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Donkin on Fishing - Conservation Issues


January 2007 – Finding heaven on earth

In the past year or two I have come to know some people in the fishing business. Each of them, without exception, was drawn to the business through a love of fishing. But speaking to a few of them lately, their stories have been remarkably similar.

“How’s your fishing going?” I ask. “What fishing?” they say, “It’s so hard to get away from the office.” I feel that some counselling is necessary. Nothing, not the year end accounts, not the government report, not the pending merger, not the complex derivative, not even the fifth terminal at Heathrow, should get in the way of fishing.

That’s the theory anyway. In reality diary demands can soon begin to eat away at our best intentions. I too have found myself turning down two recent grayling fishing trips. For this reason I’m going to be devoting a chunk of time this month to making arrangements for the coming year.

I have my salmon fly boxes next to my desk and every now and again I open a box, take out a fly, look at it and put it back. That alone is enough to trigger a Pavlovian reaction in the salivary duct. Fishing is ninety per cent anticipation.

In his classic work Fly Fishing, published in the closing year of the 19th century, Sir Edward Grey, the longest continuous serving British foreign secretary in history, describes the building excitement ahead of a visit to the Test or the Itchen as he boards an early train from Waterloo Station.

He writes of leaving behind the smoke and bustle of the capital before stepping from the carriage an hour or so later in to a world of “long-desired things” where “you are grateful for the grass on which you walk, even for the soft country dust about your feet.” His description of a perfect June day on the chalk-stream is all the confirmation anyone should need of heaven on Earth

There is something ironic about Grey’s passion for nature since his work as a statesman was instrumental in taking Britain in to the First World War, leading to his famous remark that: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

Today those who share his passion are witnessing other threats, many of them environmental and some of them man-made. The lamps are flickering now over the world’s oceans and the new European Union fishing quota has done far too little to redress the depletion of international fish stocks.

We are approaching the time that the seas can no longer be viewed as a free for all where trawl nets can hoover up species indiscriminately. Fish farming needs to be improved and attitudes to wild caught (or “net caught” as it often appears on the menu) species must also begin to change.

I won’t order wild salmon in a restaurant if I see it. Nor will I order swordfish. This year I’m thinking of turning away also from tuna, much as it pains me to do so. Tuna, whether canned, as sashimi or gently seared over the grill is one of my favourite eating fish.

The netting and subsequent farming of tuna has become a big industry, first in Australia and, increasingly, in the Mediterranean. But what amounts to penning and fattening, rather than rearing from hatching, has done nothing to lift the threat on wild populations. In fact, says the World Wildlife Fund, it has added to that threat.

Tuna are marvellous fish to catch on rod and line too, arguably the greatest saltwater game fish of them all. As a child I recall seeing sepia-toned pictures of giant tuna landed off Whitby in the late 19th and early 20th century. But Atlantic tuna catches have been declining for some years now and Atlantic bluefin stocks are reaching critical levels.

The popularity of rod and line fishing could not be sustained today without a conservation ethos among anglers. Sometimes this runs in to ethical difficulties when the culling of one species is promoted as a means of protecting another.

The killing of seals, cormorants, even other fish such as pike, is often advocated as a solution to predation of freshwater stocks. But predators have a role to play in the maintenance of healthy fish populations. A problem arises when predation is excessive. Cormorants, for example, have only become an issue on rivers and lakes since their sea fishing prospects have declined. The same may be true of seals.

For this reason anglers should avoid the easy option of demonising other species and begin instead to look at long term fish conservation.

The campaigning and legal work among various bodies such as the Wessex Salmon and Rivers Trust, The North Atlantic Salmon Fund and Stop Salmon Drift Nets Now, an organisation representing Irish fishery owners, has shown what can be done to protect salmon stocks, not least by their latest victory in ending Irish drift netting for salmon.

But the work of these groups and others like them must continue, not only in the interest of rod and line fishing, but in the wider interest of international fish conservation.

At the same time other conservation groups, including those whose members would deny all kinds of fishing, should recognise the role of angling in conservation. It wasn’t Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund that fought and won these battles, but the hard work and dedication of a few individuals backed by the donations of anglers and those who support angling. We should not forget that.

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