The Kielder Salmon Centre has helped make the Tyne the country's best salmon river

PUBLISHED: 13:37 08 February 2013 | UPDATED: 22:10 26 February 2013

Atlantic salmon smolt (Salmo sala ),for release into the North Tyne

Atlantic salmon smolt (Salmo sala ),for release into the North Tyne

The Kielder Salmon Centre has helped make the Tyne the country's best salmon river. Words and photography by Steve and AnnToon

Stripping salmon is a bit like herding cats, only colder, wetter and slimier. The king of fish doesnt take kindly to being manhandled and theres water flying everywhere. Its a chilly winters day, and were already soaked to the skin, but todays a big day at Kielder Salmon Centre, the largest conservation hatchery in England, and theres no time to worry about physical discomfort.

Hatchery manager Richard Bond and a team of colleagues from the Environment Agency are busy netting out salmon from holding tanks, where theyve been kept since being electro-fished from the upper reaches of the Tynes tributaries. These are impressive, powerful fish, some tipping the scales at well over 20lb, and its hard, physically-demanding work.

The selected salmon are sporting their tartan breeding colours, the hen fish with soft, swollen bellies full of eggs, the cocks with hooked jaws, known as kypes, used for fighting with rivals. But these guys wont need to fight over spawning rights because today theyre getting a helping hand.

Placed in buckets of water spiked with a mild anaesthetic, the fish calm down and become more manageable. Richard chooses a hen fish, holds her carefully under his arm, and gently squeezes down the length of her belly. A stream of eggs squirts from her vent into the waiting plastic bowl.

As Richard massages the fish with practised hands, the bowl starts to fill up. A single female typically produces around 6,000 of these orange, translucent pearls, he tells us, and we can see hes not exaggerating.

Next, Richard chooses a cock salmon, and repeats the process, stripping the fish to release its white milt, which he carefully stirs into the eggs to help fertilise them. The spent fish will be returned to the river, below Kielder dam, and will head back to sea though, as with fish that spawn naturally in the river, few will survive the journey to return another year.

The eggs are fairly robust, explains Richard, but over the next few days, they will become much more delicate. Theyre placed in special trays in the hatchery, irrigated by water from the Kielder Burn, to see out the winter months and grow slowly, until they begin to hatch out next month.

What were witnessing is a key part of the process that each year sees the hatchery release hundreds of thousands of salmon fry into the Tyne. Just a few decades ago the Tyne was almost dead as a salmon river, its open sewer of an estuary heavily polluted by industrial and household waste, an impassable obstacle to migrating fish. Today it ranks as Englands best salmon river with anglers landing more than 5,000 fish a year in recent times. The transformation is all the more impressive for the fact that elsewhere in England salmon runs are in serious decline.

A massive improvement in water quality undoubtedly explains much of the recovery, but the Kielder hatchery can also claim a significant role. It was built in 1978 to mitigate the effects of the massive new reservoir, Kielder Water. The newly-flooded reservoir cut off around seven per cent of the North Tyne catchment, including some of the best spawning and nursery streams for the salmon that were then just beginning to return to the river.

It was decreed by Parliament that the new hatchery should produce and stock at least 160,000 salmon fry each year to compensate for the impact of the dam. In fact the hatchery can produce nearer 750,000 fish, and has consistently stocked many more than the legal minimum, helping provide a buffer against occasional dips in the naturally breeding salmon population, such as those caused when certain tidal conditions cause oxygen depletion in the Tyne estuary.

For Richard Bond, managing the hatchery is a dream job. Hes a mad-keen angler whose previous jobs include ghillie and water bailliff: I was catching stone loaches in my socks when I was six years old, and spent most of my childhood down the river with a fly rod, he says. But while the hatchery may be a labour of love, its also painstaking work, with the emphasis on trying to be as true as possible to natural salmon population behaviour.

So, for example, while broodstock are collected from all three of the Tynes major tributaries, the North Tyne, South Tyne and Rede, only milt from a South Tyne cock salmon is used to fertilise eggs from a South Tyne hen.

There is growing evidence that you see particular strains of genetically similar fish in particular areas of the river. A large river may have five or six different strains of salmon that are subtly different genetically, explains Richard.

In fact, the hatchery splits the eggs from each female into three batches, and fertilises each with a different male from the same tributary, to mimic the natural mixing that occurs in a river.

Come early March and all the hard work is rewarded as the eggs start to hatch. The creatures that emerge bear little resemblance to the mighty fish they will hopefully become: less than two centimetres long, translucent and pop-eyed, and with a jelly-like yolk sac attached to their tiny bodies, only their bright orange colour is recognisably salmon-like.

These alevin spend the next few weeks in specially-designed incubators, feeding off their yolk sacs, until they emerge as fry, now able to swim and feed. By July they will be large enough to release, and over the next few months Richard and his assistant David Kirkland, will transport batches back to the Tyne tributaries where their parents were caught. If all goes well, the fry will grow to become smolts, eventually swimming downstream to the sea and off to their feeding grounds in the Atlantic. Eventually some will return, driven by the urge to spawn a new generation.

For fry released into the Kielder Burn, though, theres the small problem of the impassable Kielder Dam. So in April and May Richard and David are back on the burn, collecting smolts from a special trap and transporting them downstream to below the dam for release.

Once again its painstaking work, for every single one of the smolts is measured by hand and has a small clipping taken from one of its fins, so it can be identified if later recovered as an adult fish. Last year nearly 7,000 fish were processed in this way, including 3,900 in a single day.

Salmon breeding is a numbers game. Richard estimates that between 15 and 20 per cent of the fish he stocks will eventually go to sea, but only between 0.3 and 1 per cent will ultimately come back as spawning adults.

It doesnt sound a lot, but as he points out, a naturally spawning female and male might produce 6,000 eggs, and for the river to be self-sustaining only two of those eggs have got to survive to come back and spawn successfully.

Kielder Salmon Centre, is open to the public from April to October and Richard says: Without having the vast improvement in water quality in the Tyne it would be pretty pointless having the hatchery here.

But without the hatchery the river would have recovered much more slowly.

Words and photography by Steve and AnnToon

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