On October 7, 1922, just over a century ago, Scottish nurse Georgina Ballantine was fishing on the Tay with her father, staying out there until almost dusk on the last day of summertime. They were harling, sweeping the river in a slow-moving boat and two weighted rod-lines, when her father, who was handling the boat, noticed a movement, and a screech of the reel brought her rod to an upright position. The salmon they had hooked, they realised, was a giant and would have them battling over two hours to haul him in under the light of the moon.
When the pair finally returned home Ballantine’s mother said they were so late she had thought them “baith in the watter”. Her enormous fish turned out to be a record-breaking 64lbs and beat any other rod-caught salmon in the UK – and would be displayed for visiting crowds as a “monster” fish in a fishing tackle shop in Perth.
But the sad truth is that Georgina Ballantine’s record has, this full century later, still not been beaten – and many believe it never will be, since North Atlantic salmon in Scotland, and across much of the rest of its, are not only free-falling in numbers, but also getting smaller in size. These days a big fish is around half the size of her giant; a 30lber is almost headline news
Georgina Ballantine with the biggest salmon ever caught by rod and line in British waters, via SWNS
There has been much talk in recent years about what have come to be called our “missing” fish – graphs of the startling fall in numbers of salmon being caught on the vast majority of our rivers – but less often is it mentioned that the fish are getting smaller too.
Robert White is a ghillie who has been working several beats of the Tay for over twenty years and has seen the decline in the river that once yielded Ballantine’s record-setter. Whilst he has not in his time seen a fish of Ballantine magnitude on the Tay, he believes he saw some like it when as a 19-year-old he was fishing in the Dochart in full spate.
“To this day," he says, "I have never seen fish like it. They were like submarines. They were monstrous fish. And not just one but there were dozens of them running up the river. I thought to myself if I hook any of these fish, I’m going to be towed back to Perth. They were that kind of size.”
White, who over his career, has succeeded in catching two significant big fish, both over 30lbs, notes, “When, forty years ago, I first started fishing there was always a 40-odd pounder caught on the Tay. Not a fifty pounder, but a forty pounder and that has gently receded over the years. Those monstrous fish are not surviving the time that they would spend in the sea.”
Like most people I talk to, White believes that Ballantine’s fish was what they call a “four-winter” fish, and would have spent four years feeding and growing out at sea, before returning to spawn. “I would think very few of these fish exist now,” he says.
This year, he says, the weather has impacted his beats. July and August, often the best time for salmon-fishing, were times of heat and drought, in which, he says, “the river was on its bones”.
Robert White, ghillie on the Tay with big 35 lbs salmon
But, of course, it is not just the Tay that is seeing decline. It is the Tweed, the Spey, the Dee. It’s many west coast rivers and those on Skye. It is also a decline that exists across the North Atlantic salmon species in most of its global habitats. A 2019 report by NASCO described how between 1983 and 2016, a period of just 33 years, numbers of wild Atlantic salmon fell by more than half. The report's introduction was by King Charles III, who described salmon as “an aquatic canary for wider environmental change”.
Mark Bilsby, CEO of the Atlantic Salmon Trust, echoes Charles’s description of the salmon as the canary in the coalmine – an emergency detector telling us something about the two different worlds the salmon life cycle moves through, our rivers and our seas. “What salmon are telling us something is not quite right with our rivers. We’re not looking after them that well. And there’s something wrong with our oceans."
Bilsby sees salmon as an “indicator species”. It’s also a species we humans notice. Anglers note when the big ones are not there. The UK angling world tells some of this story of global decline, through its records and trophies. The Malloch Challenge Trophy, which has been awarded since 1972 for the captor of the largest salmon in Scotland on the fly, generally goes these days to fish of around half the Ballantine salmon size, though Shamus Jennings in 2013 bucked the trend when he won the trophy with a 50 lb salmon from the Tweed, the largest caught since 1928.
There is no one reason for the decline of the salmon – suggested factors include river pollution issues, from sewage to agricultural run-off, blockage by weirs and dams, predation, disease, climate change, over-exploitation and the impact of salmon farming.The Missing Salmon Alliance have developed a “likely suspects framework" through which they are researching the possible factors.
These can be divided into two threads, Bilsby says. “One is that they’re all man-made. If we want to be catching Miss Ballantine’s fish in 100 years time, it’s our problem to solve. The second is climate change, amplifying all of these impacts – causing floods and droughts with greater regularity. The good thing is that because these are all man-made problems, we can make a difference."
There is, he maintains, hope. “I live in Aberdeenshire and I’ve seen one where they’ve remeandered a river within a few weeks of remeandering a tributary they had sea trout and salmon spawning there for the first time in over 100 years.”
Atlantic Salmon Trust team and their partners at work: credit Byron Pace/Atlantic Salmon Trust
Reasons for hope
That river is not the only one that has seen change. Salmon were once eliminated from the upper Clyde system, but in recent years, following the decline of heavy industry and the introduction of environmental legislation, they have returned. And, in the north of Scotland, a stocking project, run by Bob Kindness, has brought salmon in relative abundance back to the River Carron. Kindness began restocking at a time when the species had almost disappeared completely and only five salmon were rod-caught in one year. “The fish had almost disappeared completely,” he says.
That dramatic collapse, Kindness believes, resulted when gravel was shifted by some big winter spates and eggs were washed out. What is striking is that the Carron is one of the few rivers in which salmon size has increased. “Traditionally,” Kindness says, “a fish of 15lbs would have been regarded as a big fish. Now regularly we get fish around the 20 lb mark. Eight years ago I caught one myself that must have been 32 lbs. Hell of a big fish. That was unheard of and I’m sure that’s as a result of the stocking programme.”
Stocking, however, is controversial. Some experts say that ill-conceived stocking can do more harm to wild populations than good, though many admit that there are occasions when it can work. The phenomenal success of Kindness’s fish can be seen as demonstration of that.
Bob Kindness and King Charles III (then Prince Charles)
A fish, shrinking and evolving
However, most experts will tell you that the real problem is what's happening at sea. Research is only just beginning into the decline in the size of salmon in Scotland, but, in Finland, one evolutionary biologist, Dr Craig Primmer, based at the University of Helsinki has made it his project to research declining salmon-size and evolution – and his work provides an insight into their life at sea.
Amongst other things, Primmer has published a study which links the shrinking size and longevity of salmon in Finland's Teno river to the ocean harvesting of their favourite prey-fish, capelin. The link also suggests an in indirect impact of salmon farming, since historically capelin had been used as a feed source for aquaculture, though it is no longer exploited for this purpose.
Primmer is a great fan of the Ballantine story, and regularly uses images of her with her fish in presentations on declining fish size. What is particularly interesting is the way he explains the smaller size, caused by less time feeding at sea, as part of an evolutionary response to climate change.
“The way evolution works is that it often can be beneficial if you are growing fast and developing quickly and reproduce earlier in life so that you get the chance to reproduce. Because salmon are cold-blooded their growth rate is determined partly by the water temperature. When the water temperature is warmer they grow faster and that can sometimes give the signal to mature earlier and stop growing, then they return to spawn at a smaller size.”
The smaller size of the fish, Primmer's research reveals, is telling us something about what's happening at sea. It's telling us that survival in the ocean, year after year, must be getting tougher and riskier. Primmer says, "That’s always been the case, but I guess the conditions in the ocean are deteriorating, and, it seems from an evolutionary perspective, it doesn’t pay to spend many years at sea because the chance of dying is increasing.”
His research also shows us that salmon in Finland’s Teno river are adapting. The number of bigger, late-maturing fish has been decreasing, and that this can be seen at DNA level. So, perhaps size reduction doesn’t matter? Or perhaps it wouldn’t matter if the numbers were not indeed dropping, as they are in the Teno river, as well as our own waterways? Primmer agrees but notes that there remains one other worry - and that is that we are also seeing a decline in "diversity of life-history strategies", the combinations of how long different fish spend in the sea or the river. That diversity, he notes, is "important for the long-term resilience of populations to allow them to respond to changing conditions.”
The evolutionary biologist also expresses another reason for concern - and it's one which brings us back to Ballantine's trophy fish and us humans. "For a lot of rivers," he says, "which are often in rather remote regions where fishing is an important part of the economy, it’s often the large fish that people are particularly attracted to and that’s what draws them to these rivers to try and catch a big 40-50lb individual.”
The rural economy is still part of the story. But, as the world has become alert to biodiversity, it isn't all of it. This is no longer about another Miss Ballantine catching a 64lber – it's about ecosystems that thrive. It’s about changing how we see this species. As Mark Bilsby puts it, “We need to think not of salmon as in numbers or size, but a wider reflection of the ecosystem, the environment that they are swimming, living and feeding in.”
If we don’t, the risk is not just that we never see a salmon the size of Ballantine’s again – but that we don’t see them in our rivers at all.