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John Bailey: The constant shifting sands of our very fishing future

PUBLISHED: 14:36 01 October 2019 | UPDATED: 14:36 01 October 2019

Friend Simon Clark fishes a swim on the Wensum. My diary tells me that in the hot summer of 1976 when I fished there the water was six feet deep at this very spot Picture: John Bailey

Friend Simon Clark fishes a swim on the Wensum. My diary tells me that in the hot summer of 1976 when I fished there the water was six feet deep at this very spot Picture: John Bailey

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Do you like eating salmon? Do you like the occasional trip away fishing for salmon?

Robbie Northman walks the Little Ouse. Just where has the water gone? Picture: John BaileyRobbie Northman walks the Little Ouse. Just where has the water gone? Picture: John Bailey

In either case, the answer will not be the same now as it would have been when most of us were kids. Then, the salmon we ate was wild and setting out to catch them was a strong probability. Today, the salmon we eat will amongst certainly be farmed and if we want to catch a salmon the UK is about shot. The chances are you will have to go to Iceland or even Russia.

I'm not saying the two developments are inextricably linked, but the well-known fact is that salmon farms around the UK's west coast especially have been for the most part environmentally disastrous. Over-intensive salmon rearing leads to infestations of sea lice around the cages and this dooms the runs of salmon and especially sea trout throughout the estuary where they are situated.

One fish farm in the Hebrides, though, bucked the trend. I won't give its name but I know it well. It grows salmon in an impeccable fashion and the sea loch where it is based is pristine. The high quality fish is then treated in the company's smokehouse and sold, generally abroad. This has been a triumphant success for 20 years, proof that we can have our salmon and eat it without destroying our coastal ecology.

After Brexit, though, many of the company's foreign workers left and the Hebrides is not rich in recruitment possibilities. As production halved, so did orders from Europe as purchasers began to worry about future import restrictions. The company has tried to raise business in Japan but it appears our Government has made no attempt to arrange trade deals there and leaving the EU on October 31 would result in a prohibitive tax being imposed on their smoked salmon. I'm not remotely getting into the Brexit debate, but the unintended consequence might well be the collapse of one of the only environmental fish farms we have. That would be a real knockback to wild salmon, sea trout and bass too.

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Think how many times we hear politicians say they are going to build tens of thousands of new homes. When do you hear them say where the water to service these houses is going to come from? Remember the group The Undertones? Feargal Sharkey, their frontman, is working tirelessly to investigate the smaller chalk streams just to the south of us that are in the final stages of their lives. Rivers like the Ver, the Stort and the Minram are having their water, our life blood, drained out of them. The underground water-bearing aquifer that feeds them is being abstracted to feed our showers, loos and kettles at a rising and unsustainable rate.

Every shred of evidence suggests that our own chalk streams here in East Anglia are not light years from sharing the same fate. Everyone wants to see a roof over everyone's head, but is it too much to ask that politicians and planners find suitable water sources and that we keep our rivers into the bargain? Most of us will never catch a UK salmon again: before long many of us won't be fishing our chalk rivers again unless action is taken. Another unintended consequence sent to bedevil us.

Of course, not all modern developments are bad root to branch. For example, anybody who reads me in the press or on social media will know I think that this century's surge in cormorant numbers is one of the biggest threats natural fisheries face. My sincere belief based on decades of observation and years of consultation is that cormorants pick off the larger fish between eight ounces and two pounds in all our fresh waters. So, rather than having 1,000 bigger roach in a 20-acre lake, because of selective cormorant predation, there might now be 100,000 very much smaller ones. These figures are ludicrously random, I know, but they make my point.

This state of affairs might not be good for serious specialist anglers, but it is great for kingfishers. Of course, mild winters are supremely important for kingfisher survival rates, but so is an abundance of small fish for these enchanting birds to eat. I know 15 Norfolk lakes very well indeed. Since the darkening of our skies with cormorants, the populations of small fish have rocketed and so have kingfisher numbers, by as much as 40pc I reckon on some of the lakes.

This unexpected consequence makes most, if not all, my fishing days even more wondrous. In last week's Gardeners' World, Monty Don explored the link between gardening and time in nature with good health, mental health in particular. The conclusion reached was that a mere two hours a week in a natural space can really restore even the most damaged of us. How fortunate are we anglers then? I spend 60 hours a week bankside so no wonder I'm so happy, lucky sod. Even if you just fish once a week or once a month, fishing can prove to be a a cleansing, beautiful, calming experience. Monty Don stuck his neck out making a whole program on this subject as I do now finishing this column. But I feel gardening and fishing are alike and if we enjoy them fully, they really are balm for our tortured modern souls!

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