Held by the River

by Katy Ewing

1st December 2017

Tim holds her strongly safe, her struggling surely an instinctual response to being out of her element. She’s already been calmed by hanging for a short time in a soft mesh net, to adjust to being out of the water. He lays her on the prepared towel and pats her down; any water now could ruin the whole process. He holds her over the plastic bowl, also carefully dried, her head in darkness under his arm, and emulating the contact made by the cock salmon in the dance they’d normally engage in, begins the stroking movement down her underside that will let the eggs come. They begin to flow out suddenly in a thick stream and pool in the bowl like small wet shiny coral beads or berries, stunningly bright in colour. The process halts a few times and needs begun again, her body reacting to the strange circumstances.

I’m out of my element here too (though obviously not as thoroughly as the salmon); the bone-chilling cold, the wet, the dark of the metal hatchery building – outdoors I’d more readily be found under cover of woodlands than near water. But I married a waterman, child of biologists, whose broad biological knowledge and academic and professional expertise, as well as enjoyment, interest, love, especially focuses on the life of the waterways. Through our twenty seven years together I’ve grown to be so much more open-minded to the myriad forms of life around us, despite my learned/inbuilt squeamishness around the grubs and slugs and wormy things. And we’ve raised daughters not afraid to engage with even these less ‘cute’ beings. In so many ways he’s shown me how to see that which was invisible, through noticing and by knowing what to look for, to see beauty and wonder in life in all its forms.

It’s the first time I’ve seen Tim strip the salmon, of the many, many times he has. I’m struck by the intimacy of the process: the mother, like all of us, at the mercy of her body, her hormones, the conditions of the world around her, and on this Heavily Modified Water Body, needing human help to complete her life’s work. At some point my eyes meet hers and like any such encounter with a captive wild animal, I feel her look as blameful, fear and anger at her impotence. But maybe that’s just me. Soon the hen salmon’s back in the tank, recovering. Next another female goes through the same process and then each cock salmon is netted out of his tank, calmed and dried and similarly held and stroked until he squirts milt over the eggs, startlingly white against their jewelled mass.

Traditionally a dry goose feather was used to stir the sperm amongst the eggs, but Tim uses his hand, making sure the mixing is thorough. Next, fresh burn water is added and mixed in and at this point the sperm and eggs are activated and there is a window of less than two minutes in which fertilisation can take place. After this time, the eggs are well rinsed of all the excess milt (which can otherwise lead them to clump together, risking fungal infection) before being laid out in the hatchery trays and covered over to be in the dark, with a small flow of water running through. Tim will return every day or so to check the eggs and pick out any that weren’t fertilised and are dead, but at this ‘green’ stage, while cell division and then differentiation are taking place the fertilised eggs are particularly vulnerable to damage and should be left alone to develop as much as is possible.

The river we live near, that we’ve lived near for the last twenty-two years is a unique creature. The Kirkcudbrightshire Dee in South West Scotland (as opposed to the Aberdeenshire Dee in the North East, commonly known simply as ‘the river Dee’), is called ‘Deva (the Goddess) on Ptolemy’s map,’ and was the main route in these parts in the days before sound roads, the boundary between tribal lands when the Romans were here 2000 years ago, and before the bridges built in the late eighteenth century, was renowned as dangerous and difficult to cross.

In an ideal world, our Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar) would have found their way upstream from the sea where they’ve spent between the last year (grilse) and probably two or three years (multi-sea-winter salmon) in their silver-skinned salt water form, feeding on crustaceans and oily fish, perhaps ‘as far afield as Greenland and the Norwegian Sea,’ doubling in weight each year, preparing for their epic journeys back up the river, transformed for fresh water and in breeding colours, to eventually reach the spawning ground where they began. But the Kirkcudbrightshire Dee has extra challenges for migratory species, and these hatchery fish were all rescued from the Tongland fish ladder which lies only ‘1.7 km upstream of the tidal limit’ , where late season fish often struggle to ascend in falling water temperatures – unable to progress upstream and complete their life cycle, and vulnerable to illness and predation.

In 1936, after many years of planning, negotiation, and the eventual passing of a bill through parliament, the Galloway Hydroelectric Scheme, ‘the first large-scale integrated hydro-electric complex to be built in Britain for the purpose of public electricity supply,’ was finally completed on the Kirkcudbrightshire Dee, the ‘second largest river catchment in South West Scotland,’ effecting ‘the complete absorption of the whole river from its outermost tributaries to the tidal water.’ If this scheme was proposed today instead of in the 1920s, it would not be approved in this form. If a river has ‘important areas of good fish habitat’ upstream of a proposed scheme, or does not already have a man-made or natural ‘barrier to the upstream movement of fish species’ immediately above or downstream of it and if risks to fish passage cannot be ‘avoided through appropriate mitigation’, then a proposed Hydro scheme will not receive even provisional acceptance.

In the 1920s however, the need for electricity in industry was seen as a national security issue when after the First World War, the British Government became aware that the country’s industries were very reliant on individual aging power stations. This, plus a Labour government which favoured state intervention in industry and the recent development of the national grid allowing transmission of power from relatively remote locations to consumers elsewhere all combined to make the planned Galloway Scheme not only technologically possible, but financially viable too. The national grid as a government project also needed power sources such as this one in order to produce ‘peak-load capacity’ since the existing thermal stations could only produce ‘base-load capacity’ , and both are necessary to meet demand. The river then, was radically altered; from that time on, the many dams, barrages and hydrological alterations throughout the system changed everything for creatures living within it.

The salmon was in some ways lucky – the humans who had influence over the implementation of the scheme had an interest in protecting the life and movement of these valuable and revered fish: the ‘salmon run’. When the Galloway Hydro-electric scheme was first approved by the UK parliament in 1929, one of the bodies which had had to be appeased was the Kirkcudbrightshire Dee District Salmon Fishery Board (KDDSFB), made up of riparian owners and others whose fisheries stood to be impacted by the building of a series of dams throughout the river system. In order to minimise the detrimental impact to the river’s population of Atlantic Salmon, a series of fish ladders and passes was added to the initial plans, along with altered flow regimes to enable the triggering of the salmon’s instinctive migration behaviour. As it turned out, the hydro-scheme did still cause large difficulties to the migratory salmon and other species, but for the time-being, the humans with fishing rights were generally placated.

By contrast, the European Eel (Anguilla anguilla), another migratory species, had no-one to fight its corner. The eel was numerous on the Dee in past times – in the 1791 Statistical Account for our parish, Crossmichael, the Reverend Mr John Johnstone writes that ‘the eels are never interrupted in their possession of the waters as the country people have an insuperable prejudice against feeding on an animal which so strongly resembles the serpent’, but that in ‘the dark ages when the art of cookery was but little understood, there was, in this parish, a fishery of eels, which were exported to Italy’.

In recent years, the European Eel has suffered from a generally diminishing population (as has the Atlantic Salmon ) and is now categorised as Critically Endangered in the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List due to a sharp decline in the population of more than 90% since the 1970s. Efforts are being made internationally to attempt to respond to this important ecological issue in the form of Eel Management Plans, and on the Dee, an Eel Restoration Project.

Unlike the salmon, which is anadromous (migrating to fresh water to breed, growing to adult form in salt water), the eel is catadromous (migrates to salt water to breed after reaching adulthood in fresh water). The European Eel is also not bound to return to particular rivers in the way that salmon are, but has a quite complex and specific life-cycle, still only partially understood and observed, apparently spawning 5000 km from Scotland in the Sargasso Sea, ‘metamorphos[ing] into transparent blade shaped larvae “leptocephali”, which passively drift to Europe’ on ocean currents, undergoing further transformations before developing pigmentation and becoming ‘elvers’, ready to migrate upstream from the salt water of the sea into the fresh water of rivers and streams. At this life stage, the Kirkcudbrightshire Dee’s hydro-scheme poses an almost insurmountable problem for the eels and though many have been seen trying, very few make it upstream past the first dam at Tongland, to the detriment of the river’s ecosystem.

Retrofitting technical solutions for the eel (or the salmon) onto 1930s technology would be prohibitively expensive, even if possible, so those that work for the river do their best with what they have.

The dam system is not the only factor impacting salmon numbers on the Dee. Acidification and other problems due to extensive intensive coniferous forestry plantation implemented in the twentieth century (particularly since the 1950s), nutrification due to agricultural practices, as well as, as noted above, salmon numbers declining everywhere for reasons unknown, all play their part. These other factors are also being addressed as far as is possible, however, salmon numbers had dropped so low on the Kirkcudbrightshire Dee by the end of the twentieth century that the population was at risk of becoming genetically unviable and some riparian owners and scientific advisors felt that it was high time to look into a more proactive approach.

After several years of talks, meetings and persuasion, it was agreed that Scottish Power, owner of the Hydroelectric Scheme, would fund the implementation of a salmon hatchery on the Kirkcudbrightshire Dee to attempt to conserve the particular strain which has developed to spawn on this river. In 2005 the hatchery was opened, initially with capacity for up to 300,000 ova (although low stock numbers mean this maximum capacity has never been reached).

Tim has been involved with/instrumental in the attempt to restock the river from native fish since the very beginning in the late 1990s and has managed the hatchery since its early days. In many ways we have been bound to the salmon life-cycle too, staying rooted by this river all of these years, for a whole segment of our own life cycle; from pre-parenthood young adults, through growing our own daughters from ova and sperm to maturity, to an imminently empty nest.

March 27th 2018.

The eggs in the hatchery have developed into ‘eyed ova’, and are nearing hatch. I go with Tim to take them to one of the sites where they will be stocked out, and he explains how he is again emulating the salmon’s own choices and behaviours. I help to carry the equipment over rough fields to the perfect spot upriver and he points out why this area is ideal: a corner holding pool just upstream where the adult fish would run to and wait to spawn; the right kind of gravel and cobble riverbed to build their redds (nests); great habitat for juveniles to feed and grow because of good aerated flows, dappled shade and insect life provided by bankside vegetation and deciduous trees.

In nature, the fish would be paired up and the hen would dig out a series of redds in the gravel riverbed, laying eggs while the male simultaneously fertilises them. Tim, in his chestwaders, builds his redds in the riverbed, digging with a mattock and rearranging cobblestones and gravel by hand in the cold fast water, patient and precise, each one taking about half an hour, turning his hands bright red.

A black plastic pipe is incorporated into the centre of the redd to act as a funnel to pour the eyed ova into the safe centre, followed by some protective gravel. There is a tense moment when the pipe is gently removed, in case Tim’s redd has gaps which allow the river to wash the eggs back out but it is sound. Even if a few are washed out they would be likely to work their way into gravel downstream and be okay, but ideally they’ll stay in this dark nest while they hatch into ‘alevins’ with their attached yolk sac. Once the yolk is used up, they will emerge from the gravel as ‘fry’ and begin feeding on invertebrates.

Those that survive long enough to reach fingerling size become prettily marked ‘parr’. In the early 19th century, these were thought to be a separate species, so different in appearance are they from the life stages before and after.

In spring, the largest parr will ‘become silvery smolts and start to drift downstream at night towards the sea,’ travelling in shoals near the surface and vulnerable to predation and water pollution (and on this river they will have to again traverse the various dams, avoiding being drawn into the dangerous turbines ). Those that survive will ‘head out to sea on their way to the main ocean feeding grounds.’

Once all the redds are built and the last eggs are stocked out I ask Tim if it isn’t quite difficult to let go of these young he’s tended for months, worked so hard to protect; to leave them to whatever fate they might meet. I suppose it’s the same for any foster parent/surrogate mother; maybe for any parent – you do your best while they’re in your care and then have to trust that they’re as well prepared as you could have made them. Tim says for him it’s mostly a huge relief, that his part of responsibility is over and they’re back in the hands of nature. We walk back to the car and back to the rest of life.

Katy Ewing is an artist and writer who lives in rural Southwest Scotland. She has had poetry, prose and illustration published in several magazines and anthologies including New Writing Scotland, Gutter, Southlight and From Glasgow to Saturn, and is currently writer in residence at Oxfam Books and Music, Dumfries. She graduated in 2017 from the University of Glasgow with an MLitt in Environment, Culture and Communication.