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Donkin on Fishing - Conservation Issues


October 2007 – Corporate responsibility and river pollution

Richard Donkin fishing for Trout  

A few weeks ago anglers fishing on London’s river Wandle witnessed the distressing sight of thousands of dead fish drifting down the river. Within two days of the incident, directors of Thames Water were admitting responsibility for the fish kill that had been caused by a spillage of bleach from one of its sewage treatment plants.

In fact the bleach was being used to clean the very filters that the company had installed to ensure that its discharge water met demanding UK and European standards.

“We don’t feel good about any of this. It shouldn’t have happened,” said Richard Aylard, director of sustainability and external affairs at Thames Water.

Sadly there is nothing new about fish kills in urban rivers but the rapid reaction to this incident and swift admission by the polluter shows how corporate attitudes are changing. No long drawn out investigation here. No stonewalling. Instead the company has met with various agencies and angling bodies to draw up plans for regeneration.

Thames Water, however, is not alone in its positive response to a river crisis. For years anglers fishing the Bourne rivulet in Hampshire have complained of declining catches that they have blamed on contaminated water discharged by the watercress farm and salad washing operations run by Vitacress Salads at St Mary Bourne.

Unlike the Wandle, the Bourne rivulet has not been overtaken by urbanisation. Watercress has been farmed on the site for more than a hundred years, stretching back to the days when Harry Plunket Greene, the Victorian opera singer, recalled fishing the stream in one of angling’s best loved books, Where The Bright Waters Meet.

The Bourne rivulet is not much more than a thin strip of a chalk stream, but it holds some remarkable trout. I saw fish there recently in the 4 lb class and caught a beauty right in the middle of the farm, as wild as they come, unlike the stocked fish you find in some stretches of chalk stream.

Mark Lloyd, executive director of the Anglers’ Conservation Association, whose organisation has taken an active interest in both the Wandle and the Bourne, points out that it is difficult to be definitive about fish populations.

But evidence did emerge a few years ago of a sharp decline in the population of shrimp – part of a trout’s diet – on the stretch of the rivulet just downstream of the farm.

Several years and a number of studies later, the shrimp decline was found to have been caused by mustard oil, the very substance in watercress that gives the plant its anti-cancer properties in humans.

The oil had been filtering in to the stream from the cleaning process at the farm which uses chalk stream water to rinse salad products that it sources not just in Hampshire, but in different parts of the world.

Earlier this year the company sought to tackle the problem by investing £250,000 in a new recycling system that pumps the contaminated water back to the top of the farm where it filters through the soil thus dissipating the mustard oil. Within weeks of changing the pumping regime, shrimp began to colonise the streams again. Looking under stones I found plenty of shrimp, caddis and other aquatic insects.

Then in the spring Vitacress commissioned landscapers to create new stretches of chalk stream by exposing outflows and planting natural vegetation on sections that were previously hidden in culverts. It’s difficult to see what else the company could have done to improve the stream apart from shifting its entire operation.

“I’m delighted if they have made things better,” says Lloyd who believes nevertheless that the salad treatment is on an “inappropriate scale” for a small stream. He may have a point, but Vitacress is an important employer in the locality. It runs a successful business that supplies healthy products to some of the UK’s leading food outlets such as Marks & Spencer and J Sainsbury.

“The fundamental thing is that people living in the rural Hampshire countryside don’t like big businesses and big lorries. You’ll never get over that,” says Steve Rothwell, production and technical director at Vitacress.

But farming and fishing must learn to live side-by-side in a spirit of mutual understanding. Companies and farms that can respond to the concerns of anglers will win friends in the long run. “We haven’t always seen eye to eye but I’m please at the work that has been done here,” says Michael Malyon, a landowner who has fishing rights below the plant.

Both the Vitacress farm and the Thames Water treatment plant are sitting on historic rivers that enjoy an iconic status among many anglers. Frederic Halford, the dry fly guru fished on the Wandle, as did Lord Nelson.

In Hampshire fishermen still make pilgrimages to Plunket Greene’s grave in a quiet corner of the churchyard at Hurstbourne Priors where the tranquillity is disturbed only by the trickle of the stream. Fishing boxes and rusting flies have been placed on the stone like offerings. Why do people go there? I think it has something to do with respect for a life well lived.

So is there a growing respect for rivers among business and farming? It’s difficult to talk about respect after a fish kill as devastating as that on the Wandle. But the contrition at Thames Water is genuine, backed by a determination to put things right, not least since it must demonstrate to pension fund investors its commitment to sustainability.

Vitacress too has sought to reverse the damage of the past, creating a conservation trust to look after wildlife habitat associated with watercress and other salad crops. Commercial interest can no longer be divorced from conservation.

See also: Do fish feel pain?

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