Generations of North Sea salmon fishing will come to an end after the Conservatives bowed to pressure from wealthy land owners.
Fishermen who have for decades fished with nets as salmon head for the Tyne and Tweed have been told they will not be able to pass on the tradition after the Tories caved in to calls from vested interests who want exclusive salmon fishing rights in North East rivers. The licences were brought to an end by Environment Secretary Owen Paterson.
Land owners have for years complained that allowing net fishing at sea reduces the number of valuable salmon swimming up river, even as salmon stocks continue to rise.
There are only 13 licences for salmon net fishing on the east coast, with many passed down through generations.
Dennis Clark, from North Shields, is among a few dozen fishermen whose families have fished off the coast “for at least seven generations”.
Mr Clark, who uses a coble called Silver Coquet, said: “This battle has been going on for 40-odd years. There has always been friction between the landed gentry who own the rights to fish salmon in the rivers, and the fishermen who catch salmon at sea.
“The river rights are very valuable rights, they change hands for hundreds of thousands or even millions of pounds. They consider them their salmon.”
Mr Clark, the regional organiser for the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisation, added: “And whenever we have a Conservative fisheries minister we come under more pressure. The people who own the river rights are very influential people, certainly a lot of them are in the House of Lords.
“Licences that have expired are not being made available, so within a few more years there won’t be any of these licences.”
By 2022 licences which would have been passed on to younger fishermen will have expired. “We have young men who won’t be able to finish their careers in salmon fishing because of these changes,” Mr Clark said.
His cause has been raised in Parliament, with Tynemouth MP Alan Campbell now accusing the Tories of backing the powerful over the fishing families.
The Labour MP said: “In many cases, these licences have been handed down from generation to generation and have been an important part of fishermen’s incomes, yet over the years there has been a concerted effort to get rid of them, particularly under the Conservatives.
“The pressure has come from landowners in Northumberland and south-east Scotland who know they can make a great deal of money from fishing rights along the banks of their rivers, and concerted pressure has been placed on ministers.
“Up until recently, the line was held, but the decision was made earlier this year – I am sorry to say – to phase out the licenses.”
In a challenge to the Conservative ministers responsible for the changes, Mr Campbell said: “Of course we want anglers to have access to good stocks, but there has always been concerted pressure, not from the anglers themselves who take their rods to the rivers, but from those who see this as an opportunity.
“It might be an opportunity for landowners to make some money, but it is also an opportunity for fishermen in some cases to survive on the back of these licences. This fishery is not an extra, but an important part of what they do.”
Mr Campbell was backed by Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith, who said the changes risked “driving out of business a few fishermen in small boats who exercise responsibly traditional and historical licences.”
Richard Benyon, the Tory MP who helped alter the rules while he was Fisheries Minister, a job he lost in a reshuffle two months ago, said the changes were made to comply with wider fishing rules.
“Although I did get pressure from angling interests, they were as nothing compared to the concerns I had about the impression we were giving at the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation,” he said.