HUNDREDS of thousands of Rainbow Trout are believed to have entered local waterways after a Newtownstewart fish farm was significantly damaged in last week’s flooding.
The Rocks Lodge Trout Farm on the Bunderg Road was hit when the waters from the nearby Strule River washed into the facility last Tuesday night.
The hatchery is run by Scottish firm Dawnfresh, one of the UK’s largest producers of fish and seafood.
Yesterday a company spokesperson said the firm was not in a position to offer any estimation of how many of the 80 tonnes of fish based at the facility flowed into the waterway, but one local source told the Chronicle that at least 800,000 rainbow trout had entered the Strule River.
Other angling experts in the area have put the figure in excess of one million fish.
Dawnfresh has played down the potential impact on the local ecosystem, but conservationists and anglers have said the incident could spell disaster for native species in the Strule, Mourne and Foyle rivers.
Stewart Hawthorn, farming director for the Scottish company described the rainbow trout as sterile and unable to breed with the local population.
“We do not believe they pose a risk to the local ecosystem,” he said.
But Seamus Cullinan of the Lough Agency, the body responsible for monitoring habitats and stocks of fish in local waterways, described the farmed trout as “aggressive eaters”, which he said were bred to eat a lot of food to put on weight.
“You’re probably talking hundreds of thousands of various sizes of Rainbow Trout escaping,” he said.
Mr Cullinan has urged anglers to actively fish out and remove or kill as many of the fish as possible.
“They’re not native to our rivers, so anything that’s non-native can have a detrimental effect on the species in those rivers, particularly Atlantic Salmon, native Brown Trout and Sea Trout. They’ll out-compete them for food, because they’re very aggressive eaters. There’s also the potential that they’ll eat juvenile native species, because they’ll eat anything.”
In Sion Mills, the local angling club told its members, “Since the big flood last week our river has become contaminated with escapee Rainbow Trout. There are thousands of them so if you catch any, kill them and dispatch please. These need eliminated as soon as possible.”
Angler Ronnie Quigley is one of the locals who have been out catching the Rainbow Trout.
“The anglers are just killing them and throwing them away. Some of them are keeping them to eat, but most are just dumping them or throwing them back into the river.”
Seamus Cullinan said he had been contacted by anglers who have caught as many as 200 rainbow trout in the area in recent days.
Stewart Hawthorn said the rainbow trout are safe to eat, but claimed most were very small, no bigger than 300g.
But pictures and accounts from local anglers posted across social media have reported rainbow trout up to two pounds being caught.
“A significant percentage of fish are still secure on the site but our team have been hampered in their efforts to determine the exact number and how much might have been lost because the equipment used to count the stock was also damaged,” said Mr Hawthorn. “We will repair or replace this equipment as soon as possible and, after that, will be able to provide more precise figures.”
Seamus Cullinan said that the Loughs Agency were relatively powerless to remove the invasive trout.
“Our advice is for any anglers fishing in that area, fish them out, kill them or take them, essentially the exact opposite advice we offer for wild stocks for conservation measure.”
While there is potential for the Rainbow Trout to swim upstream, it’s thought they will generally follow the current into the River Mourne and Foyle.
Dawnfresh said it has been working closely with Loughs Agency and the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to determine the full extent of the damage to the site, but the company has said the farm will be fully operational again in the near future.
“We will also review our flood protection plans for the site and take any action required to reduce the risk of a similar incident in the future,” Stewart Hawthorn added.