Fish barriers: how artificial structures are depleting stocks

All the more so when wild Atlantic salmon face the challenge of navigating the artificial weirs, culverts and concrete dams that impede their progress and are blamed for contributing to the sad decline of the fish population.

But while impressive work has been done to open certain waterways to allow unhindered passage, others are concerned about the pace of change and whether the body tasked with fixing the problem by 2027 can meet its ambitious deadline.

READ MORE: Saving Scotland’s rivers: The people bringing our devastated waterways back to life

Indeed, a perceived lack of urgency from the environmental agency SEPA in some areas has rang alarm bells for a species already in crisis, with a 70% decline in 25 years and fears it is on the brink of extinction.

Such is concern about a key element of the organisation’s progress that its work is audited by Environmental Standards Scotland (ESS), the body set up to oversee the effectiveness of environmental legislation in Scotland and compliance by the authorities.

It follows an approach from a group concerned about the time it takes to complete critical barrier work and an apparent inability of SEPA to take responsibility for ensuring that single-height river barriers are in place of more than one meter can be licensed.

Licenses require owners of weirs, dams and other barriers to take steps to ensure migratory fish such as salmon, trout, eel and lamprey can reach their spawning grounds.

Ineffective permits are said to be detrimental to efforts to improve river habitats, hamper action to support their removal, and leave owners with the impression that there is not much urgency to address the issue.

Without licenses, there are growing concerns that it will take even longer to clear nearly 200 identified fish barriers across the country.

ESS has announced that it is now reviewing the progress of SEPA.


The Scottish Government’s Wild Salmon Strategy, published last January, speaks of a “dynamic, adaptive approach… to support salmon restoration”, while at least £65million has been allocated to the issue through the Nature Restoration Fund.

A key measure of the strategy is a commitment to removing all barriers by 2027, including active barriers associated with distilleries, hydropower and public water supplies, as well as historic barriers built to support industrial activities such as long-disused flour mills.

SEPA’s most recent River Basin Management Plan, launched in late 2021, identifies 244 artificial barriers to fish migration, of which only 16 have been removed or relaxed so far. Another 44 are said to require no action.

However, observers have criticized what they say is a lack of clarity about what work is being done and how SEPA intends to meet the looming four-year deadline.

“It’s very difficult to figure out the performance of SEPA and figure out how many of these fishway problems have been solved,” said one. “It is also difficult to find out how much money has been spent.

“I’ve been to board meetings to see how they report on performance and you don’t get a sense of what they’ve done at all.

“In their operational plan each year they don’t specify exactly what they want to deliver, they just say ‘We’ll keep working.’

“But it can take three years to put together a project to remove a fish barrier, from design to bidding to sourcing local contractors. Then you have to do the work in the summer.

“Time is ticking and if you don’t hear anything, you assume nothing is happening.”

Since 2008, SEPA has provided nearly £8m in funding through the Water Environment Fund to help community groups, fisheries trusts and environmental organizations remove redundant man-made barriers such as weirs, culverts and dams.

Although the Water Environment Fund’s annual reports appear on the SEPA website, the most recent are from 2018.

There is said to be particular concern about the pace of work on the River Tyne in East Lothian, where four obstacles, including those related to hydroelectric power stations and a distillery, are having a “significant impact” on fish migration.

While the Water Environment Fund was awarded £2.35m last year, just £26,000 was spent on a single weir hydrological survey on the River Tyne.

The figure in 2019-2020 was just £6,792 – significantly less than the £11,500 spent on videos that year to showcase other areas of work. None of the £1.02million spent to improve fish migration in 2018/19 was spent on the East Lothian River.

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Similar work to successfully remove obstacles in West Lothian on the River Almond – now nearing completion – has spanned nearly a decade. The construction of just one fishway at Mid Calder Weir cost £670,000 while the final phase involving Dowie’s Mill Weir at Cramond in Edinburgh is estimated to cost more than £1m.

Forth Rivers Trust, one of several organizations involved in the work on the River Almond and taking on the role of project manager, said they have not yet been contacted to discuss similar work on the River Tyne.

Alison Baker, Director of the Forth Rivers Trust, said: “Our rivers are an important part of the landscape and important to communities. This work is incredibly important, especially as we have a biodiversity crisis, a climate crisis, and a world salmon crisis.

“We all need to work together to repair the damage that has occurred in the past and allow species to return.

“We are very keen to work with SEPA, all other authorities and communities to ensure this happens. We would greatly appreciate better communication from SEPA regarding their plans.”

Jonathon Muir, of the Atlantic Salmon Trust, said: “Not only do migratory barriers affect returning adult salmon traveling upstream to reach their spawning grounds, they also disrupt the downstream migration of young salmon ‘smolts’ on their way to the sea.

“Wild Atlantic salmon travel thousands of kilometers on their epic migration from their home rivers to the sea and back, some even as far as Greenland. We cannot allow the final phase of their great life journey to be blocked by concrete.

“If we want to have thriving salmon populations in our rivers again, we urgently need to try to completely remove barriers as soon as possible. This way we can allow more salmon to reach their spawning grounds to produce the next generation of fish. ”

A spokesman for SEPA said the latest River Basin Management Plan, released in 2021, has ensured “actions are targeted where they can have the greatest benefit for the aquatic environment”.

They added: “The plan identifies 244 artificial barriers to fish migration. SEPA will ensure that all barriers requiring action are licensed under the Water Environment (Controlled Activities) (Scotland) Regulations 2011. Of the 244 identified, 16 were removed or loosened and 44 were deemed actionless.

“In the last year alone, two weirs on the Garrell Burn in Kilsyth were relaxed, resulting in the return of salmon fry for the first time in 100 years.

“Barriers have also been removed in the Bronie Burn in Aberdeenshire and the River Eden in Fife, giving fish free access to upstream habitats for the first time in more than a century.

“Similar targets are included in the plan to address artificial barriers on the River Tyne, four of which have a significant impact on fish migration. These barriers will be assessed and any necessary action taken to eliminate or reduce them by 2027.”

The River Tyne plan provides three years between early assessment and the completion of work on each barrier, they added.

“Work is already underway with owners and operators, starting downstream, through a combination of the Water Environment Fund for Historic Structures and the Regulation for Active Structures.

“SEPA remains fully committed to removing the remaining 184 barriers before the end of 2027.” Fish barriers: how artificial structures are depleting stocks

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