John Bailey: The aquatic truths that have to be told

Little Plumstead's Lewis Russell with a wonderful, old wild mirror carp. Fish like this breed natura

Little Plumstead's Lewis Russell with a wonderful, old wild mirror carp. Fish like this breed naturally in favourable habitats but their young are annihilated by predation Picture: John Bailey - Credit: Archant

When I read the letters in the angling press and the comments on social media about the state of our wild fisheries I wonder how many times you need to repeat a message in order to hammer it home.

To tell the truth about these fisheries, you have to know what the truth is in the first place and then, it seems, repeat it until you are blue in the face. The fact is that we will never improve the awful state of many non-commercial fisheries until truths are accepted and then, vitally, acted upon.

Of course I question my own qualifications to bang on about what is wrong with our fisheries today. My degree was not in science but I have followed the scientific discussions about our waters for 40 years. I have met 100 or more fishery scientists and listened avidly to what they have had to say. Above all, I spend six days a week, 12 hours a day on our bank-sides, rain or shine, winter and summer. I haven’t learned everything, but I have seen more than most and my passion to see good done before I shuffle off my coil remains undimmed.

It seems to me that the history of ‘care’ of East Anglian waters falls into two quarter of a century halves within my lifetime. I was first aware of environmental issues as a lad in 1970. By and large until 1995, our waters were treated in a cavalier fashion and most work on fisheries was carried out by good old boys who had little formal training, but who had a cracking working knowledge of how those waters worked and what they needed. Rules and regulations were thin on the ground, but fish were not. Fish were carted from where they were numerous to where they were not and the fish farm at Hellesdon contributed mightily to this rule of thumb stocking policy. Between 1995 and the present day, another convenient quarter century, this ad hoc approach has been replaced by the appearance of a whole host of experts with one fishery science degree or another to go behind their name. Habitat, habitat, habitat has been the new mantra and much good has been done.

So do not think of me as a Luddite, please. Putting habitat improvements at the heart of fishery management has done away with deep (disastrous) dredging on our rivers for example, which has been a gift from heaven. If you walk the Wensum around its Swanton Morley stretches you’ll see the damage the dredger did: the river bed gravels now lie heaped on the banks; there are barely any overhanging trees; weed growth is poor; bends have been straightened and riffles lost. In contrast, fish the stretch of river beneath the bridge at Lenwade (a £10 day ticket from the pub I believe) and you will find gravels, weed, singing shallows and weeping willows everywhere. Some fish too!

The one problem is that the pursuit of habitat perfection has obliterated any other considerations. In 2020 we might have much better fishery habitats than we did in 1995, but we have far, far fewer fish than we had in 1970. There is little point in having a superb home for fish if there are no fish in the first place. What our modern fishery experts refuse to accept is the role that predation plays in all this. It is the whole question of predation that has fatally muddied the waters. Let’s look at the vexed otter debate first. Anglers tend to hate otters, but perhaps they shouldn’t. I say this because I have run lake and river fisheries most of this century and rarely find a decent fish killed by an otter. That is the honest truth. Otters are killers on shallow estate lakes. Otters kill old or incapacitated fish. Otters kill torpid fish in freeze-ups. For the rest of the time the vast majority of big, wild, experienced fish of all species rarely succumb. Otters eat crayfish, waterfowl, smaller mammals and fish in about that order. Or at least they do on the waters I patrol on my daily basis. What I ought to add is that otters also eat a huge amount of water voles, which is an inconvenient truth for the ‘professionals’ to accept who like to blame Ratty’s demise on mink predation, and loss of habitat of course.

Anyone who knows me, anyone who reads these columns knows that my bete noire is the cormorant.

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Again, crucial truths are denied or overlooked. The vast number of cormorants we see each and every winter are not indigenous UK cormorants driven inland by poor coastal food stocks. These are European cormorants that have been flocking here this century and these are predominantly freshwater feeding birds. They come in their tens of thousands, they are rapacious, they eat fish between three ounces and three pounds and they can entirely devastate fish populations as they go.

These are entirely new boys on the block and were never a factor in my early Norfolk years. It is an inescapable fact that cormorants have been responsible for a crash in numbers of fish nationwide this century. They have decimated salmon runs in Scotland (by hoovering up parr) and grayling stocks in the south, so it is not just coarse fisheries that are destroyed. Anyone who loves wild fish is the poorer.

A major area of disagreement between fishery scientists and those who make their living from actual fishing is over the question of restocking. By and large, restocking fish in fish poor fisheries is the last thing the scientists want to do. For this last quarter of a century that I keep harping on about, the professional advice is that get habitat right and Mother Nature will do the rest. She has not and she cannot. Our fisheries in very many instances need a hand to get fish stocks self generating again. I know the arguments against this, but the fact remains that anglers like me have seen nothing but fish numbers collapse this century. In so many fisheries, the policy of habitat restoration has clearly and utterly failed. I pray that protection of the habitat will be maintained but it has to be allied with restocking strategies and protection for the fish that are introduced.

Talk is cheap. Something must be done. I also realise I sometimes over-mention my friend comedian and actor Paul Whitehouse. I do this only because he is a brilliant bloke and a superb angler and I only do this now because he has a proposal.

He recently wrote a piece in the Sunday Times extolling the joys of angling. Top man that Paul is, he wants to donate his fee to an angling project that actually makes a difference and has obvious, preferably speedy results. Please. Any ideas will be gratefully received – send them to