The cost of everything and the value of nothing?
Dr. Simon Wright explores what we appreciate in our fishing, how we might value it, and the implications for this generation, and the future.
When we consider the situation of the salmon and sea trout and the fisheries associated with them, we need not look any further than the fishery reports of the 1960s and 1970s as a starting point for what we have today. In those halcyon catching days, enthusiastic fishers would expect to catch in the region of 20 to 30 salmon in their week and further expect to replicate that in the following subsequent years. It was the days, primarily, of Private Beats and cherished tenancies (often with deadmen’s shoes associated to them). Prior to that era salmon fishing, and to a slightly lesser extent, sea trout fishing was seen as out of reach of many, the preserve of the well-heeled, very well connected, or landed folk.
The 1960s & 1970s gave way to the 1980s and an upsurge of new, and relatively uber wealth, amongst a good number. This new found wealth enabled the fortunate to seek out valued, aspirational recreation such as salmon fishing, and for a good number, this became a goal, a trinket, a bauble, even a must-have within some circles, and its popularity soared. Timeshares, Pro-indiviso ownerships, and indeed some significant private sales/ownerships flourished. A new type of dinner party conversation emerged across the land around the purchase, acquisition, and inherent enjoyment associated with, and derived from salmon fishing.
The ‘new’ trend within this expanding group saw the volume of purchases for the rights to fish for these most majestic of creatures grow to never previously experienced levels. To accompany the boast of the new Range Rover order, or the coastal boat, came the announcement of “I’ve just bought some salmon fishing on …”? And why not, times were good for many people. For Salmon fisheries also, the days were good, and, the future looked bright.
In this then expanding market how best to value these jewels of delight in a measured fashion that could be applicable to all, and allow for comparisons in quality to be made? Well, the easiest way was to go back some decades for a model that was easy to measure, understand and apply.
- Numbers of fish caught
- Time of year fish caught
- A standard value of a fish
- Even out any unusual peaks & troughs by applying a 5-year average
Then sprinkle over it the extra dimensions of desirability and fashion and you’ve created a First Division of locations, a mainstream of opportunities, and a following ‘tail end’ of smaller (if productive) streams that were largely ‘kept off the radar’ of the new enthusiasts, by savvy individuals who wanted to avoid the massing hoards descending upon their hidden gems.
All of this worked very nicely for a good many years and indeed, it became a system, a mechanism, upon which ‘we’, the game fishing enthusiast, were comfortable and relied upon. Year after year without any consideration that this might have to one day change, fishers paid, fishers booked, turned up on their respective weeks and they enjoyed salmon and sea trout in their numbers.
Wind forward a little, and a number of things started to happen, some in sequence and some in parallel, but primarily… Nature happened. Salmon stocks and returning fish began to diminish, finances became tighter with economic changes and ‘down-turn’, fishers became older, and the heady, tantalising glint of salmon fishing, and seemingly almost guaranteed catches began to fade. Fishing for salmon started to fall from the levels of popularity previously seen, and life happened, and fashions changed.
Now let us wind a bit further forward towards what we now see, and what we have today. Setting aside the odd spike here and there, returning salmon and sea trout to our rivers have fallen to extremely low levels when we compare them to the days of the 1960s and ’70s, and certainly before. We now have an almost totally applied ‘catch and release’ policy and days of fishers banking 20 – 30 fish in a week to a rod, often retaining them for a dinner table, have all been consigned to both memory and history. Of course, the many folk who enjoyed those days are now, if not passed on to heavenly rivers elsewhere, Septuagenarians or Octogenarian, and no longer the material to encounter, and experience, rock-strewn, spate rivers or the heavy, pushy flows of the mighty rivers.
Those few who still can, just about, now often hold the view that it isn’t really worth the effort for a week of hardened (and hardening) effort to maybe catch one or two salmon. No, for them the golf course beckons, and perhaps over a glass of red at the 19th hole they can lament the passing of their salmon fishing enjoyment, their memories of success, and for some contemplate the decision of what to do with their ‘owned fishing’ that they gleefully secured 30 or 40 years ago. They pay their management fees each year but rarely use it, and for some, and indeed for those who inherit such faded jewels, those prized opportunities to enjoy fish-catching heaven has descended into a burden without benefits.
Such owners might still wish to go, and enjoy the glorious surroundings and their memories, but for many when compared to the gentle undulating terrain of the golf course, the banks of the river is now a challenge too great. Time to sell, move on, get ones affairs in order, and the like. There, then, and now raises the uncomfortable issue of what is this fine, much enjoyed jewel worth, where is the market, and who will indeed buy it for further enjoyment? The spectre of the much-used, well-established, but now anachronistic model of valuation looms into view, still essentially based on the numbers of fish caught only. The outcome of such has become a sad and perhaps, self-fulfilling prophecy.
Underused fishing, and thereby under-performing fishing is valued very badly because of this slavish adherence to a now very outdated policy of pricing almost exclusively on ‘volume’, and not remotely linked to ‘quality’. Then there are the quite ridiculous situations that arise whereby in any given month some weeks are fished, and some weeks are not. Are we to really say that Week 1 because the 5-year average is ‘X’ because it is fished is worth ‘Y’, but because Week 2 has not been fished and therefore few if any fish caught is worth nothing? No, I would say not, for to do so is nothing but a nonsense. Well, the reality is, this is the situation that we are drifting towards, like a ship with engine failure drifting inexorably towards the rocks.
Is there any action that we can take to change such a trajectory? Well, I believe that there is.
The modern fisher arguably has less time to devote to such a passion, and more couples and families would like to enjoy escapes on their holidays from an ever-increasing, stressful and demanding life. Prices and values are at an all-time low for the sale and purchase of such fishing, and in the wake of the Covid crisis I hear from many, why not invest in my soul, buy some cheap fishing for me and my family and enjoy much of what we have on our doorstep. As a result of this combined set of circumstances, we are seeing an upturn in fishing sales and new Ownership. But this ownership is not what it was, it is different than that which existed previously. No, it is very different.
The folk who form the new breed of salmon fishers, and the future of the sport, no longer expect to catch large volumes, they certainly do not expect to kill fish, and applying the, ‘its all about the experience’ principle to the overall package, the surrounding, the ambiance, the tranquillity, the nature, the wildlife, indeed the overall hospitality, this all makes for the total package that they are looking for from their ‘valued’ purchase. Sure, they would like to feel a bend in their rods, the excitement of the tug, but once or twice in the week will do, thank you, and if there is the chance of a big fish – how fantastic!
So, what for the future? Well, in possessing histories and futures, memories and expectations we should be better able to secure salmon fishing, as an enjoyable future within the prevailing circumstances, to help ensure the sustainability of our fisheries and a future for fishers. Perhaps building on what has gone before, but with an eye on the reality of the prevailing situation. Using old methods in modern times is just not appropriate, and here, salmon fishing is a case in point. If we value something at nothing, then by definition, it is worth nothing.
The industry, and the users, in fact, us all, need to consider how we are to value our lovely fisheries for the future, even if by volume, numbers in fish have fallen away. We need to consider above all else, that quality matters, and in its broadest sense. There is now a greater chance of hooking, and experiencing fish of 25 lb plus, as multi-sea wintered fish frequently predominate in the ranks of returning fish to our rivers. The number of fish caught may have declined, but quality in so many ways has improved. The overall fishing experience when one visits the many salmon fisheries and beats is now most frequently outstanding, and this should be capitalised upon, and valued perhaps that little better.
We should devise a better, more modern, more relevant, and more user-friendly system of valuation for our fishing, and soon, lest it be lost within a dogma from the past, or we will end pricing everything, but valuing nothing.
Dr. Simon Wright runs the Perthshire-based Country Sports Agency – MacIntyre & Thomson Ltd. His company manages salmon fishing, trades in fishing rights, and provides country sports across Scotland.