottish rivers, and that there is also an identifiable harvest surplus that justifies the continuation of the NE net fishery.

Every netsman submits detailed catch returns, including putting uniquely numbered tags through the gills of every salmon and sea trout caught, to indicate that it was taken from a licensed boat.

The opportunity to gain further first-hand experience of the northeast drift-net fishery has underlined the fact that it is clearly one of the most regulated, well-documented and transparent fisheries in the UK.

Therefore, the unexpected move government ministers made in 2013, to bring over 150 years of tradition to an end by making the unprecedented announcement of an end date for the drift-net fishery, was widely condemned by netsmen.

The introduction of an end date, in place of the previous reliance on managing the drift-net fishery by reducing net limitation orders meant that, whereas the door had previously been slowly closing, it was now being slammed shut.

At the time of the shock announcement, Derek Heselton, NFFO salmon committee chairman, said: “The explanation for this closure does not lie with the science or conservation concerns. Rather, it lies solely with the powerful salmon angling lobby, which reflects the opinions of some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country, who have decided that there is no place for a small-scale, well-managed net fishery.

“It is not that netsmen catch too many salmon that is the issue; it is that we have the effrontery to catch any salmon at all that is the root problem here.

“There is no overwhelming or urgent conservation case that would justify this closure. The explanation lies entirely in the fact that one group of vested interests has put sufficient pressure in the right places at the right time to secure a closure.”