FURIOUS salmon fishermen are taking legal action against the Scottish government inBrussels, claiming ministers have failed to protect stocks.
The anglers claim the Scottish Government has endangered salmon numbers on the River South Esk, Angus, and are lodging a legal complaint with the European Commission.
The move follows a government decision to extend the netting season into September.
Opponents say the netting station on the river is already taking too many fish and that the angling industry on the river is dying.
The river is a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) for salmon and lawyers for the group say it is currently in breach of the EC’s Habitats Directive.
They claim that both spring salmon stocks and later running fish which will be affected by the “unparalleled proposal by the Scottish Government to extend netting into September”.
A spokesman for Brechin Angling Club, Byron Pace, said: “We could not, in all good conscience, sit on our hands, as the future of the South Esk came under threat. To do so would have been irresponsible and unforgivable.
“Due to the Scottish Government’s dismissal of the proposed conservation measures, we have been forced to take this to Europe, in the hope we can prevent the damaging effects of increased netting on an already fragile water course.”
The club secretary Bill Balfour added: “There’s no shadow of a doubt that they are taking too many fish. The spring run is just not there on the South Esk.
“We feel the extension of the netting season will be the end of the South Esk.
“We know the numbers are declining, we can see that by the stocks.”
Anglers pay anything from £20 to £100 a day for the right to fish on the river.
Mr Balfour added: “Compared to 15 years ago when it was one of the best rivers inScotland, now there’s practically no fish moving.
“The anglers aren’t there because they won’t pay the price to catch nothing.
“The river was enjoyed by people from all over the world, but not now.”
The legal action has been given the backing of the Salmon & Trout Association (S&TA).
CEO Paul Knight said: “It is indicative of a lamentable lack of political commitment to protect a wild natural resource in line with out international obligations.”
Guy Linley-Adams added: “The Scottish Government has placed far too much emphasis on the interference in the property rights of the netsmen and not enough on its obligations to protect the South Esk SAC’s spring salmon stocks.
“I believe the European commission will follow long-established European, and indeedUK, law that has repeatedly confirmed that the private property rights of individuals are subject to the wider need to conserve species and habitats in the wider public interest.”
Anglers believe the netting company, Usan Salmon Fisheries, is being allowed the extension as a reward for cooperating with Marine ScienceScotland’s research programme.
But Usan director George Pullar hit back at the claims, saying the anglers were allowed to catch fish for far longer.
The current legal netting season runs from February 16 to August 31, with anglers allowed to remain on the river until October 31.
Mr Pullar called it as “a far longer period of exploitation than out own”.
He added that angling catches for the last year have been at their highest since records began in 1952.
“The age of the Highland Clearances is over and the working man has a say – we are here to stay.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “Ministers have asked Marine Scotland officials to discuss with the net fisheries in the River South Esk arrangements for accessing generic samples and fish for catch and release for tracking.
“This is with a view to a possible “catch and retain” fishery from September 1-14 until 2012.
“Such a fishery would enable access to a reasonable sample of fish and genetic material throughout the commercial net fishing season to inform Marine Scotland Science’s statutory investigation of wild salmon and sea trout stocks.
“A number of points are being investigated regarding how this will operate.
“MSS have provided advice on potential conditions for a possible licensed September net fishery, including advice on the number of fish that might be taken.
“We are still considering that advice and will be consulting other advisers including Scottish Natural Heritage, given theSouth Esk’s status as a SAC.
“Furthermore, ministers have decided they will maintain the restriction on the net fishery so that the start of the net fishery will be put back from February 16 to May 1 2012, for a further period of three years.
“This delay in the start of the net fishery has been in place for seven years and provides a measure of protection for the early running salmon in the South Esk. This is additional to the annual close season and weekly close times which apply to all net fisheries for salmon.”
Usan specialises in two similar types of netting known as purse netting and jumper, or stake, netting.
Bag nets are fished usually in deep water and are held in position by floats and anchors.
A sheet of nets several metres wide is stretched on stakes fixed into the ground at the water’s edge. They are usually constructed at the mouth of the river, where the sea ebbs and flows.
Fish are driven into traps by exploiting their habit of swimming along nets rather than through them.
Once the tide goes out a man is able to walk out to the net and remove the fish by hand.
In 2009 almost 13,000 fish were caught in nets, while 72,000 were caught by the more numerous anglers.