In recent years I have been giving considerable thought to what the future of our fisheries will hold. Unfortunately the more time given over to the consideration of this subject the more I have become convinced that the only way fisheries will survive is by through radical change of the structures that govern them. We are currently faced by a both financially and morally bankrupt system that is failing fisheries at every level.
The Environment Agency Fisheries Division would appear to have lost its direction along with its funding. This is attributable to is in my view weak and inappropriate management that have been unable to make sufficiently robust defence of the department to secure adequate funding. The case for funding can only be made through the line management process making the case for higher prioritisation than currently allotted fisheries. Once this process has failed the chosen route to deal with the shortfall is to cut services and staff.
The statutory obligation to maintain, improve and develop appears to have been replaced by hiding behind a policy to protect the species. The role of the EA fisheries division was to protect the fisheries whilst this obviously involves the species it is not the definition I would use to define a fishery. A fishery is a capital asset and through the exploitation of that asset is the owner/lessee able to maintain the river and so the species. The most important facet of which has to be the income that allows for the investment in the future, without investment all businesses will eventually fail and that is the sorry state we have reached with our fisheries.
The monies that are raised from licence fees and Grant in Aid go the Environment Agency that in turn invests it in the salaries of inadequate management, bureaucracy and administration. In many cases they have gone beyond the point of no return, there is insufficient income to allow for any serious investment. Those prepared to take on the commercial gamble on the recovery of the fishery and invest heavily with money from outside sources have to run the gauntlet and jump through hoops as the agencies provide spurious arguments why such commercial support is not welcome. No other business I can think of has to submit its investment to so many regulatory controls.
What is happening on the rivers? We have our fingers crossed and fervently pray that Mother Nature will smile benignly upon us. There are one or two private initiatives that struggle with the forces arrayed against them, for these entrepreneurial soles to support the whole system is quite frankly asking too much. Richard Walker way back in the 60ís prophesised that the future of angling lay in the still waters. Lakes and gravel pits developed by individuals with the minimum of EA interference have sadly proven his point.
Where do fisheries actually fit within the great plan as directed by the government through Defra and the EA - well they are spread out and effectively emasculated between enforcement, monitoring and biodiversity. We come way down the hierarchal scale when compared to abstraction, discharge monitoring, flood defence and land drainage that exploit and control the river. Fisheries are afforded the same priority as navigation, ecology and public access, this despite anglers not only paying 20 million a year in the form of the rod licence for the EA to maintain, improve and develop our interests but also paying in the form of considerable rental values and in many cases as riparian owners. Why should some well intentioned environmentalists, canoeists or local authorities who contribute absolutely nothing have an equal say as a body that contributes in such a direct fashion? That could be viewed as a deliberate policy to ensure those that own and lease and directly use the rivers are not in a position to threaten the politically sensitive uses the government see as the primary role of our water ways. If the selection of committees is based on as wide a remit as possible the views of the owners and tenants are effectively diluted.
The running and control of the rivers as a corporation/business by the government, generally under the guise of public interest, to me is nothing short of being a nationalised industry. The difference in the case of the rivers is that historically businesses that have been nationalised have had their shareholders and boards compensated for the loss of their property as the case with coal, steel, the railways etc.
So just what does owning a fishery enable you to actually undertake to improve your asset? The answer to that question is remarkably little without the express permission of the government in the form of its self appointed management committee to ensure you donít rock the boat by doing something to improve your lot or asking those that impact on your property or rights to pay for the privilege. God forbid that those that use and exploit the rivers for profit and gain by abstracting the life blood and replacing it with an enriched soup should be held to account for the damage to your asset.
You may say that is why we have representative bodies to consult with the EA on our behalf. If that is the case why were fisheries ignored by defra/EA when the WFD stakeholder groups were established, probably the most influential piece of legislation we are to face in the future. Where were our representative bodies? What were they doing to protect our interests? I hope they were not so caught up in the cosy relationship of representative panels, groups and committees chosen by the EA to give a facade of consultation that they failed to notice what was going on.
EA/Defra appointed committees are a management tool for maintaining the status quo and manipulating the outcome to tow the predetermined line. Rocking the boat by demanding action for which someone may be held accountable or responsible is a forlorn hope, modern management practices do not include initiative. Nothing will be done based on management experience and decision making ability, a consultant will be employed to muddy the water and provide a screen for the ineffective management to hide behind "We were following best scientific evidence" or "the consultant recommended that course of action."
Many that are chosen to sit on these groups are completely out of their depths and provide a veneer of consultation rubber stamping the official line fed them by the EA whilst the rivers stagnate and decline? Having a seat at the table isnít enough, if you are there to represent an aspect of riverine ownership or rights you have to be accountable to those owners and tenants and carry their demands to the table and perhaps most importantly that table has to have executive powers or it is a waste of time. One of the major problems is that many of our representatives are amateur volunteers, run ragged by the scale of the forces arrayed against them. Whilst under the current system some do an admirable job what sort of business with a 3.4 billion pound turnover is represented by the retired and part time. Why do we spend 22 million pounds a year on representatives to maintain, improve and develop our assets and then spend all our energies fighting those self same people? Restrictions placed on independent efforts are so prohibitive as to doom them to certain failure. Anything that does not follow the EA dogma is undermined at every opportunity; who other than anglers would pay to make themselves so bloody miserable?
The EA doesnít have the corporate capability to manage our fisheries; particularly under BRITE staff are trained as scientists, enforcement officers etc and rise through the ranks to become the managers of a regulatory monitoring service. The EA is a regulatory agency and we are so over regulated any spark of initiative, innovation or original thought is rapidly stifled. Any management system requires innovation and original thought, to do otherwise is to stagnate and any business operating in the private sector very quickly learns the consequences of that strategy.
Let me state in BLOCK CAPITALS THAT I REFER TO EA FISHERIES IN THIS ARTICLE, the role of abstraction licensing, discharge monitoring etc are not the issue here. I am also not attempting to get rid of fishery staff, quite the reverse, I see the many of those currently within the EA forming the nucleus of catchment boards but independent of the EA, given decision making powers, with dedicated areas of responsibility, with fisheries as their sole role. A professional workforce answering to an elected, representative executive much as the Scottish system would seem sensible. I hear many say this is not a realistic option in this country, well all I can say is I hope those same people do not represent my interests.
Mis-information has created a false belief among the general public and those on the periphery of the fishery world that EA fisheries are looking after the interests of owners and participants. The media perpetrate this view with the emphasis on celebrity and superficial issues. Those that are portrayed as the experts are very often those that indulge self interest to the detriment of fishery interests and without concern for fishery future. Continual selfish pursuit of sport/specimens without consideration of the future is portrayed as the path to follow. Altruistic individuals cannot be expected to save the day; certainly human nature will not provide sufficient manpower to see a secure future for fisheries. Volunteers will not be able to meet the demands placed on fisheries in the years to come, there has to be a professional body in place to deal with future fishery needs.
Until we give local management its head to expand and develop the multitude of different approaches aching to be employed across the land we will languish in our current state. Diversification and innovation are the only way ahead for our fisheries; catchment committees or groups of like minded individuals need to be allowed the right of self determination that we pay so dearly for. Allowed to experiment and research problems they perceive as having direct bearing on the assets or areas of concern. It would have to contain an element of government involvement to ensure vital infrastructure wasnít put in jeopardy. Our right to get it wrong has been paid for and the belief that there are sufficient committed individuals out there to get it right has to be recognised.
To remain run by the government through national policy or national bye laws is a certain route to disaster; it locks all rivers into a bland catch all that is never the prescription to deal with the huge variation of rivers through out the length and breadth of the land. Diversity with every unique river creating the strategies required based on local knowledge and aspirations. Never underestimate the value of a policy that has the support of the local users and owners; the fact it has that support alone gives value and credence to such a route. Outcomes will not be the fault of the agency they are the results that answer the questions asked by concerned local river users. Failures can be examined and valuable lessons learnt, successes can be exported and adapted for use elsewhere, as success elsewhere can be evaluated and adapted for use on our own catchments. We need dozens, no hundreds, of differing approaches to problems we all share, enrichment, endocrine disrupters, weed, population dynamics, silt dynamics, barriers to passage and the multitude of other concerns.
MP Martin Salter has as Iím sure you are aware, endeavoured to start a debate that will help define the future of angling. Whilst talk of a one pound levy to support a dedicated governing body for angling is stimulating discussion it would seem to me to be paying twice for the same service. I thought I paid sixty odd pounds per year to have my fishery interests maintain, improved and developed!
In my personal submission to the 2000/2001 EA Review Board* I included a scenario for the shape of fishery representation in the future. That future did not include a fisheries division within the EA and at the time support for such a proposal was pretty thin on the ground. The intervening years have seen several changes in fisheries division of the EA and alternatives are now being seriously considered. There have been a flurry of questionnaires and forums asking the views of informed recipients of the Fisheries Departments services; the results do not paint a rosy picture.
BRITE arrived and went, or didnít, its difficult to decide just what did happen with regard to the Better Regulation In The Environment. Fisheries funding in the form of GIA has now been subject to cuts imposed by Defra to help relieve the in-house cock-up single farm payments turned out to be. With the cuts in funding come the associated cuts in staff and services. Research and staff on the ground have become a distant memory in many areas. Fisheries now have to rely on handouts and scraps thrown to it by conservation funding and agri/environmental schemes from the EU.
We have the legislation to protect the ecology of our rivers from pollution, abstraction etc. We also have the legislation to maintain, improve and develop our fisheries yet the past two decades have seen a catastrophic decline in the state of many fisheries throughout the country. We have the EA congratulating themselves on seeing an improvement in a self determined target to maintain the species such as the salmon conservation targets. What we donít have is the means to determine how we go about creating an abundance that allows a commercial exploitation of the species and that include rod fisheries.
When we look to the future we must look for positive elements that we can reliably predict will remain constant. We must assume that angling will remain a pastime that attracts many to participate. We must also assume that the continuance of this participation is dependent on there being abundant fish stocks to exploit. It is amazing how buoyant fish stocks attract anglers be they dace in the Hampshire Avon, seatrout in the west coast streams, salmon in Russia or carp in the bagging pools; provide the fish and they will come - anglings "Field of Dreams" - but its true.
One other constant is that some one will own these rivers and this ownership is the factor that has to be the driving force of future management. We are all too well acquainted with the ability of the various angling representative bodies to organise themselves. The areas that appear to have the most influential and successful representative groups are those that are steered by riparian interests because without the backing of the owners most strategies are struggling before they get of the ground.
The harsh reality is that the groups representing the various disciplines and species are in the most part ineffectual in the management of rivers. They are at best effective lobby groups but the right to determine the fishery future of most rivers lies with the owners and tenants. Should an owner be in a position where income from fishery tenancy is not required he has the simple option of saying his or her river remains closed to all but guests. However in the majority of instances the asset has to be realised in one form or another and the various groups representing the disciplines and species have the opportunity to have their say. In most instances the advice available from the various experts in their fields is well met and appreciated but it is just that advice.
The rationale is to have an effective management group in position on all rivers with an umbrella organisation such as that which exists in every other sport in the land. In reality the infrastructure already exists on our rivers. We have riparian interests well represented on many catchment groups and we have, in ART, an umbrella organisation capable of representing those catchment committees and forums at a national level. That in its simplest format is all that is required to manage the future of fisheries in England and Wales. Obviously the professional employment of fishery administrators, scientists, enforcement officers etc. will be for catchment groups to determine. Each catchment may possibly have a Defra financed fisheries officer and associated staff, their role would be regulatory in that they would advise the catchment committees of their obligations under the law. They may also be responsible for contract specification and data storage and distribution but this will be a role independent of the EA.
Rod licence money should be distributed per capita and individual catchment levies should be permissible on waters wch warrant them; you wouldnít expect to play golf at St Andrews for the same price as the municipal course next door. How the local rate is raised is for the catchment committees to decide but the simplest way is a fixed percentage on tickets or leases. The local rate on the Tweed is raised through the head price paid by the riparian owners on each salmon and seatrout landed. This is obviously passed on the rods but with a premium of 80 pounds per salmon with in the region of 15000 landed annually I will leave you to do the sums.
I can see this is not a format that will find much favour with the plethora of groups and associations that exist within angling but if we are ever to be masters of our own destinies it is time for personal aspirations to be placed on the back burner for a while. If the various bodies representing species and disciplines wish to have the right of self determination within of our sport, time for them to get behind the Association of River Trusts and jointly produce a working Strategy Document that can be presented to the Minister. Once the message that this is the only realistic means to provide a secure platform for the future of fisheries management has been publicly aired will we see the government take action.
The reputation of the EA fisheries division is fatally flawed and no number of reshuffles, reviews or reorganisations will ever allow that to be regained without enormous government funding. The likelihood of such funding is slim to say the least and why should we expect the public purse to support our sport. Time for the EA to be removed from the equation and allow those that own and lease the rivers to determine their fate. Whilst the EA continue with this pretence of management we will continue with this downhill slide.
SALMON & FRESHWATER FISHERIES REVIEW GROUP
If as river owners and users we are to continue to have the EA fisheries division with mandatory powers, it is essential that central government meets its responsibilities and increases funding enormously. At a time of fiscal restraint this obviously gives rise to the sensitive subject of public money being used for the benefit of private fisheries. A further area of concern is that fisheries in many parts of the country have declined dramatically. Capital assets have plummeted and we would be asked to have faith in the same system that has so dramatically failed to improve, maintain and develop as per current statutory obligation.
As an alternative the management of fisheries in England and Wales should be determined by those who are directly affected by the well being of the rivers. An executive catchment committee formed from elected owner/users afforded powers of self determination with the added benefit of local knowledge to apply local prescriptions to local problems. From the example that follows it can be seen that emphasis on local knowledge is fundamental to this strategy. This is not to say national policy has no part in this system, a MAFF appointed fishery officer and staff are central to ensure a national over view where necessary.
The great advantage of this new approach would be the many new innovations driven by local funding and alliances from numerous differing approaches success is more likely. Work deemed necessary contracted out to the private sector and overseen by a fisheries officer would form the basis of future development. Public education, preferably within the school national curriculum, on similar lines to the Canadian approach would take a very high order of precedence in future strategy.
The approach advocated puts in place a clear decision making structure offering flexibility to meet ever more rapidly changing circumstances.
The threat of climate change and ever increasing demands on the water resources cries out for a clear future approach. It would not be in the interest of anyone or anything to add further tiers of bureaucracy to that already proven to be failing
- a. The protection of the riverine habitat & species with all associated ecological, social and economic ramifications. (This provides protection for all riverine flora and fauna and is a belt and braces coverall for the life cycles fisheries depend on)
- b. Areas to be defined by the geographical similarity of catchments and the size capable of being overseen by MAFF appointed Fishery Officer and staff.
- c. The maintenance and conservation of all eco-structures giving rise to fisheries.
- d. To protect and conserve both net and rod fisheries in England and Wales.
Funding in the form of GIA, at a significantly reduced rate, would still be necessary from Central Government, to be removed as the recommended alternatives come on line.
A return to the polluter pays principle where-by abstraction and discharge would incur a "Conservation Levy", the rate must reflect the implications of enrichment and reduced flow, it must not just cover EA admin costs. The agri-chemical industry would also come into this category with a mandatory rate attached to hostile products.
Riparian owners would pay in the form of a revamped 142, under the newly proposed structure with executive say in its expenditure, there-by negating the principle of "No say, No pay".
Angling licences would continue, the responsibility for enforcing and policing being a statutory obligation of owners and clubs. In house expenditure would be of direct financial benefit providing the incentive to ensure the maximum return.
Radical changes, however the advantages far out weigh any problems. I believe with the ever increasing demands on the public purse, the government will eventually have to re-assess the statutory obligations administered by public agencies. It is for those involved on the ground to recognise their responsibilities and deal with the problems. The primary object, that of the protection of the riverine environment, has become secondary to the maintenance of EA fisheries division. The rivers can no longer afford to support the EA as has been the case for numerous riverkeepers throughout the length of the land with the collapse of the fisheries. Time for change.
Management is determined by consultancy review. No accountability within the management structure.
Modern management recruitment systems do not rely on experience now dependent on academic qualification - false economy.
Major conflicts of interests.
Police to pursue criminal activities such as poaching under the "Countrywatch" scheme.
Hatcheries closed for financial reasons, closures being hidden behind very dubious hypothesise claiming no sustainable gain.
Monitoring without policy related to findings.
Duplication of work with NE.
Lakes act as example of progress without EA interference. The only time you see an EA officer is when he is checking licences, usually on a busy dayticket fishery where he/she is certain of an easy haul of miscreants.