Sketch: Salmon, seals and Detective Stewart Stevenson

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 15 February 2019 in Comment

A debate on salmon brings out some tall tales from members of the Scottish Parliament

Image credit: Holyrood

The year was 1968 and the world was in a state of turmoil. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis. Public concern over American military action in Vietnam was growing steadily and by the summer anger had reached boiling point, with protests erupting across the US. The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, putting an end to the Prague Spring.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, a young Stewart Stevenson, then working alongside his brother as a water bailiff for the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board, was arresting a man for “sniggering”.

Or so he announced during the salmon farming debate, anyway. The discussion was meant to focus on high levels of fish mortality and the industry’s impact on the environment, alongside its economic importance, with the sector’s value expected to reach £771m by 2020, with a turnover across the Scottish supply chain of over £1bn.

And it seems to have provided Stevenson with new skills too. ‘Sniggering’, as he explained, is an illegal fishing method, with a Scottish Government guide describing the practice as “striking the fish with a hook”. You can’t do that. Incidentally, the same guide also states that “use of an otter” is also banned.

And while whatever use Stevenson may or may not have for an otter remains unclear, the story is exactly the sort of thing you would expect from his past.

A hard-boiled, weather-beaten fish cop, fighting day and night against watery crime. Like Due South, but with an otter for a partner, instead of a deaf wolf. Stewart Stevenson: the Wet Detective. Hopefully, he had a uniform.

And like any good loch cop, Stevenson had a nemesis. In this case, his nemesis was a seal.

“The closure in the 1970s of Wee Bankie, which was a sprat fishery out in the North Sea, caused quadrupling of the number of seals in the North Sea,” he said, before asking, somewhat bitterly, “and guess what? Seals like eating salmon.”

But it wasn’t just seals that Stevenson had to contend with. There were also Russians.

“We had the Klondikers from Russia sitting in Loch Broom catching salmon offshore,” he recounted. “That was when the limits were 3 miles and 12 miles, rather than the 200 miles that we have today.”

Klondikers from Russia. Criminal seals. Sniggering. It was really a very enlightening debate, and not just because of Stevenson.

Jamie Greene, for example, had started his speech by requesting that everyone imagine a Scottish farm “on which the animals are covered in flesh-eating parasites that cause disease”.

Why though, Jamie? “Such a farm would make no environmental or moral sense,” he pointed out, despite the fact that it has been his decision to get everyone to start imagining this hypothetical disease-farm in the first place. “It would make no commercial sense, even to the farmer,” he argued. “Why is a farm in water any different from a farm on land?”

Probably the water, most likely. And it did seem like quite a philosophical one for the Scottish Parliament, even if dumping a loch-load of water on the landscape would probably make most ‘land farms’ look quite different.

But the good news is that Greene’s input stemmed from experience. It wasn’t just Stevenson who had investigated fish. “I, too, have stood in the cold waters of Scottish rivers – none of them my own – rod in hand, with nothing to catch but the cold,” he announced. It was a good speech, even if Greene’s insistence on standing in other people’s rivers seemed to come out of nowhere.

But still, there were no easy answers, with Gail Ross using her apperance to highlight concerns over issues ranging from gill disease to declines in wild salmon. “Sea lice are another challenge,” she continued, “as we heard from John Mason, Finlay Carson and the queen of sea lice herself, Claudia Beamish.”

It’s hard to say how pleased Beamish will be with that title, to be honest. Beamish is the Scottish Parliament species champion for the Forester Moth – arguably a far more glamorous species than the sea lice, but then there’s probably no particular need to start trying to rank them. But sea lice certainly are an issue for the industry, and, as ever, Stevenson seemed to have expertise here. Boasting that “I first saw sea lice in the 1950s,” he then added, somewhat confusingly, that “I, unlike Jamie Greene, look in the mirror when trying to find the cause for my failures.”

Greene looked quite surprised by this, but then so do most people when they realise they have been Stewart Stevenson-ed.

“I am an indifferent fisherman,” Stevenson explained. “My failure is not because there are no fish in the river. I have never seen Jamie Greene fishing, so I cannot judge his confidence.”

No sniggering, please.  

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