Fish stocks in some of Tyrone’s best-loved rivers have plummetted to dangerously low levels, it has been revealed.
Angling experts have linked the decline to gangs of poachers using illegal nets, as well as a drainage scheme along the River Blackwater.
Wild salmon numbers in the Blackwater have fallen alarmingly to just 45 percent of what is needed to maintain the fishing stock, according to the latest figures from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure.
Last year the figure stood at 85%, which represents a fall of 40%.
In addition, the average number of salmon fry counted per sample in the Blackwater has also dropped steeply from 19.8 in 2009 to 12.8 last year. According to the department, the target figure needed to ensure a viable fish population is 15.
The 91km-long Blackwater, which divides County Tyrone from Armagh and Monaghan, once provided stretches of good salmon and wild trout fishing.
Dungannon angler Tommy Conlon said the salmon stock has never recovered from an ‘ill-thought’ drainage scheme along its banks, and the activities of illegal fishing gangs, who scoop up fish in large nets, have been further hindering the recovery.
A 20lb fresh water salmon can fetch upwards of £300 and tend to be sold to luxury hotels.
A recent crackdown on illegal fishing by Fishery officers, have led to a spate of convictions at Dungannon court. In one incident, officers recovered approximately 6km of illegal fishing netting.
Condemning the activities of the poachers, Mr Conlon revealed a 9m long fishing net he retrieved from a tributary of the Blackwater at Augher, two weeks ago.
“This is a typical net that these gangs use to drag the river at night”, he claimed. “They take whatever pike or salmon is there. This is what is happening in lakes and rivers across the district. The poachers are cleaning the waterways dry.
“Unfortunately, the authorities can do little to stop them for they are total experts.
“The situation is now so bad most of our lakes have nothing left.”