IN SCOTTISH COASTAL WATERS
by Tony Taylor
There seems to be a conception amongst many people that the Bass, Dicentrarchus labrax, is rarely encountered in Scottish seas, with only a small number of this superb streamlined fish finding their way this far north.
Before the decline of the species during the 1970s and 1980s, Bass occurred regularly in the warmer months of the year, in large numbers along the Solway coast, and were caught by anglers, particularly in Luce Bay.
The popular opinion as to why Bass occurred along the Solway coast was that this long length of coast formed an obstacle to their northern summer migration through the Irish Sea, and very few made the journey further north through the North Channel.
When I first visited the coastal areas of the north-west of Scotland and reflected on the facts of their geographical location, the relative warmth of the sea due to the near proximity of the Gulf Stream, and the relative ease for Bass to migrate north up the west coast of Ireland in summer and then head across to the north-west coast of Scotland, I felt that Bass must occur in considerable numbers along the many miles of coast in this area. Why were they not caught then? Well, most of this coast is very isolated and never fished, or most of the fishing is geared to catch common species and not Bass.
Autumn and Winter Bass
When I moved to south-west Scotland in 1989 the reports I received and my own experience indicated that the opportunities for catching Bass were not great. However, since then the situation has improved and Bass are now being caught in increasing numbers, although not yet as frequently as before the decline.
My own experience is of Bass occurring from May onwards, but what is more surprising is that the fish are staying very late in the year. In 1994 I was catching Bass on Luce Bay beaches until just before Christmas and only bad weather prevented me from fishing after that. I was also informed about a 6.3 kg (14 lb) Bass netted offshore just after Christmas in the previous year. This late occurrence parallels the late occurrence of Grey Mullet.
Bass are now to be found in areas where they had never been seen before, or at best had only occurred as rare oddities. Loch Ryan is the northern facing twin of Luce Bay. Whereas Luce Bay opens out south into the Irish Sea, Loch Ryan opens out into the area known as the Lower Clyde. Local anglers have told me that for the first time in their memory Bass are caught from the west shore of this loch, as well as increased numbers being hooked by anglers further north along the Ayrshire coast.
However, what is of even more interest is that very small Bass of 170 grams (6 oz.) upwards that are being caught on the storm beach near Dunnet Head right at the most northerly shores of the Scottish mainland and near the Kyle of Tongue, a sea loch just to the west. Bass are also caught off the beautiful shores of the Western Isles.
Why are Bass occurring in areas where, even in days past when the
total numbers were far greater, they were rarely to be seen? It has been
suggested that the gradual warming of the seas is the reason. However,
the relatively sudden change makes this an unlikely cause.
It would be beneficial to know the route taken by these northerly occurring Bass to arrive at areas such as the north of Scotland. Are they fish that have travelled up the west coast of Ireland, fish that have travelled through the Irish Sea near the coasts of Ireland or Wales, or even conceivably fish that have passed through the Straits of Dover and up the North Sea coast of England and Scotland?
My own limited theory is that the main influence in their success
is the beneficial effects of the warm outlets from power stations that
have been built in recent years, including the nuclear power station at
Heysham in north Lancashire, that provide havens. Shrimp fishermen in Morecambe
Bay have told me of large numbers of tiny Bass caught in their nets
It would be interesting to receive reports from other members about the occurrence of Bass in Scottish seas. It would be also interested if a tagging programme could be started on these northern fish so that we can find out more about their travels and origins.