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Friday, December 2, 2011

The salmon that can't jump! Desperate rescue effort to save fish as low water levels prevent them from swimming upstream to breed

By Rebecca Seales

Final hurdle: Using the sandbag as an aid, a male fish makes its way to safety up the emergency run

They had already travelled 2,000 miles across the North Atlantic and were only days away from their winter spawning grounds.

But instead of leaping their way upstream, low river levels have left around 200 salmon stranded at the bottom of a steep weir for more than three weeks.

If they don’t manage to jump over it, the next generation will be in jeopardy – and there are another 800 fish battling their way up the river behind them.

To avoid disaster, Environment Agency staff have stepped in to build emergency slopes or ‘fish runs’ out of sandbags to help them clear the weir.

Crowds have gathered to watch the exhausted fish attempt to conquer the River Teme at Ludlow, Shropshire, cheering every time one makes it up the narrow channels.

The temporary corridors – which are the first ever built for salmon – were created by knocking the top off a section of the weir with a pneumatic chisel.

Workmen then built ramps to allow the fish to move to the higher water more easily.

Salmon are very sensitive to disturbance and could not be rescued with nets, as the stress would have killed them.

Under construction: Chris Bainger builds up the fish-run with sandbags

The agency team have to work round the clock moving the sandbags to help get the flow of water just right. They are also providing a 24-hour guard to prevent poachers descending on the river.

The fish are the first of this year’s Atlantic salmon to make their way up the Teme. Four or five years old, they have come all the way from Greenland via the River Severn.

But their spawning grounds, where they can lay their eggs safe from predators, are another 30 miles north of the weir.

If the water levels fall any further they may need to be moved by hand, which is risky as the females are ‘gravid’, carrying around 10,000 eggs which can be lost if they are picked up.

Floundering: A salmon fails to makes its way up the weir

Environment Agency fisheries specialist Chris Bainger, 43, said: ‘The water is now at summer levels making the distance too high for the salmon to leap.

‘There isn’t enough water flowing over them either – it’s like trying to swim through air for the fish. They are trying to get upstream to the nursery areas. That’s where they’ll spawn and lay their eggs in the clean gravel where they’ll be safe from being eaten.

‘The river bed here, where they are trapped, is not right for them – if they spawn here, which a few are, the eggs will simply be washed away or eaten.

‘What we’re doing is helping, but what we really want is rain – another three inches is what the salmon need.

‘Normally the water is a metre higher at this time of year.’

One onlooker said: ‘I’ve been watching them trying to jump up for the last three weeks. They’re getting really tired now and aren’t leaping as high.

‘I’ve been coming here to watch the salmon for 30 years and have never seen the water this low.

‘It’s great to see this beginning to work – I saw about 20 fish make it up last night.’

Weather forecasters warned this week that the drought is likely to continue into next year if there is low rainfall this winter after one of the warmest Novembers for years.

Arid conditions have blighted central and eastern England since June following the lowest rainfall since records began 100 years ago.



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