A generation of wild salmon could be wiped out in the River Ericht due to an ongoing drought, it is feared.
Current water levels in river at Blairgowrie are too low to allow the salmon to move and the fish are becoming trapped in shallow pockets, with a lack of oxygen.
Dr David Summers, director of the Tay District Salmon Fisheries Board (TDFSB), said climate change is leading to drier springs and summers, meaning low water levels at the River Ericht.
This is being worsened by water being redirected to nearby Westmill Fish Farm, he said.
The fish farm has a licence from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and owners say they are operating within the conditions of their licence.
SEPA has blamed damage to gates along the river, which has since been repaired.
‘There will be no wild salmon’
Dr Summers said: “What we are witnessing on the River Ericht is an unacceptably bad ecological situation.
“But one that is currently licensed by SEPA [Scottish Environment Protection Agency], albeit with an interim licence.”
The concerns are shared by local angler John Boyle.
He said: “Wild salmon are trapped in pockets of shallow water, and they will die because of the lack of oxygen.
“This has been going on for a long time.
“The spring and summers are getting warmer and drier.
“There needs to be a plan put in place to mitigate the effects because this could wipe out an entire generation of fish.
“There will be no wild salmon because there will be no spawn.”
SEPA issued the fish farm a license to abstract water from the River Ericht in 2006.
The license was altered in 2019 to minimise the damage caused to the river.
“Prior to that time there was an upper limit to the amount of flow the fish farm could abstract from the river,” said Dr David Summers.
“But there was no stipulation about how much of a minimum flow could be left in the river.
“So, in 2018 for example, during similar conditions to the present, the river practically ran dry.
“Since 2019 a backstop has been introduced, whereby as the flow of the river drops naturally, the fish farm has to leave agreed levels of flow in the river.
“But it is still the case that a significant proportion of the flow is being abstracted.”
Grant Kellie, River Convenor for Blairgowrie Angling Club, said that 30 to 40 salmon are trapped in very shallow water.
“They’re trapped in these pools with low oxygen levels due to the hot temperature, when they should be heading up the glen,” said Mr Kellie.
“We’ve got a lot of wildlife along the river.
“All of these things are reliant on the flow of the river.
“If we don’t get rain within the next three or four days, I think the river will dry again.
“But the lade will still be running. The river should be the priority.”
An investigation was launched in May after pollution began “suffocating” fish in the River Ericht.
Acting within the licence
A spokesperson for Westmill Fish Farm Cloan Hatcheries said the concerrns have not been raised directly with them.
“We are disappointed by Dr Summers comments, particularly as he hasn’t been in touch with us directly to discuss his concerns,” they said.
“It is further disappointing given that over the years we have proactively involved the TDSFB concerning the River Ericht.
“Westmill Fish Farm has done everything within its power to mitigate its impact on the environment and three years ago we agreed to an amendment to our license to reduce our abstraction from the River Ericht in times of drought.
“We have always and continue to act within our agreed license.”
A spokesperson for SEPA said: “Low water levels and concerns regarding the sluice gates in the River Ericht, Blairgowrie were reported to SEPA by a member of the public on Sunday July 18.
“On the same day, SEPA were informed by the sluice operator that the gates had been deliberately damaged by an unknown party.
“An officer was deployed to the location to assess the situation and established the damage was contributing to reduced flows.
“The operator repaired the damage to the sluice gates on Monday morning and some improvement in the water levels was observed.
“Blairgowrie is now in early warning for water scarcity due to dry soil conditions and low river flows.
“Due to the recent and prolonged settled weather, water levels in many rivers may be low and could be temporarily impacting the movement of fish through river systems.”