Nationalisation by Stealth - June 2006

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.

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.

I would dearly like to see the government adopt the same policy toward fishing as it has the water industry and the rail network - set it free from government interference and allow those who own and use our rivers be answerable and responsible for their fate.