The last coracle fishermen

How dwindling fish stocks and new regulations are killing off the ancient tradition of the coracle fishermen

coracle fishermen wales

Photography by John Laurie

Dusk is falling on the Teifi as Len Walters and his son, Aaron, prepare for another night’s fishing. They check off their gear – gumboots, head torch, priest, drift net – before slinging their most essential bit of kit over their backs: a coracle, crafted by hand from willow, hazel and calico.

“The design on each river is different,” Len whispers, trudging down to the darkening riverbank. “The Teifi coracles are different to the Tywi ones, as we have faster water and more rapids. But they’re built the same as in the old days, only we don’t use cowhide any more because it’s too bloody heavy.”

Without a sound, the two men float their coracles and glide on to the water, steering one-handed with ash paddles using a figure-of-eight stroke. They drop the net, their torches blink out, and then they are off, disappearing into blackness downstream.

For generations, coracles have been used to fish for salmon and sea trout – known locally as sewin – on three Welsh rivers: the Teifi, Tywi and Taf. Light, nimble and manoeuvrable, each boat is made by hand, using a fabric skin stretched across a lathed wooden frame (although on the Tywi, the skin has been upgraded to fibreglass for durability). Traditionally, nets were made from twine, but nowadays they are nylon, weighted by coconut rope. The fishing is done by darkness because by day, the fish would spot the net: most nights, the netsmen start at 11pm and work through till 3 or 4am.

But after centuries of coracle fishing in west Wales, this ancient craft may be nearing its end. Alarmed by dramatic falls in fish stocks, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) has imposed bylaws restricting fishing rights on the Teifi, Tywi and Taf. Since 2020, fishers have been obliged to release any salmon caught, with size limits imposed on other species including sea trout. The net fishing season has also been shortened to three months, from May to July. The coracle season had previously begun in March.

Nevertheless, the rivers’ health continues to deteriorate, raising fears that stricter restrictions may be required – a prospect that fills the coracle fishers with dread.

“It’s probably going to end within the next five years,” says Mark Dellar, a maker and netsman based in Cilgerran. “They’re talking about heritage licences, where they’ll just restrict us off the river, like they did with the lave fishermen on the Severn. Unfortunately, that’s the way the powers that be want to play it.”

Sadly for the coracle fishermen, the figures are sobering. According to NRW’s estimates, salmon numbers across Welsh rivers have roughly halved, with the decline becoming starker in recent years.

In 2021, it is estimated that just 853 adult salmon returned to the Teifi to spawn, down from more than 3,000 in 1994. Sea trout numbers have proved more resilient, but have still experienced sizeable recent falls.

The netsmen dispute these numbers, claiming the estimates are inaccurate as they are derived mainly from rod-and-line returns, automated fish counters and academic formulas such as“stock recruitment curves”. But even the most optimistic admit there are far, far fewer fish in the rivers than in their fathers’ and grandfathers’ day.

“We’ve talked about rivers being at risk for a long time,” says Ben Wilson, NRW’s principal adviser for fisheries. “We’ve never talked about risk of extinction. But there are now rivers across Wales, particularly smaller rivers, where we’re seeing incredibly low numbers, causing real alarm bells.”

Pollution, habitat loss, water quality, barriers to migration and disease are all considered to be factors, but the main culprit is climate breakdown. Since salmon rely on cold water as a trigger to spawn, the species is particularly susceptible to the effects of global heating. In the opinion of Andrew Thomas, restoration officer for the West Wales River Trust, unless stricter measures are taken it is a real possibility that salmon could vanish from the river altogether.

He says: “Years ago, there was plenty of fish for everybody. But it’s coming to the point where we’re getting really worried about the future. Something’s got to be done, and we’ve all got a part to play in that.”

The question is whether banning coracle fishing will make a difference. With 12 fishing licences on the Teifi, eight on the Tywi and one on the Taf, coracle fishermen argue their numbers are too small to have an impact, especially compared with far greater numbers of rod-and-line anglers.

The NRW position, says Wilson, is that while neither rods nor nets have been responsible for the decline, unfortunately that does not mean tighter restrictions will not be needed to help the rivers recover.

“Our intention is to sustain these stocks into the future,” he says. “Coracle fishing – and seine netting – is part of our heritage. As long as there are sustainable stocks to exploit, I hope those fisheries can operate. If there aren’t enough fish, I still hope we can find a way to keep those skills and that heritage going.”

But like his fellow coracle fishermen, Len Walters remains gloomy about what the future holds. “If you take away the right to fish, you’ll no longer have people making coracles,” he says. “And it’s such an amazing way to fish. All feel. No engines, no noises, just the skill of two boys in a coracle. And it’s sad because once it’s gone, it’s gone. It’ll never come back.”

This article was originally published in The Guardian.