SAVE THE SPRING – River Dee
A strategic partnership to restore spring salmon on the River Dee
On the famous River Dee in Aberdeenshire, the Atlantic Salmon Trust is working in partnership with the River Dee Trust and Dee District Salmon Fishery Board, to launch the Save the Spring initiative, a 20-year programme of work to restore and futureproof the upper River Dee catchment – heartland of its spring salmon.
Climate-linked changes are leading to major pressures on wild Atlantic salmon populations.
60% of monitoring sites in the upper Dee in 2023 exceeded temperatures that cause thermal stress to salmon, and years of damaging winter floods have significantly affected riverbed stability, impacting salmon spawning areas and invertebrate populations, as well as other species such as freshwater pearl mussels. A reduction in snowpack in the Cairngorms and frequent drought conditions in the spring months are now also affecting juvenile salmon health and migration success.
In the upper parts of the catchment, some of the river’s spring-run Atlantic salmon subpopulations are now at risk of extinction. As an alarming example, the Girnock Burn, which is dominated by spring-run multi-sea winter Atlantic salmon, has recorded the decline in female fish returning to spawn, from as many as 150 females in the 1960s, to just 2 individuals in autumn 2023.
A Two-Part Restoration Strategy
The programme takes a two-pronged strategy to restoring the Dee’s spring run wild Atlantic salmon: firstly a focus on landscape-scale habitat restoration of the upper catchment, and secondly, closely monitored wild fish repopulation at a local scale to immediately boost salmon populations.
Element 1 – Restoring Natural Processes
The first part of this strategy is about restoring natural processes in the river and surrounding landscape, working to reduce temperatures, controlling the flow of water off the land, reducing the impact of flooding events, and maintaining better flows through the spring and summer months. It also means giving salmon shelter, protection from predation, diverse in-stream habitat and plenty of invertebrate food. The focus for this element of the strategy is on riverside woodland restoration, peatland and wetland restoration, as well as re-naturalising the river channel.
The Save the Spring partnership recognises however that habitat restoration, while essential, will not restore the Dee’s spring salmon on its own – nature needs a helping hand.
Element 2 – Wild Fish Repopulation
The second part of the strategic approach is about giving nature a helping hand and the focus is on maximising the number of wild adult salmon spawning in the river. This approach focuses on wild hatched salmon which survive best over the course of their life, survive better at sea, and produce more eggs than hatchery-raised fish.
The methods being proposed to achieve this are:
- Kelt (post-spawn wild adult salmon) reconditioning where wild fish are caught from the river after spawning naturally, transferred to facilities at the University of Stirling, grown back to breeding condition again, and then released back into the river to spawn naturally a second time round at the same location in a following spawning season.
- Smolt to Adult Supplementation, where wild smolts or pre-smolts (juvenile salmon on their way out to sea) are captured from the river before their spring migration to sea, grown to adulthood and reproductive maturity in captivity in facilities at the University of Stirling, and then released back into the river as adults to spawn.
Both of these approaches to wild fish repopulation place an emphasis on maximising wild spawning behaviour and wild hatched juvenile salmon, care and attention to preserving the Dee’s genetics portfolio within its salmon subpopulations to enable them to adapt to future environmental change, and minimising the negative impacts of domestication associated with traditional hatchery practices.
The partnership is presently working with the University of Stirling, Scottish Government, its agencies, and others to develop and refine the wild fish repopulation methods, ensuring that detailed genetic monitoring will enable success to be recorded.
The Story so Far
In January 2024 the project partners led a series of stakeholder engagement sessions to discuss the project concept, both in person on Deeside and online, which were attended by over 200 people, ensuring that all voices are heard and can contribute to the development of the initiative in its formative stages. These presentations were subsequently recorded and are now available on our YouTube channel as a learning resource.
Next Steps & How You Can Help
Following our stakeholder engagement sessions and incorporating points which were raised during that process, our team is now busy developing the first 5-year stage of the project and preparing for the first round of kelt and smolt collection in 2024. The project partners will report on the progress of these activities when able.
Fundraising – We need your support
You can support the Save the Spring initiative as an individual or an organisation. Every pound raised helps move the project towards its fundraising goal. Please contact our Corporate Ambassador, Mark Cockburn, to get in touch – email@example.com
Volunteering – Boots on the ground
If you would like to register your interest as a project volunteer, either for the habitat restoration or fish capture elements of the programme, please contact the River Dee team at firstname.lastname@example.org
Spread the word – Your voice matters
In order to maximise the potential of the Save the Spring initiative, we need you to help spread the word! Follow and share our #SaveTheSpring social media posts to help the project reach an even wider audience.
FAQs COMING SOON…
We gathered lots of important questions through our stakeholder engagement sessions. Stay tuned as we’ll be publishing them in detail here with our responses.