CONCERNS over dwindling numbers of salmon on the Tweed have led to plans for a significant number of cormorants and goosanders to be killed this year.

For the first time in 20 years large numbers of the birds will be destroyed to allow scientists to carry out definitive studies into their diet.

And hopefully establish if they are responsible for the continued decline in fish stocks all along the iconic river.

Fishing on the River Tweed and its tributaries is worth around £24 million a year to the local economy, as well as directly and indirectly supporting more than 500 jobs.

But fears for the industry's future were expressed as experts gathered for the annual River Tweed Commission (RTC) report.

Official figures presented to the River Tweed Commissioners show the total salmon catch last year at 6,129, a further drop on the previous year of 7,003 - and more than 15,000 catches down on five years ago.

The sea-trout catch had dropped from 2,594 in 2017 to just 1,158.

The figures continue a worrying trend which stretches back for more than a decade.

RTC chairman Douglas Dobie, who is standing down after seven years in post, believes birds are responsible.

He stated: "Goosanders are prevalent throughout the catchment and the number of semi-resident cormorants have increased significantly in the past few years.

"Whilst a decline in fish stocks, particularly migratory, is unlikely to be attributable to a single cause, it is distressing for anyone closely involved in the well-being of the river regularly to watch large numbers of piscivorous birds hunting in flocks of up to 50 to 100.

"This would not have happened 20 to 30 years ago and the numbers we see today will be having an impact on all freshwater fish stocks."

The RTC's annual report contains details of the forthcoming research project on cormorants and goosanders which, it is hoped, will provide evidence to support greater control measures against the predators.

A licence for killing both species has been issued, and will run until the end of May.

The study into the dietary make-up of the birds will be undertaken by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) in Edinburgh.

The RTC report states: "A few samples had been collected by the RTC during 2017 and sent for analysis, but a larger, coordinated, study was required.

"During lengthy consideration of that request, the RTC was issued with several interim month-long licences throughout the autumn period by Scottish Natural Heritage to enable the usual control and scaring regime to take place.

"At the end of the year, a compromise was agreed with Scottish Natural Heritage enabling a dietary analysis study to take place during 2019, involving several rivers, and being led by Marine Scotland."

In his farewell report, Mr Dobbie concedes that the Commission’s executive and Tweed Foundation staff have come under fire for not 'doing enough', particularly in relation to the predatory birds.

He added: "The dramatic decline in salmon catches has resulted in a loss of confidence, anxiety and anger at the present position leading to a polarisation of views often sustained by an unconscious bias towards only listening to like-minded opinions.

"Everybody involved should be working to find a consensus, not discord, restore trust and to maintaining the Tweed’s international reputation for management based on sound evidence and sound science."