The salmon fisheries are a long-established part of coastal life in Portrush. The first people who settled on the Causeway Coast valued the salmon as a major food source and this has continued throughout the millennia. Local fishermen can recall when over 5,000 fish would be caught in a season (March – September) and landing a catch became a daily attraction as the huge ‘bag nets’ were hauled ashore. The fisheries have now been bought over by the government and strict guidelines are in place to protect the declining number of salmon due to climate change, overfishing and pollution. The Salmon Fishery was established under the ownership of Lord Antrim. For many years fixed nets were placed at right angles to the shore: one at the fishery, a second adjacent to the Lansdowne foreshore, a third at Reviggerly Point and a fourth on the West side of Ramore Head. These nets were fixed at one end to the rocky shoreline and at the other to a heavy anchor sunk in the sea. The nets were regularly inspected by the Salmon Fishery staff using heavy wide-beamed boats from which they lifted a section of the net to remove the salmon before moving on to the next section. Leaving from and returning to the jetty and slipway at the Salmon Fishery could be a hazardous undertaking in rough weather as large waves rolled past the entrance.
The Atlantic Salmon which is found in our waters has a very interesting life cycle. They are ‘anadromous’, which means they spend time in both freshwater rivers and the sea. The salmon will start as a small pea-sized egg which is usually hidden among the loose gravel of a river between November and January. The female will dig a groove in the gravel to deposit her eggs and the male will swim over the eggs and fertilise them. The female then buries the eggs quickly to a depth of several centimetres to protect them from bumps or attack from predators such as eels or trout. A large female salmon can lay up to 15,000 eggs at a time, giving a higher rate of survival. These eggs slowly develop until you can see eyes and increasing movement as they feed on a small sac of food inside the egg.
Just-hatched salmon fish are called ‘alevins’ and they still have the ‘yolk-sac’ of food attached to them in Spring. They absorb this and become more active, rising through the gravel until they are strong enough to swim up to the surface to get their first gulp of air called a “swim-up”. Believe it or not, this air is important for the fish as it will fill its swim bladder and make it easier to swim with natural buoyancy.
Once the alevins can swim they are now addressed as ‘fry’. They have eight fins which are used to maintain their swimming in fast-flowing streams over the summer months. If you can see salmon in a river, it means it is good quality water as salmon are very sensitive to changes in water quality, habitat and climate. Over the Autumn the fry develop into ‘parr’ with vertical stripes and spots for camouflage as they are now more exposed to predators. They will stay this way for one to three years until they are around 10-25cm in length. They will then undergo a process called ‘smolting’ when they gain a silver appearance and begin to swim with the tide instead of against it. The smolt will migrate along the Atlantic Drift to sea for a couple of years and prey on other fish such as herring and sand eel.
If they make it to the sea as an adult salmon, they are called ‘grilse’ after one year there. Once they are a suitable weight or size, they will return to the river which they were born in to breed a new generation of salmon. Salmon have a remarkable ‘homing instinct’ and can tell exactly where to return to from distances of over 3,000km! It is on this journey back to their river that many are caught offshore at Portrush. Once they arrive back in their river, they do not eat until they have spawned a successful batch of eggs so they can focus their energy. After they have done this, they are called ‘kelts’ and are more susceptible to disease and predators due to weakness. However, some do make it back out to sea to repeat their amazing journey again.