Falling stocks of Wild Atlantic Salmon and the Ancient Cultural tradition of ‘Haag netting’.

Sometimes our concerns about the natural world are genuinely complex…

What is good for one species or habitat may be bad for another and as we struggle with complexity, it inevitably means there are going to be unintended consequences.

Concern about the falling stocks of wild Atlantic salmon is justified and an issue that seriously needs addressing however, the legislation and regulations introduced to protect these fish are destroying the 1000 year old skill of ‘Haaf netting’.

What is Haaf netting?

Haaf net fishing is an ancient type of salmon and sea trout net fishing practised in Britain, and is particularly associated with the estuary forming part of the border between England and Scotland, known as the Solway Firth.

Solway Firth is the United Kingdom’s third-largest estuary, and it is lined by beaches, coastal dunes, and salt marshes, a few of which are special conservation areas. The lands around the firth are mostly rural and agricultural. Along with its natural beauty, the region is rich with history—including the western end of Hadrian’s Wall, which terminates on the firth’s southern shore.

The technique involves fishermen standing chest-deep in the sea and using large submerged framed nets to scoop up fish that swim towards them. It is a form of fishing that is believed to have been brought to Britain by the Vikings more than a thousand years ago and to have been practised in the Solway Firth since then.

The number of haaf net fishermen has dwindled over the last 50 years and the activity has been restricted by salmon conservation  measures. The haaf net fishing community have campaigned for exemptions from these restrictions and for protection as an ancient cultural activity.

Salmon conservation- The survival of wild salmon relies heavily on them having suitable habitat for spawning and rearing of their young. This habitat is the main concern for conservationists everywhere. Salmon habitat can be degraded by many different factors including land development, timber harvest, or resource extraction. These threats bring about the traditional methods of protecting the salmon, but a new movement aims to protect the habitats before they require intervention.

Haaf net fishing is now unique to the Solway Firth, where it has been practised for over a thousand years.

In the 1970s, there were over a 100 haaf net fishermen based in towns such as Annan or Gretna making a good living. From the 1980s, the economics of fishing with haaf nets meant that numbers have significantly reduced with only 30 individuals currently practising the technique.

On the Scottish side of the Firth, since 2016, the Scottish Government have introduced salmon conservation measures resulting in haaf net fishermen being required to release alive any salmon they catch. 

The English side of the Firth is regulated by the Environment Agency  which, after a consultation process, introduced similar restrictions in 2018.

As a consequence, the Solway’s haaf net community believe the survival of their traditions is threatened and is seeking exemptions from these requirements and official recognition that haaf netting should be protected as a culturally important and historic activity. In response, Marine Scotland, the Scottish Government agency responsible for fish conservation, has said that the issue is that the salmon stocks of the Firth of Solway feed into rivers with differing levels of salmon sustainability and some of the rivers have low levels. Because the Firth is therefore classified as a “mixed stock fishery”, they cannot permit retention of any salmon caught.

Recent news story covering the topic.

To protect atlantic salmon, Scotland’s rivers are categorized according to whether they are regenerating a target percentage of their salmon.

(Conservation and ecological legislation are devolved issues. The laws and regulations are often different between Scotland and the rest of the UK. All references here are to Scottish legislation.)

There are only 21 category one rivers and a growing number of category three rivers. A category three river is meeting less than 60% of its target; the advice for such rivers is: ‘mandatory catch and release (all methods)’. This means that although you may catch fish in such a river, you must immediately release them.

River categories as stated on Scottish Government website: https://www2.gov.scot/Topics/marine/Salmon-Trout-Coarse/fishreform/licence/status

Although this policy doesnt seem to be deterring fly fishing, it is reducing the number of people engaging in Haaf netting.

My opinion:

Personally I think although Haaf netting is a 100 year old tradition, no tradition should replace animal conservation, the animals welfare should always be put first. This doesn’t mean that the tradition has to end, it could be passed down by teaching the younger generation through other means, without destroying the habitat that the salmon rely on and indeed jeopardizing the wild atlantic salmon population.

What do you think?

Let me know by commenting below.

All information is from:


Countryfile magazine: Sara Maitland opinion article.

Scottish Government Website.


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