Angling fraternity find their voices

Angling's voice is getting louder, a regional summit to discuss the future of the sport heard at the weekend – but there's still plenty it needs to shout about.

Delegates from across East Anglia discussed the impact of predation, drought and illegal fishing on waters across the region, at a forum convened by the Angling Trust at the Environment Agency's offices on the edge of the Fens at Huntingdon.

Former Labour MP Martin Salter, the AT's new campaigns co-ordinator, said 15,000-strong trust was now growing rapidly.

'From an organisation that was almost bankrupt two years ago, we've turned the corner, we've started to attract members in record numbers,' he said.

After leaving Parliament at the last election, Salter went on sabbatical to Australia, where he was commissioned to produce a report on how angling could become a stronger political force.

He told the meeting the most effective angling lobby was in New Zealand, where everyone who bought a fishing licence automatically became a member of the sport's governing body.

'It's run by anglers, for anglers and they've got some of the best fishing in the world,' he said.

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Lifelong angler Salter got elected onto his local council in Reading after he campaigned to overturn a fishing ban it had imposed on a stretch of the Thames through the town, before becoming MP for Reading West, in 1997. He said his political career had taught him what politicians listen to.

'They do take notice of numbers, they do take notice of professional, coherent bodies,' he said. 'Not five or six different voices.

'The Angling Trust is the only show in town. This is the only chance we'll have in a generation to have a unified voice for angling.'

Fisheries expert Ash Girdler gave a presentation on predation, looking at birds and otters which have decimated stocks in some waters.

'The way forward has got to be through joined-up argument and representation at a national level,' he said. 'We have got to deal with this on a national basis.'

Girdler outlined how non-lethal methods such as floating fish refuges and sight lines could be employed to reduce the impact of fish-eating birds on stocks, before turning to otters.

'Nobody is going to wipe out cormorants,' he added. 'With otters, the only way to deal with them is a mechanism where fisheries can get grants to fence off their fisheries.'

David Hawley, the EA's area environment manager, said lack of rain and a chronic soil moisture deficit left many waters in a vulnerable condition.

'The sun's shining, the leaves are on the trees, the soil moisture deficit's going to start going up,' he said. 'We're going to be in for a difficult summer.'

Hawley said river flows were at something like a quarter of the volume expected at this time of year.

'We know that some river stretches are drying up,' he added. 'The likelihood is we'll be asking for full irrigation bans if we get the drought forecast this summer.'

Roger Hanford, one of the EA's chief fishery scientists, reported on a tagging project set up as part of the agency's investigations into declining barbel numbers in the middle reaches of the Ouse.

Twenty fish ranging from 6 - 16lbs were tagged with tracking devices, before their movements were monitored over two years.

Anglers and the angling press have blamed otters for the decline in the iconic river species. But Hanford said: 'We tagged 20 large barbel in a stretch otters are known to frequent and we still have 20 large barbel.'

Further investigations revealed fry recruitment was poor, while gravel beds used for spawning had become clogged with silt and weed. Hanford said the project was an example of research funded by anglers' rod licence fees.

David Hawley outlined the EA's new approach to tackling illegal fishing and enforcement.

He said the agency was moving away from part-time bailiffs checking rod licences to an intelligence-led approach with full-time enforcement officers.

'We are quite thinly-spread on the ground, I know in my area there's an awful lot of this kind of stuff going on and I'd dearly love to crack down on it,' he said, after showing slides of gill nets, long lines and a dead pike killed by a set line.

Denis Moules, from the Pike Anglers Club, said it had set up a riverwatch scheme and after meeting with enforcement officers, its members would be sharing information with them.