Usan Fisheries: The last salmon netters in Angus, Scotland

Usan Fisheries: the last salmon netters in Angus

Coastal-caught salmon is a controversial delicacy

The quality and importance of Scottish salmon is perhaps best reflected by the passions and controversies it can stir up. John Cooke looks into the issues surrounding salmon netting

David Pullar doesn’t have far to go to work in the morning. From his house overlooking the North Sea at Old Fishertown of Usan, just south of Montrose, it’s probably a one-minute walk to his open fishing ‘coble’.

Each morning and evening, as close to ebb tide as possible, he and his crew head out to the nets they have set along the coast close to the rocky shore. Anchored to the sea floor, these ‘fixed engines’, as the nets are called, lead the salmon migrating to local rivers into bag nets. It’s a technique that hasn’t changed for centuries.

The Pullar family has been fishing since the 1960s when David’s father, David Snr, started the business. Today, there are three generations involved in working the coast off Usan, as well as at two sites further north.

The wild Atlantic salmon they bring ashore in the season from spring to late summer (varying between 3,000 and 5,000 annually) go direct to UK and European customers both private and commercial, including top restaurants run by Tom Kitchin and Rick Stein. Some goes to be smoked at the Ugie Smokehouse in Peterhead.

Of course, traditional salmon netting is not without its controversy and intense local politics. Up-river salmon fishermen and landowners concerned about the value of their beats are bitterly opposed to what goes on at Usan. The Scottish government is under pressure to act on the grounds that Atlantic salmon numbers need further protection.

The Pullar family have had offers to buy them out, but they maintain their legal right to make a living and provide both employment and a highly sought-after delicacy.

Meanwhile, they are working with the government scientists investigating the decline in spring salmon from the South Esk River. As the catch comes ashore, the scientists record the details of every fish and take samples to help identify the habits of the migrating fish and hopefully manage their futures better.

Another initiative to protect the fish’s value is the tag identifying it as genuine ‘Wild Scottish Salmon’, attached within seconds of it being caught. A move to attain a valuable European protected designation is also well advanced, another indication of the continuing status of one of Scotland’s truly iconic, albeit controversial, wild foods.

Usan Salmon Fisheries

The Bothy, Usan, Montrose, Angus, DD10 9SG


1. Paul Bullimore11 Jul 2012, 3:54pm Report

A very interesting article. I would like to know how much money Usan Fisheries contribute to the river habitat management and conservation measures not to mention all of the research that goes on in the rivers looking at enhancing Salmon stocks? The estuaries they fish are the mouths or rivers where huge sums of money is spent annually by riparian owners, fisheries trusts clubs etc. It seems a little strange that Usan Fisheries are 'lining their pockets' at the expense of other people and organisations.

The rod fishermen in these rivers are releasing the majority of what is caught in order to preserve stocks. This will intern help to secure the future of the local economy from hotels, guest hoses, shops, pubs, petrols stations etc.

What do Usan Fisheries do to support the survival of the salmon in these already difficult times? To me, it looks like they are directly impacting on all of the work done by some very dedicated organisations and individuals.

2. gwelsher11 Jul 2012, 11:36pm Report

I agree totally with what PB has already said. When fishermen are either voluntarily or compulsorily practicing catch and release it is totally mystifying how the Scottish government and the EU can not only allow netting to continue but then award them a grant to do so, Usan has recently received over £100,000 to help increase their productivity and by coincidence their profit.
After the 1960s Scottish and UK rivers suffered a 50% decline in returning Salmon. Greenland and the Faroe Islands agreed to curtail netting off their shores, where our salmon migrate each winter to feed, with a buyout agreement by NASCO substantially funded by rod fishermen.
During the 30+ years of decline huge numbers of anglers stopped visiting with resulting affects on local mainly rural economies.
Since the agreement there has been an increase of returning salmon in Scottish rivers and more and more anglers are now returning to Scotland boosting the local economies.
It is often said that a rod caught salmon is worth £10.000 to the local economy and a net caught one £5.
As a repeat fishing visitor to Scotland, and anglers come from all over the world, I know only too well how much us fishermen spend on hotels, food, fishing etc.
Netting and salmon farms employ very few people, 10 people can run a salmon farm and even less 6 to run a netting boat, and yet are allowed and get grants to endanger the recovery of rural economies with employ 1000s.
But the worst is still to come unless action is taken to stop the netting and fish farms, which are all owned by Norwegian companies, Greenland and the Faroes have said the they will restart fishing because this government will not honour their commitment to stop netting.
For the sake of the Scottish rural economy and the fate of The Atlantic Salmon this government has got to realise that commercial salmon fishing provides very little to the local economies in rural Scotland, but then maybe it does to some pockets in Holyrood.

3. goosander13 Jul 2012, 8:49am Report

While netting has been carried out for many years with no throught for future stocks a time has come when netsmen have to fall in line with others that are trying to save the wild salmon from dying out.
Have no great problem with harvesting the fish if stocks can stand it but at presenton most rivers they can not.
When others are doing there best to save the salmon for future generations at great expense to themselfs this [netting] is undoing all the good work that is taking place.
A "declared" catch of 5,000 fish at say ten pounds weight [adverage] at at least £4.00 per pound is a good living for killing of part of the tourist trade. Can not understand why [netting] is still being carried out when one considers all the lost jobs in hotels/tackle shops etc.
Bob Mitchell.

4. JamesL13 Jul 2012, 10:56am Report

I fail to understand the mentality of both the netsmen and also the people and businesses that buy the wild fish.

Recently a number of supermarkets stopped buying Scottish mackeral over worries about how sustainable the stock is. Just take a moment to think of the number of mackeral vs the number of wild salmon !

The individuals, hotels and restaurants who buy the netted wild salmon should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves for encouraging the killing of these magnificenct fish - as should the SNP for giving grants to further encourage the plundering of such a limited natural resource.

5. Orri13 Jul 2012, 12:45pm Report

This is a national scandal - This letter is a must read as sent by
NASF’s founder and Chairman Orri Vigfússon to Richard Lockhead,
The Minister for Rural Affairs

Dear Minister,

As you may know, Scotland as part of the UK is the only EU member state that operates a policy of mixed-stock wild salmon fisheries along its coastline. Over the last two decades most of the salmon killed by Scottish netsmen are fish that have been spared by other states. These nations have voluntarily agreed to a moratorium on the netting and long-lining of wild salmon in order to allow more salmon to return to their natural spawning grounds.

Scotland, on the other hand, seems to be unable to grasp the obvious. The indiscriminate netting by Scottish netsmen produces a poor economic return from what should be one of Scotland’s most valuable resources. In addition to the needless damage done by commercial netting the poorly regulated fish farming industry has accelerated a decline in the stocks of wild salmon. Some would say that in this respect Scotland has a very impressive record of thoughtless economic and environmental vandalism.

During this period, the economic value of the angling industry to local rural communities has been a mere fraction of what it could have been if greater numbers of salmon were allowed to return to spawn in the rivers of their birth. It seems to me that your office has behaved recklessly in permitting your netsmen to kill more and more of diminishing resources (salmon, cod and mackerel).

Your government’s support for indiscriminate mixed-stock netting is outdated. It is universally condemned as being unsustainable by scientists and if it is allowed to continue it can only result in wiping out annual salmon runs.

The sad fact is this situation is quite unnecessary. The problem can be solved quite painlessly for the netsmen with the aid of compensation if they stop salmon fishing and assistance to re-equip their boats and gear so that they can switch their efforts to other and sustainable forms of fishing.

You should remember that the biomass of the Scottish salmon is created in the feeding grounds off the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland, where thankfully, Scotland and the EU have no jurisdiction. I would remind you that if you insist on continuing your current strategy the inevitable outcome will be disastrous whether the stocks begin to improve or deteriorate. If by some miracle your stocks begin to recover and the Scottish netting continued the commercial fishermen of these other countries would be entitled to take these extra salmon at sea as fair quotas. So the bulk of the extra fish would never return to the native rivers of Scotland and Norway.

The recent award of yet another huge EU grant to Scotland’s salmon netsmen raises a question. Why are you so intent on supporting a dying netting industry, especially when that industry is wrecking what remains of the wild stocks of salmon in so many rivers?

The Atlantic’s salmon stocks are international and need to be managed through international cooperation. But I assure you, Minister, I speak for many other salmon nations when I say we are appalled at having to witness the continuation of a Scottish salmon policy that has so little regard for the future.


Orri Vigfússon

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