Friday, 4 June 2010

EXPOSED: Plans to change the face of pike fishing

Natural England is on a collision course with Britain's 4m anglers over proposals which will change the face of their sport, it emerged tonight.

An investigation by the Pike Anglers Club confirms the powerful conservation quango plans to seek a ban on live baiting.

But officials also want the final say over just about everything else anglers do - ranging from where, when and how we can fish, to which fish belong in our rivers and even whether angling clubs can remove snags or trim bankside trees.

Natural England wants to take control of the way fisheries are managed, imposing draconian controls on our sport. There'll be glib talk of angling's importance to the economy and the benefits it brings, in a blur of Whitehall spin.

But an application using Freedom of Information laws has uncovered a paper trail of policy papers, documents and e-mails between officials stretching back two years.

It all makes for shocking reading, as the true agenda emerges. As threats go, it overshadows clubs banning live baiting, pike culls or even conservation groups buying up waters and turfing anglers out to make way for the bird watchers and picnic tables.

It's angling's ground zero. It's the debate which will define the shape of our sport in the 21st Century. It's the battle that we can't afford to lose.

Natural England first came onto our radar when it called for a ban on live baiting during the Environment Agency's consultation over so-called fish removal by-laws.

While the EA came down firmly on the side of live baiting after listening to what angling had to say on the subject, Natural England won't be satisfied until it's banned.

The argument's hardly a new one. Anglers live baiting routinely move fish from one water to another. However this practice was completely legal until a decade or two ago, so banning it now smacks of stable doors and bolting horses.

But banning live baiting is just the start of it, as far as Natural England's concerned. The powerful quango, which advises government agencies on everything from environmentally-friendly farming policy to conserving rare bats, wants to restrict the stocking of bream and carp and let nature take its course instead of allowing those controlling fisheries to manage them.

They want us to welcome canoeists and swimmers to our waters - and even prevent club working parties from cutting back vegetation or removing snags.

Natural England estimates 4m people go fishing, supporting a £2.75bn industry and 20,000 jobs. It's proposals note that angling takes place on a "significant number" of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and other nature reserves.

"Although angling is formally acknowledged as a reason for unfavourable condition on relatively few of these sites, it is likely that some practices have a serious negative impact on the natural environment," the policy document explaining its proposals says. "These include wildlife disturbance, inappropriate fish stocking and live baiting."

Most predator anglers would probably find the suggestion they have "a serious negative impact on the natural environment" pretty laughable. But livebaiting is singled out elsewhere in the 11-page report.

"Angling can have impacts on rivers and standing waters. The presence of anglers may disturb wildlife such as wildfowl; bank modifications that ease access to the waterside can destroy habitat; and inappropriate stocking and the transfer of species (sometimes non-native) between water bodies is often damaging.

"For example, the inappropriate stocking of standing waters with bottom feeding fish such as carp and bream can often lead to sediment disturbance and a consequent deterioration in water quality.

"Live baiting (where a hook and line are attached to a live fish to lure predators such as pike) has, in some cases, resulted in non-native fish being introduced to waters and native fish being dispersed beyond their natural range.

"Access is also an issue on many freshwaters, with some anglers being reluctant to share water access with other recreational users, such as canoeists. Canoe access is currently restricted to around four per cent of river length in England and Wales."

Even the famous ruffe of Bassenthwaite make a guest appearence, as Natural England presses home the attack.

"Unfortunately some established angling practices are detrimental to the environment. For example, anglers live baiting? with ruffe are believed to have introduced this fish to Bassenthwaite SAC. Here the species established itself and became a significant predator on the eggs of vendace, contributing to this species? local extinction.

"Other practices with potentially detrimental outcomes are the clearance of bankside vegetation and the removal of dead wood from rivers. This is often done to allow better waterside access and lessen the risk of snagging fishing lines, but can also result in a significant loss of habitat for waterfowl, mammals and invertebrates.

"Inappropriate in-channel weed clearance can also have a detrimental effect on some fish species. Many coarse fish use weed as spawning habitat and where it is removed (usually to prevent snagging) breeding will be less successful."

Natural England talks in guarded terms of increasing opportunities for anglers - alongside canoeists and even swimmers.

"Working in partnership with local fishing groups, the Angling Trust and SSSI landholders, Natural England will explore the opportunities for responsible, environmentally-friendly angling on National Nature Reserve estate and SSSIs, and consider expanding this effort where it already occurs.

"For example, by improving access to water bodies where this would be of benefit to anglers and other recreational water users and where this would not be detrimental to nature conservation interests.

"Opportunities to develop angling should not conflict with the recreational value the freshwater environment holds for other users, such as canoeists and swimmers."

Rewind the "where this would not be detrimental to nature conservation interests" line again. Natural England effectively wants the last word, the final say on how waters are managed and the part that angling plays in that picture.

And internal e-mails and documents obtained by the club reveal an alarming anti-angling bias among unelected officials.

In an exchange of correspondence in September 2009, Stephen Arnott, a member of Natural England's policy team, tells colleagues the new policy would give "guidance" to conservation officers (COs) drawing up management plans for rivers and stillwaters classed as SSSIs.

"I can imagine that many COs have no idea of the problems anglers can cause and don't even consider them when formulating management plans," he writes.

"However, I don't think that this rationale for the policy is one we'd want written down in a public document as it wouldn't make us look very good."

Why exactly might Natural England not look very good if its true intentions became public - among some of the more laudable obectives set out in the policy, such as improving the quality of our rivers..?

Because the organisation which frames conservation policy wants to highlight the problems anglers cause, as guidance for those who draw up management plans for nature reserves, who decide if, where and when we can fish.

Some feature in the e-mail trail, requesting more details of these problems. Last October, Sue Cornwell wrote to colleagues requesting more details of wildlife disturbance caused by anglers. "Disturbance should be no problem," Mr Arnott replied within minutes.

One wildlife trust already has a No Fishing policy. In the last Pikelines, Alan Dudhill reported hundreds of acres of stillwaters in Nottinghamshire had been closed after being bought up by the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust.

Elsewhere anglers are already starting to lose out to a powerful conservation lobby looking to create new wetland reserves to replace those lost to rising sea levels and climate change.

Natural England also has its eye on carp - the species which probably supports the vast bulk of the angling industry.

One discussion paper asks whether all stockings should be opposed - apart from those in "enclosed artificial waters". It asks whether fish to be left to their own devices to re-colonise rivers and lakes.

"The commonly-stocked common carp is classed as a natuve species by the EA, but considered by some to be an invasive non-native species," it goes on. "Should Natural England promote the removal of species such as common carp from the wild and restrict their use to enclosed artificial fisheries."

A dialogue is under way between the PAC and the Angling Trust, which was unaware of many of the policy's details and the discussions which led up to it.

"At the moment we are talking to them at a senior level, Chairman and CEO, and expressing our concerns over this draft and especially the emails which you exposed," a seniot source within the Trust said.

"We have strong working relationships with many of those within NE who support angling and they provide a useful source of knowledge of where the problems might exist internally. Those contacts will continue.

"We will be taking the concerns to Richard Benyon, Fisheries Minister at Defra, and asking that NE should have no part in fisheries management of sites which they do not control themselves."

Natural England's fisheries policy has now been approved by its ruling board. It is now due to go out for public consultation.

When it does, we could well find ourselves fighting the most important battle our entire sport has ever faced - let alone this club.

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