Usan Fisheries: The last salmon netters in Angus, Scotland
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.