Monster Bluefish in an Australian Paradise

23 Apr

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What do you do when a bucket list destination – the sort of place you might visit the once – becomes an obsession? That’s what has happened to me with Lord Howe Island, a place so beautiful and unspoilt and with such great fishing that the moment you are on the plane home you start thinking about how long it will be before you can return. This was my third visit in five years to this tiny piece of rock, stuck so far out in the Tasman Sea that most Aussies have never heard of it never mind been there. Luckily for the 300 or so hardy souls who call this corner of paradise their home there is a loyal army of LHI enthusiasts who return year after year, often bringing their grown up children and grandchildren with them, to experience a pristine World Heritage Site where time stands still.

I’ve written previously on these pages about the magic of this place and the sheer variety of the fishing available to the visiting angler so have a look here if you want a bit more background at http://www.fishingworld.com.au/news/report-paradise-revisited. There’s even a full Fishing World magazine feature from my first trip in 2011 still available at http://www.fishingworld.com.au/news/the-last-paradise-lord-howe-island

So what’s left to say?

Well first of all although I caught kingfish I’m not going write about ‘The Kings of Lord Howe’ despite the fact that these are probably what the place is best known for in angling circles. With the Admiralty Islets to the north and the famous Balls Pyramid to the south there’s plenty of habitat to attract kingies in both size and numbers and a number of the local charter boats target very little else usually by fishing deep on heavy gear. Sadly the sharks have wised up to the boats and it can be a challenge to avoid them whilst still deploying anything like sporting tackle.

I absolutely adore sight fishing and the lagoon on the eastern side of the island contains part of the world’s most southerly coral reef which teems with fish including a number of species only found in this location such as the oddly shaped Lord Howe doubleheader wrasse. And although the crystal clear waters of the lagoon can be tackled from the shore and the island jetty there’s nothing to beat getting out on the water in a small boat with a local guide. There is nobody that can match the expertise and experience of my good friend Gary Crombie who has lived on the island all his life and runs Oblivienne Sportfishing which specialises in targeting the lagoon fish on light tackle.

The ‘grand slam’ of species that we were after included silver drummer, bluefish, double headers and silver trevally. In the past we have landed all four in the space of a short morning session but this time it took us a couple of trips – only because on the first time out I got comprehensively smashed by a turbo charged trev which rocked me and sliced my 20lb braid in about ten seconds flat. I’ve caught GTs and golden trevally elsewhere in Australia but I can honestly say that pound for pound the silvers pull harder than their bigger cousins and indeed anything else with fins that I’ve ever hooked.

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Crom spends as much time drifting around the lagoon looking for fish – obviously avoiding the sanctuary zone areas – as he does fishing. That is fine by me as I like the hunt and it’s great when we spot a school of good sized drummer or bluefish and get them feeding in the berley trail of wet bread and tuna oil. Tactics couldn’t be simpler. Just a lightish spinning rod – I use a 9ft four piece travel rod from Sonik with a casting weight of 20 to 40 grams – some braid and a fluorocarbon leader of 15 to 20lbs which I sometimes grease to make it float. At the business end is a No 2 hook and a piece of bread crust for surface fishing, pinched bread flake for a slow sinking bait or a lightly weighted prawn if we need to get below the swirling drummer and down to the trevs underneath.

The silver drummer are prolific and not hard to catch if you follow Crom’s advice, although those that hang around the island jetty are super educated and need a bit of fooling to get them to take a bait. I rashly promised one of the youngsters staying at Pinetrees Lodge – somewhere I’d highly recommend – that I’d catch him one if he and his mum would like to join me for a pre breakfast session. For a while they teased us by taking every piece of berley and ignoring our crusts but by scaling down to a smaller hook I eventually got 7 year old Will Taylor connected to a powerful drummer that obligingly charged out into the lagoon rather than smashing us up under the timber. The smile on his face and the relief on mine in the picture says it all.

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Blue Dreams

Crom and I caught plenty of drummer ourselves from his well appointed 5 metre side console boat ‘Bonefish’ including some chunky samples in excess of a couple of kilos. We had a crazy session on the double headers with fish after fish off the same coral bommie and I eventually brought a couple of decent silver trevs to the boat after a blistering scrap. When we tried for them we caught kingies on trolled garfish and we even found some large spangled emperor but couldn’t get them to feed in the bright sunshine. However, without a shadow of a doubt the highlight of the trip for both of us was the appearance of some super sized bluefish.

Sadly, these beautiful creatures, once found around Sydney in sufficient numbers that they named a particular rock south of Manly ‘Bluefish Point’, have now become extremely rare almost everywhere except on Lord Howe. In fact, in the rest of New South Wales the bluefish or ‘Blue Drummer’ are now designated a catch and release only species.

Now I’ve had bluefish before at Lord Howe but nothing over a kilo. They are sometimes in shoals on their own but are usually to be found amongst the drummer. Fortunately, when they are fired up they can be more aggressive than their silver friends and there’s a very good chance that a bluey will beat them to the bait. In the three sessions I had with Crom during my last trip we came across two substantial shoals of bluefish and on the first occasion there were some exceptional specimens amongst them. Apparently, the larger fish do put in appearance around the big tides in the Autumn so for once I found myself in the right place at the right time which is half the battle in any form of fishing.

I’ve no idea what the official record is for a bluefish but what I do know is that some of the fish we landed that day were as big as any that Crom has seen for a very long time. We put the biggest at not far off three kilos and probably around 30 years old which is a monster by any measure. Watching these amazing turquoise blue creatures sip a bait of the surface and then crash dive for the coral as they feel the hook is an image that will remain with me forever. Fortune was on my side that day, although a longer rod and pair of soft hands helped, and the bigger fish stayed connected. Bluefish look better in the water than they do on the boat as they quickly lose their colour in the air but hopefully this picture sequence will give you a flavour of what it is possible in this amazing fishery.

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If you are ever planing to take a fishing rod a Down Under you really should think about a visit to Lord Howe. It benefits from an incredible piece of legislation that restricts both numbers of visitors and residents, prevent commercial fishing and exploitation by property developers and preserves a world class pristine environment in which unique and endangered species can thrive and prosper.

You can read more here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/australiaandpacific/australia/8325719/Lord-Howe-Island-Australia-an-island-entire-of-itself.html
I’ve no idea when I will return to the place they call ‘The Last Paradise’ but I know for sure that I will.

More Info on Fishing Lord Howe

Oblivienne Sportfishing: http://www.fishinglordhoweisland.com.au/

Pinetrees Lodge: http://www.pinetrees.com.au/pinetrees/what-to-bring

Lord Howe Island: https://www.lordhoweisland.info/

Blue Drummer: http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/58227/Bluefish-Primefact-159-final.pdf

Back at it Down Under

22 Mar
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A nice Aussie salmon from Sydney Harbour got Martin off the mark on his latest trip Down Under

Australia has become a second home to me of late and right now I’m on my fifth visit in seven years. I’m mainly here on holiday and to catch up with old friends but I was asked to do a bit of work for New South Wales Fisheries to help spread the habitat gospel amongst anglers in the Murrumbidgee River catchment.

Now in the 18 months or so that I’ve been in Australia I’ve travelled and fished many places on this beautiful continent but I’ve never been deep into the bush so I very much welcomed the opportunity to attend the recent Leeton Bidgee Classic fishing tournament as a guest of the Fishers for Fish Habitat Network and to share a few thoughts on how we look after our rivers and the important wildlife that they contain.

I was also looking forward to catching my first Murray Cod but sadly that didn’t happen although some fine fish were landed over the course of the weekend.

I first came out to Australia after spending 26 years in frontline politics in the UK. I decided to retire from the House of Commons at the 2010 election as I wanted to concentrate on campaigning on the things I care about rather than the things my constituents wanted me to do.

My love for rivers, fishing and the environment was of course shared by many of the people I represented both on my local council and later in my parliamentary constituency. I was extremely fortunate to be able, at times, to combine business with pleasure when I was appointed as Parliamentary Spokesman for Angling by Tony Blair and later on by Gordon Brown.

My job was to be the interface between the recreational fishers and the government and as a lifelong, passionate angler it couldn’t have been a more perfect role for me to play.

It was in that role that I helped bring the various groups together to set up the unified peak body for recreational fishing in England – called the Angling Trust – and which I now work for as their head of campaigns.

But first to the fishing…

First fish

Leaving a wet and freezing London and arriving to 30 degrees of blazing sunshine is always a shock to the system but is something I can cope with!
Jet lag after a 23 hour flight plays havoc with my sleep patterns for the first three days but it does mean that I’m awake well before dawn and can be on the water for first light. My mate Ollie told me that there had been a few kingfish showing in one of our favourite Sydney Harbour bays so I went down there to throw a few poppers and soft plastics around. The kingies were not at home but a nice Aussie salmon did a passable impression of one and I was off the mark.

 

The next day my old mate and Aussie fishing celebrity Al McGlashan kindly offered to take me marlin fishing. Al reckoned that 2016 had been the best marlin season in New South Wales for years and although things had quietened down a bit we were still in with a chance of getting a Blue if we went wide out of Sydney. It turned out that he wasn’t wrong and just as it looked like being a blank day we had a screaming take and young Thomas Eisenhammer – I guy I had fished with back in 2010 – took the rod and expertly brought 160lbs of extremely angry blue marlin to the boat where Al tagged and released it. It would have been great to have had three takes giving us all a chance of a fish, and this had been happening quite regularly this season, but marlin fishing is a team effort so we all basked in the reflected glory of Tom’s capture.

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Al McGlashan takes the leader as an angry Blue Marlin comes to the boat.

 

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Safely tagged and ready for release – something that should be the norm for all marlin anywhere in the world.

Australia is a country of extremes and there’s no two forms of fishing out here as far apart as chasing marlin with 24 kgs game tackle on the open ocean and targeting blackfish from the rocks on float gear and 3kgs hook lengths. However, I love it all and my mate and fellow Fishing World contributor John Newbury is an acknowledged expert at this style of fishing. John and I have a shared interest in politics, conservation and rock fishing and we’ve recorded some good catches in the past so I was really looking forward to our day out together.

For once the blackfish didn’t want to play and despite trying two of our favourite north shore marks only three fish came our way and none of them to my rod.

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John Newbury – doing what he does best and catching blackfish on float tackle and green weed.

Top End trials

Now it is almost rude to spend a few weeks in Oz and not go to the tropical Top End for some of the great barramundi and blue water action that is to be found up there. Plus a trip up to Darwin provided the perfect opportunity to catch up with Jim Harnwell – the former editor of Fishing World and my pommie mate and top fisho Phil Bolton who now lives down on the south coast.

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All aboard the Green Machine with Pete Zeroni – also known as ‘The Angry Dragon’ !

We were guided by the legendary Peter Zeroni who took us out in his fantastic boat Barraddiction also known as the Green Machine for obvious reasons. And on one of the days we were joined by Warren ‘Wazza’ Smith who knows more about fishing in this region than almost anyone. The Northern Territory is a beautiful but unforgiving part of Australia with stifling heat and humidity one minute and violent electrical storms arriving the next. We got caught in a couple crazy ones where the wind went from five to fifty knots in the blink of an eye and with those crocs about tipping the boat over was not really a good thing to do.

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The storm is about to hit us before we could make the boat ramp at Darwin

Unfortunately, there had not been a good wet season up north this year so the barra weren’t really fired up and feeding themselves silly on the baitfish pouring off the floodplain. This wouldn’t have been a problem as we were planning to spend two of our three days out wide chasing Spanish Mackerel and Queenies but the great big tropical low that brought those storms had also dirtied up the blue water so this option was closed to us. Luckily Pete and Wazza can always find a feeding fish somewhere and although we didn’t break any records a few nice barra came our way with Phil and Jim landing good size specimens on the troll from the South Alligator River. We also managed a few Queenies and a range of other species by throwing small jigs and poppers in and around Darwin Harbour but sadly the elusive milkfish for which this area is famous were nowhere to be seen.

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Jim Harwell looking pleased with his big Barra

 

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Hooked up on an Adelaide River Barra

 

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Phil with a modest queenfish from Darwin Harbour

Now that I’m back safe and sound in Sydney and already thinking about when I can next visit the ‘Top End’ and spend some time with the hardy souls that call this place their home.

Back to Leeton Bidgee

I’ve attended plenty of fishing competitions in the UK but nothing quite like the Leeton Bidgee Classic. This is a genuine community event in a sparsely populated part of rural Australia that attracts close to a thousand people over the three days that it takes place and raises money for the re stocking of Murray Cod and yellow perch into the Murrumbidgee River. The fishing is from both boat and bank and there are $35,000 worth of prizes and the chance to win a great trailer boat. Entertainment is provided every evening and everyone camps by the river at a great site just outside town at Gogeldrie Weir.

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Helping out with the annual restocking on the Murrumbidgee River in NSW as part of the Leeton Bidgee Classic

I was accompanied by Scott Nichols from the Aquatic Habitat Rehabilitation Unit of NSW Fisheries and we received a wonderful warm welcome from both organisers and competitors. We even got to help out with the re stocking and give interviews to the local paper promoted the work of the Fish Habitat Network.

Here’s some of what I said in my speech at the prize giving ceremony:

“We are all here because we love fishing and we want our kids and their kids to be able to enjoy fishing as much as we do.

So here’s three suggestions..

1) Stop doing harm

No more ripping out important bank side vegetation, stop people dumping bad stuff on the land that washes into rivers and kills fish, get those irrigation pumps screened so we reduce fish mortalities, maintain a minimum environmental flow in the river, remove barriers to fish migration and try and manage cold water discharges so they don’t damage fish spawning cycles.

None of this is rocket science and it’s been done in Europe, the UK, the USA and in Canada and you can do it here.

Pump screening is the most obvious one to me. I looked at some figures yesterday that showed a staggering12,000 fish per day extracted from a 12 inch pipe on the Condamine River in QLD while on some of the NSW rivers they counted 240 fish per day being lost to the system.

In NSW alone you have 4546 pumps with a 200mm pipe diameter. This equals an awful lot of fish being removed – far too many to keep your fisheries sustainable.

There is direct loss of fish through shearing as they pass through the pumps but, as you know, there is also loss from the natural system to canals that feed irrigation districts, but have no way of allowing fish to get back to the river channels.

And before anyone tells you it can’t be done be aware that in many countries the fitting of fish screens is a requirement of any major abstraction licence.

2) Start making it better

Let’s get those all important buffer strips along every possible km of river to provide habitat for fish and wildlife

Let’s look at narrowing and speeding up flows to create better spawning grounds

And of course it’s great that events such as the Leeton Bidgee Classic are raising cash for much needed restockings but we need to recognise that this can only be part of the solution. We need to to let the fish breed and to create habitat that allows this to happen.

The big one on Australian river systems is re-snagging and we know this works.

The Murray River Re-snagging programme in 2006/7 saw a threefold increase in the Murray Cod population following the introduction of over 4,000 large snags so this has to be a no brainer and is a great way to get fishos involved in improving their own fishing.
3) Support Fishers 4 Fish Habitat

I’m proud to be over here to support and promote the work of Scott Nichols, Craig Copeland and their team in the Fish Habitat Network.

We all believe passionately that the only way these things will get fixed is with concerted efforts from recreational fishers. That means getting involved and engaged and not just assuming someone else will do it for you because life ain’t like that.

Craig has travelled a fair bit on a Churchill Scholarship and looked at good practice from around the world including the work we do in the UK at the Angling Trust.

They have formed a group modelled on our successful US sister organisation Trout Unlimited – which is called called Ozfish Unlimited

This has the backing of people like Steve Starling and Michael Guest. It’s basically a national fish habitat advocacy network and you can join and find out more at ozfish.org.au

It’s a sad fact of life that Fishers in the UK or America are three times more likely to get involved in habitat issues than here in Australia – and that simply has to change and I’ve no doubt that it will.

Of course your fisheries will never be absolutely perfect in a challenged landscape with climatic extremes and population pressures but I know we can do better and we have to do better if want good freshwater fishing for future generations”

More fishing to come

So far the fishing has not produced anything too dramatic but I’m only halfway through my stay out here and I always travel in hope. Later today I’m driving three hours north of Sydney up to meet up with my mate Ben Doolan, another NSW Fisheries guy and top angler. We are going to be targeting long tail tuna and big kingfish out of Port Stephens which is one of the prime fishing locations on the Central Coast.

STOP PRESS>>>>>>>>>>>>

Last night was a success. In the company of Ben ‘ Fishfinder General’  Doolan I  finally caught something a bit special in the shape of a beautiful 35lbs longtail tuna on a mackerel live bait. I’ve had longtails before but not of this size and it gave a great fight before coming alongside Ben’s rather diminutive boat in a rolling swell.

Hopefully my luck has changed and a few more big fish will come my way before I have to fly back to Blighty.

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Success at last in the shape of this fine longtail tuna caught on a float fished mackerel livebait in a short evening session with top NSW angler Ben Doolan

Battling for Bass

16 Feb
Welsh bass guide Matt Powell with the sort of fish that should be commonplace around our shores if it wasn't for commercial overfishing

Welsh bass guide Matt Powell with the sort of fish that should be commonplace around our shores if it wasn’t for commercial overfishing

As someone who lists among his interests fishing, the environment and politics it is always an intriguing moment for me when these themes collide. And so it was the other day when, after months of furious lobbying and agitation about the need to conserve stocks of sea bass in the North Atlantic fishery, we finally had our day in the chamber of the House of Commons.

This was thanks to newly elected North Cornwall MP and mad keen angler Scott Mann who agreed to lead a backbench debate in the House of Commons to highlight the unfairness of the current bass measures on recreational sea anglers. The debate was titled “Conservation of sea bass and the effect of related EU measures on the UK recreational fishing industry.”

But first some background….

Bass Facts

The European seabass (Dicentrarchus labrax) is an iconic sporting fish, much loved by anglers with a recreational value of £200m to the economy and only comparatively recently considered a suitable table fish thanks to changing tastes and various promotions by celebrity chefs. In the 1980s bass were primarily pursued as a recreational species but over the last 30 years commercial harvesting has increased to the point where stocks are in danger of a catastrophic decline.

Organisations like the National Federation of Sea Anglers, now part of the Angling Trust, and the Bass Anglers Sportfishing Society (B.A.S.S.) have been campaigning for the introduction of bass conservation measures for more than 20 years. Things looked hopeful in 2004 when the Net Benefits report by the Cabinet Office recommended that fishery managers look at making bass a recreational-only species.Sadly, the reports stayed on the shelf, bass stocks continued to be over fished and the unsustainable minimum size limit (mls) of 36cms remained in place until last year’s long overdue rise to 42 cms – the absolute smallest size at which bass reach maturity and are able to reproduce.

Scientific advice on the status of bass stocks is issued annually by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) – not to be confused with the terrorist organisation with a similar sounding name!

In June 2014 ICES recommended an 80% cut in bass mortality across the EU area for 2015. This followed the 2013 advice for a 36% cut which was stupidly ignored by the politicians. Far from reducing the 2014 bass landings by UK vessels actually rose by 30% – much for all the hype about nasty Europeans coming over here and stealing our fish.

We cannot go on like this

We cannot go on like this.

Currently the bass stock biomass estimated at 5,270 tonnes across the North Atlantic fishery, a mere 20 tonnes above the limit of 5,250 at which future regeneration becomes critically endangered and well below the trigger point of concern set by ICES at 8,000 tonnes.

Following the failure to reach agreement at the European Fisheries Council meeting in December 2014 the UK took the unusual step of pressing the European Commission (EC) to introduce a series of emergency measures to protect bass. These included a new minimum landing size of 42cms and a ban on the trawling of spawning aggregations in order to help save declining bass stocks in the English Channel, Southern North Sea and Irish and Celtic Seas. These measures came in the following month but the situation continued to deteriorate and the ICES advice for 2016 recommended a 90% reduction in landings on the previous year. The emergency measures are estimated to have reduced catches by only 36% and the EC accept they simply didn’t go far enough.

Bass fishing in 2016

On the run up to the crucial European Council meeting in December those of us whose job it is to speak up for fish and fishing approached both the Commission and our own ministers to make it clear that whilst most recreational sea anglers were prepared to play their part they expected to see fair, effective and proportionate package of measures that would help rebuild bass stocks.
When the new proposals from the Commission were eventually published they included a complete bass fishing ban for commercial vessels and recreational anglers (including catch and release) in the first half of 2016 and in the second half of the year a monthly one tonne catch limit for vessels targeting sea bass and a one fish per day bag limit for recreational anglers. This was much more severe than anticipated and was a consequence of the years when the politicians ignored the dire warnings of a stock collapse.

Now banning catch and release fishing for bass was never going to work – after all how can you stop a bass attacking your lure when targeting other species like wrasse or pollack? At the Angling Trust we lobbied strongly in favour of retaining catch and release and against the one fish recreational bag limit describing the proposals as unfair, unenforceable and totally disproportionate. We produced data and briefings for our own Fisheries Minister George Eustice disputing the ridiculous figures that claimed that anglers were responsible for 25% of all bass mortalities and showing the high survival rates for returned fish. And while the ministers trekked off to Brussels to argue over the quota allocations we all waited to see what would emerge from the latest round of negotiations.

And what a pig’s ear they made of it!

Of course were pleased to hear that we had won the fight to retain catch and release but angered and appalled to learn that EU Fisheries Ministers had once again ignored the science and caved in to pressure from commercial fishing interests. They had cynically and granted four month exemptions to commercial hook and line and the highly damaging bass gill net fishery – responsible for over 50% of all landings – which they wrongly referred to as “low impact” . Why cynical? Because the only months that the netsman were to be restricted were February and March when they catch fewest fish.

Worse still the Commission’s plans for bass conservation were furthered watered down by the politicians when they increased the monthly commercial vessel catch limits from 1 tonne to 1.3 tonnes. By contrast the ban on anglers from keeping any bass during the months of January to June and limited to just one fish per day for the rest of the year were nodded through. Thousands of anglers are now at risk of criminalisation if they try to keep the self-same bass that a netsman is free to kill during the January to June moratorium.
The current situation cannot endure. The recreational bag limits are disproportionate and grossly unfair, they make a mockery of the law and fail to acknowledge that recreational sea angling is the most sustainable form of bass fishing which delivers the best economic return. Displaying stunningly poor judgement government ministers have tried to face both ways on the issue and have been caught out playing fast and lose with the facts:

  • They boasted on BBC TV that the measures would have little or no impact on inshore commercial boats so how is this a bass conservation measure?
  • They claimed to have secured a good deal for bass when in fact they increased vessel catch limits meaning more bass will be killed
  • They tried to say that anglers were happy with a one fish bag limit when they were told in no uncertain terms that his was unfair and unacceptable.
  • They claimed that because drift nets were subject to the full six month moratorium some 90% of all gill netting would be restricted yet their own figures show that it would be less than a third.

With the protests mounting some 14,000 extremely angry anglers submitted a petition to Parliament and the Angling Trust made sure the issue was on the agenda of national TV and press. We mobilised our supportive MPs and we were extremely grateful to Simon Hart, the MP for Pembrokeshire, for getting us in front of the Environment Minister Liz Truss so she could hear anglers outrage for herself. The meeting with the Cabinet Minister was given further relevance by the forthcoming debate secured by Scott Mann where the actions of ministers would be put under scrutiny.

Bass in Parliament

On the run up to the day Angling Trust and BASS members had been lobbying their MPs to attend this important parliamentary debate to speak support of introducing revised measures that reduce bass mortality by restricting rather than increasing harmful commercial harvesting methods such as gill netting. We asked them to promote sustainable fishing methods such as hook & line fishing for both the commercial and recreational sectors

After an excellent debate which can be read here

Or watched in full, starting at 15.03pm.

Scott Mann MP moved the following motion which was agreed without dissent:

That this House believes that the recent EU restrictions on recreational sea bass fishing are unfair and fail to address the real threat to the future viability of UK sea bass stocks; and calls on the Government to make representations within the Council of the EU on the reconsideration of the imposition of those restrictions.”

The vast majority of MPs who spoke were in favour of our calls for bass to be managed primarily as a recreational species alongside a sustainable hook and line commercial fishery. Many newly elected MPs highlighted the importance of recreational fishing and attacked the way that anglers had been treated as opposed to the exemptions handed out to the gill netters.

For me the only disappointing note was the failure by some to acknowledge that cooperation between countries is vital to managing a shared fishery and a migratory species like bass. The vast majority of our bass are caught by our own inshore fleet but some of the more rabid Euro sceptics seemed blind to this inconvenient truth.

The recovery of the American Striped Bass shows what can be done with good conservation and sensible fishery management

The recovery of the American Striped Bass shows what can be done with good conservation and sensible fishery management.

Replying for the government environment minister Rory Stewart conceded that they may have to revisit commercial catch limits next year in order to comply with scientific advice. He also repeated the government’s offer to work with recreational angling organisations on a long term management plan for bass which builds on the lessons of the recovery of the striped bass fishery in the USA where a greater proportion of the stock is reserved for recreational fishing.
We put a huge amount of effort into getting this debate and briefing MPs so that they understood the genuine anger and frustration of recreational sea anglers at the appalling way they were treated last year by the EU fisheries ministers. It would be churlish not to welcome the commitment from Rory Stewart on behalf of the government to re visit the commercial catch limits and to work with the recreational sector on a long term plan for bass learning the lessons of proper professional fishery management from places like Ireland and the USA. However, after such a big let down the government really does now need to follow up their warm words with some practical action to rebuild bass stocks and properly recognise the economic value of recreational fishing.

This week we will be writing to thank all the MPs who spoke up for angling and to ask them to keep up the pressure on the government ahead of this year’s European Council Ministers meeting in December. One thing I can guarantee is that there will be no let up in effort or energy from the Angling Trust or our colleagues at BASS when it comes to fighting for a sustainable future for this wonderful sporting fish.

Bass are a recreational only species in Ireland which is why I shall be returning there again this year to sample their great bass fishing

Bass are a recreational only species in Ireland which is why I shall be returning there again this year to sample their great bass fishing

 

 

You can read our special Fishing Lines Debate Briefing complete with some great quotes from bass guides Henry Gilbey, Austen Goldsmith, Matt Powell and charter boat skipper Neil French from The Spirit of Arun  HERE

 

And our Bass Facts paper HERE

Flooding Lessons: Learned and Ignored

10 Jan
Kennet Floods Jan14

Protecting the floodplain and managing river catchments from source to sea will do more to alleviate flood risk than dredging can ever achieve

At a time when communities across Britain are mopping up after the floods which devastated the downstream areas of many river catchments it beggars belief that government ministers are even considering deregulating practices which their own experts have told them will move water downstream even faster. This is a policy that puts farmland above homes as is argued eloquently here by the respected environmental campaigner George Monbiot.

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2016/jan/07/liz-truss-is-choosing-to-protect-farmers-over-flood-victims

It is somewhat worrying that reports by the Environment Agency on sensible catchment management appear to have been suppressed and deleted. This is just unacceptable so at the Angling Trust we have decided that a crucial Environment Agency document should be returned to public view. Titled “Evidence: Impacts of dredging”, and first published in 2013, we have now republished on our website.

Here are some of the more important findings:

“Increasing risk downstream: Dredging could in theory speed up flow and potentially increase the risk of flooding downstream. This is fully covered by the existing research.”

“Channels which have been artificially deepened by dredging silt-up more frequently as they return to their pre-dredged state. In these situations dredging will be an unsustainable activity since it needs to be repeated regularly. The best approach is to identify the sediment source and address the issue at source rather than treat the impact.”

“Dredging can damage ecology by directly affecting its physical habitat, disrupting riverine processes and reduced connectivity with the floodplain.”

Those of us who work with water and understand about rivers and their catchments approached this winter wondering how our politicians will react this time around. Would they jump, as many did in 2014, on the dredging bandwagon or will they take a deep breath and look at the bigger picture which shows how we need to think about managing catchments from source to sea before giving the green light to crowd pleasing policies which might actually make a bad situation worse?

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Dredging rivers risks increasing flood risk downstream and does huge damage to fish habitat and wildlife

There’s a golden rule of government that says never try and formulate a change in public policy purely as a response to a crisis. Resist the mob, ignore the media froth and give the ‘something must be done brigade’ the respect that their ideas deserve, which is not always a lot. Good policy doesn’t always make for good headlines but policy based on evidence is likely to deliver and endure a darn sight longer than knee jerk reactions and short term concessions to the loudest voices.
Then..

somerset floods 2014

Somerset Levels after the records rains of the 2013/14 winter

In 2014, when the farmers on the Somerset Levels, whose upstream neighbours poor agricultural practices had increased the flood risk, demanded a return to wholesale dredging our Prime Minister and his ministers were only too keen to ignore the evidence of their experts and roll over. Treasury rules were ripped up, evidential studies on the impacts of dredging were ignored and subsequently removed from government websites, and, inevitably, cheques were written on behalf of the taxpayer. All for a flood that affected a tiny fraction of the properties that were inundated this time or, indeed, in the floods of 2007.

Spud field on Anglesey April 2012

Poor agricultural practices have been responsible increasing run off and causing flash flooding.

In an artificial landscape like the Levels, much of which is below sea level, some dredging and pumping is inevitably necessary to allow the waters to drain in a seaward direction. But this is hardly a template for the wholesale changes that many were seeking to impose across the rest of the country where our rivers and flood plains are still functioning as dynamic systems in their own right.
There was a time in the 1960s and 70s when the old river and drainage boards treated rivers as little more than channels to convey water to the sea as quickly as possible. Functional flood meadows were drained for either agriculture or house building, bends were straightened and channels deepened. It was a discredited policy that was rightly curbed. The environmental damage was appalling, habitat for fish and wildlife disappeared and catchments that once functioned as nature intended with water flowing into the surrounding land and taking its time to re enter the channels changed into Jekyll and Hyde beasts. Either lifeless ditches or foaming torrents rushing flash floods downstream to threaten homes and communities at the bottom of the valleys.
Back in 2014 the Angling Trust joined water engineers and wildlife groups to express grave concern about any proposed increases wholesale dredging because the evidence from the Environment Agency shows that in many cases it simply increases the speed and volume of water heading into main rivers which will then flood more towns and cities. What has happened recently in Yorkshire is sadly a case in point. We produced a report entitled ‘Floods and Dredging – A Reality Check’ which I presented as evidence to the Select Committee inquiry into the 2014 floods. It’s probably fair to say that our interventions helped prevent what was agreed for the Somerset Levels from becoming the norm.
http://www.ciwem.org/media/1035043/floods_and_dredging_-_a_reality_check.pdf

benyon

Former Environment Minister Richard Benyon has spoken out strongly against a return to the wholesale dredging of rivers

There were a few politicians who were prepared to stand up and be counted including my former parliamentary neighbour and erstwhile Environment Minister Richard Benyon who challenged his own government to heed the evidence which showed that in many cases dredging rivers was either futile, as they simply readjusted their profiles, or at worse downright dangerousness. Benyon wrote a hard hitting piece taking his own ministers to task and warning of the dangers of listening to ‘armchair hydrologists’ rather than the advice of their own Environment Agency.
You can read it here: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/13/beware-politicians-pretending-armchair-hydrologists
And Now..

So what about this time around, have lessons been learnt and is the dredging mob still in full cry?
It’s a mixed picture but it’s not without hope. The mood music at the recent parliamentary debate into the governments response to the floods had changed with MP after MP from both sides of the Commons citing the importance of upland catchment management. It was pleasing to hear them extensively quoting the widely acclaimed Prof. Dieter Helm from Oxford University whose report ‘Flood Defence: Time for a Radical Rethink’ makes the powerful case for holistic catchment management including incentivising farmers to store flood water rather than moving it on as quickly as possible.

See here: http://www.dieterhelm.co.uk/node/1414
Of course, there are those who still don’t get it, or if they do are more interested in pandering to the demands of agri businesses rather than helping flood victims or protecting the environment. Sadly, they tend to be found sat around the Cabinet table pretending to be Secretaries of State at DEFRA – the department that Monbiot has renamed as ‘Doing Everything Farmers Representatives Ask’!
As we have seen the current incumbent Elizabeth Truss has just announced her intention to deregulate dredging on smaller watercourses to protect ‘a million acres of farmland’ whilst her predecessor Owen Paterson has claimed that by increasing dredging in the Somerset Levels he personally saved them from flooding this winter.

Liz truss

The current Environment Secretary Liz Truss needs to explain to flood victims why she favours protecting farmland over homes or at least admit that she has not yet grasped the laws of gravity.

Well Truss will have some hard questions to answer when communities downstream from her deregulated zones next flood so I guess it won’t be long before her idiotic words and irresponsible shift in policy comes back to haunt her. Paterson, on the other hand, has thankfully been removed from office and a quick look at this December’s rainfall figures, compared to the long term average, for the South West (61%) and North West (191%) shows the nonsense of his claims and why is he was ill suited to ever hold this post.

Climate Change means more floods and more droughts and on this crowded island of ours we will only deliver the resilience necessary to combat these challenges by recognising that the laws of nature are a lot more powerful than the laws of man and that we need, where possible, to work with them.

Name that fish?

15 Dec
In Australia this fish is known as a salmon but in neighbouring New Zealand it's called a Kahawai - all very confusing!

In Australia this fish is known as a salmon but in neighbouring New Zealand it’s called a Kahawai – all very confusing!

It’s probably fair to say that the early European settlers to Australia weren’t the most literate bunch which explains why the unfamiliar fish that they discovered in their new world were given decidedly familiar names.

Back in 2009 when I first went fishing Down Under I thought I knew fine well what a salmon looked like until I started catching ‘sambos’ or Australian Salmon from North Head in Sydney harbour. I suppose these silvery blue predators have a passing resemblance to their northern namesake but they are called Kahawai in New Zealand and are actually part of the Arripidae family rather than any type of salmonid.

And so it was that I learned to be a little sceptical of anything bearing names like trout, salmon or cod in my time in Oz. For example, I’d normally describe trout as a brown and cream coloured fish with red spots that like to live in clear streams until I fished the Great Barrier Reef and was told that these oversized goldfish with teeth were in fact Coral Trout. As far as I could see they were neither coral nor a trout but it seemed rude to argue with my hosts.

I’ve yet to catch a Murray Cod but I struggle to see much of a resemblance between this fish and its Atlantic brethren and even less with the plethora of cod species that I found up in the Northern Territory. It could have all got very confusing but I just went with the flow and used the local names. When in Rome and all that. However, the problems start when you start writing about foreign fishing experiences for a domestic audience. It’s at this point you realise that there are a fair number of fish on the planet that go by entirely different names depending on which ocean they find themselves inhabiting.

And the Spanish Mackerel also goes by the name of Kingfish in Africa

And the Spanish Mackerel also goes by the name of Kingfish in Africa

The Australian Spanish Mackerel becomes the Kingfish in Africa and the Aussie Kingfish is known as the Yellow Tail in California while the Kingfish in Mauritius is apparently the Giant Trevally, which, by the way, is Karembisi in Swahili (Kenya). Falusi is also the Swahili name for the Dorado or Mahi Mahi which is more commonly called the dolphin fish in the USA. The Aussie kingfish/California yellowtail is also called an Amberjack on parts of the east coast of the USA but in the Caribbean it is a Snapper!

Now this is what I know as a Kingfish. This fine fish was caught from Sydney Harbour where I'm hoping to return next year.

Now this is what I know as a Kingfish. This fine fish was caught from Sydney Harbour where I’m hoping to return next year.

The Ladyfish in America becomes the Ninebone in Gambia and the Speckled Trout in the Everglades isn’t a trout at all, although it sort of looks like one but with a secondary, long dorsal fin a bit like an Atlantic Ling. None of this stops it being called the Weakfish further north along the east coast of the same country.

I think the situation is a little different with bass as the books tell us that they are all perciformes, or perch like fishes, belonging to one of three families – Centrachaidae or black basses including the largemouth; Latrolabracidae including the Asian species such as the Japanese and the Blackfin sea bass and the Morondae which includes the European sea bass and the bigger American Stripers.

However, neither the Australian freshwater bass nor the big brutal Black Bass of Papua New Gineau fall into any of these categories, although they are perciformes, so I guess the word ‘bass’ was used as a global, generalist term for any predator with spines!

This beautiful bar of fishy gold is a Dorado but then so are many other species!

This beautiful bar of fishy gold is a Dorado but then so are many other species!

And going back to the Dorado – not content with having three names (four if you count ‘dollies’) the South American freshwater fish of the same title, which I have caught, is sometimes spelt ‘Dourado’…the same as the gilthead bream in Portugal.

Just to add yet more confusion to the mix even fish that look the same in both hemispheres such as the sea bream can be pronounced differently in Australia where the local fish for ‘brim’.

The Aussie bream, or 'brim', looks a bit different to their slimy namesakes that inhabit my local River Thames

Aussie bream, or ‘brim’, looks a bit different to their slimy namesakes that inhabit my local River Thames

Anyway I thought I had put all this behind me and was back into the rhythm of catching familiar fish with names I knew and could pronounce. That was until I got chosen to lead a party of friends to the American East Coast in search of their famous Striped Bass and Bluefish. These predators take fly, spinners and surface lures and we were really lucky to secure the services of the two best boat guides on the island – Jaime Boyle and Tom Rapone. The three days we had out in the boats with these guys were magical with plenty of fish coming to surface poppers and streamer flies. We had some great fun with the false albacore tuna or ‘albies’ as they are know locally. I guess their proper name derives from looking like but not being a true tuna – they are a type of bonito – and because they are clearly a bit albino.

While Bass is a pretty generic name for a whole variety of predators the American Striped Bass now holds a special place in my affections

While Bass is a pretty generic name for a whole variety of predators the American Striped Bass now holds a special place in my affections

Anyway, everything came full circle when my first American Bluefish was hoisted aboard the boat and I recognised those fierce-some, backward facing teeth. What I thought was a new species to tick off my bucket list was in fact the dear old Tailor masquerading as something altogether more exotic and not at all blue!

The Yanks may call these Bluefish whilst the Aussies call them Tailor - either way it's not a good idea to get too close to those razor sharp and backward facing teeth!

The Yanks may call these Bluefish whilst the Aussies call them Tailor – either way it’s not a good idea to get too close to those razor sharp and backward facing teeth!

All of which goes to show that it matters not a jot what we call them for surely it’s all about how they fight, look and taste and who we are with and where we are at the moment the rod bucks and the reel screams?

Note: A version of this article first appeared in Australian Fishing World and Classic Angling but with the winter weather closing in here in the UK I thought readers might appreciate a little fishy diversion from far off sunny places. Have a good Christmas.,

Three Christmas Crackers

29 Nov

I have deliberately waited until the horror of Black Friday was over until coming forward with some recommendations for Christmas treats for us fisherfolks this year. My idea of hell is traipsing round a crowded shopping mall, particularly on days when I feel the fish might be feeding in my local waters, but it’s always good to hear of films or books that can transport us to another, less crowded world, when real life keeps us away from the bank.

Never mind that the dreadful 'Black Friday' has been and gone. There's still plenty of time to make sure you land some good fishing presents to tide you over the Xmas hols

Never mind that the dreadful ‘Black Friday’ has been and gone. There’s still plenty of time to make sure you land some good fishing presents to tide you over the Xmas hols

First up is a trip to the magnificent Himalayas in search of the mighty golden mahseer – not the expedition I went on earlier this year but one undertaken by barbel specialist and film maker Stu Walker. Best of all this fantastic film won’t make any sort of dent in your wallet as it’s available free of charge on Vimeo and YouTube.

The Fish of my Dreams – In Search of the Himalayan Golden Mahseer by Stuart Walker

Like Stu I got the mahseer bug big time, and, like many of this tiny band of fishing adventurers I can trace it back to pioneering exploits of Paul Boote, the man who rightly deserves credit for ‘rediscovering the mahseer of India’ as a sporting quarry. In my case it was the fantastic book that Boote wrote with Jeremy Wade entitled Somewhere Down the Crazy River which was published in 1992 and chronicles “journeys in search of giant fish”. Some four years later I found myself on the banks of the River Cauvery fishing the same pools and rapids that the authors had explored a decade or so earlier. I was lucky enough to land a 76 pounder on my first trip and it was this fish, more than any other, that lit the flame that turned me into a travelling angler.

Around the same time a young Stuart Walker watched a documentary called Casting for Gold with John Bailey and Paul Boote about an expedition for the slightly smaller, but sleeker, Himalayan Mahseer on the River Ganges.

It blew me away and left a lasting impression – never in my dreams did I ever think I would fish in such a place. I have been wanting to make this film for a very long time. Its been a rollercoaster journey and on this last trip I really had to push myself to make it happen. I put my heart and soul into the fishing and filming.” said Stuart

What river angler has never, at least dreamed, of tangling with one of these beauties?

What river angler has never, at least dreamed, of tangling with one of these beauties?

‘The Fish of my Dreams’ is a journey of adventure into the Himalayan foothills of Northern India. The filming is top quality and the scenery is as magnificent as you would expect in one of last remaining wilderness areas left on the planet. We follow Stu as he tries to catch a big Golden Mahseer at the end of the monsoon season – a fish that has somehow eluded him on his previous visits to the region.

Ten years ago Stu fished on the River Giri in Himachal Pradesh. On this trip he met a friendly local village boy called Bobby. Bobby was only young but had the makings of a great fisherman. Now at 24 he has become a very experienced Fly fishing and Mahseer guide. With help from Bobby and friend Kanu, Stu targets the mighty Kali and Sarju rivers on the border between India & Nepal. This film is a labour of love and follows the highs and lows of a fishing adventure of a lifetime as he tries to finally catch the Mahseer of his dreams.

There's a six minute trailer but best of all download the full 45 minute film and enjoy this great fishing adventure

There’s a six minute trailer but best of all download the full 45 minute film and enjoy this great fishing adventure.

View the film here: http://youtu.be/d5K3rfzSzJA
Or here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/fishofmydreams

Reflections on Still Water by Peter Rolfe
This delightful work, which shows how fishing and conservation can go hand is actually Peter Rolfe’s third book, following on from The Net on the Garage Wall (Medlar 1997) and Crock of Gold – Seeking the Crucian Carp (MPress 2010). As the winter wind begins to bite what nicer form of escapism could there be for the angler than to hunker down in front of warm fire and dream of balmy days beside a beautifully restored pond in whose depths swim golden crucians and olive green tench?

I got to know Peter when the Angling Trust agreed to take the lead in establishing the National Crucian Conservation Project and have been privileged to visit, and on one occasion to fish, the lakes at Pythouse Estate that he helped to restore. I went there in the company of my good friend and wildlife film maker Hugh Miles who is an enthusiastic supporter of Peter’s work. Peter is a lovely man with half a lifetime of experience in fishery management, pond restoration and in the lives of the creatures that inhabit these waters. It is not without some justification that we call him ‘The Crucian Guru’.

Wildlife film maker Hugh Miles with one of the beautiful crucians from Peter's ponds

Wildlife film maker Hugh Miles with one of the beautiful crucians from Peter’s ponds

Back in 1989 Peter had the opportunity to restore two Victorian estate lakes that had fallen into disrepair. His book tells how the upper lake was brought back to life over two years, and how it was turned into a remarkable coarse fishery and haven for wildlife. There are chapters on the challenges of the restoration, the gradual return of plants, animals and birds to a once polluted and boggy area, the early days of stocking with fish, the management of the lake and its surroundings. There are many stories about the fishermen who have enjoyed the lake, including famous names like Chris Yates and his assortment of friends.

This is not a carp lake, though it has produced carp of over 30lbs; it is a mixed fishery that has become locally famous for its great roach, tench and crucians. How fishing of that standard was achieved makes for very enjoyable reading. Peter shares the worries and difficulties as well as the sense of achievement when things went well.

This is a book that is both lyrical and practical and there is much to be learned from it and much to be enjoyed with over 70 illustrations scattered throughout the text.

Reflections on Stillwater is out on December 5th

Reflections on Stillwater is out on December 5th

The book will retail at £17.50 at will be available on Amazon and direct from the publishers at http://www.calmproductions.com/acatalog/Reflections_On_Still_Water.html

More details on Peter’s website at http://www.crucians.org and you can find out about the National Crucian Conservation Project at http://www.anglinglingtrust.net/crucian
I shall be attending the launch at the Arts Centre in Shaftesbury, North Dorset on Saturday, 5th December, from 11am to 3pm with Hugh Miles, Chris Yates and Mark Wintle. Many well-known anglers will be there and as a bonus Peter will auction two of the last remaining copies of The Net on the Garage Wall as well as a signed copy of Chris Yates’s River Diaries and Shadows and Reflections, Chris’s carp anthology.

River Pike by Dilip Sarkar

Every winter I tell myself that I should take time out from chasing roach, perch, chub and grayling and have a go for a decent river pike. I never do which is crazy since I’ve got the Thames flowing less than a mile from my house and goodness knows how many club tickets on southern rivers famous for toothy leviathans. Now I really have run out of excuses because the publication of River Pike by my Angling Trust colleague and acknowledge river predator expert Dilip Sarkar is a comprehensive manual of modern pike fishing covering most of the major rivers of England including some of my favourites.

As well as Dilip’s own writing there are chapters by local specialists on Severn, Wye, Warwickshire Avon, Trent, Thames, Broads, Fens, Yorkshire Ouse and the Wessex rivers. Contributors include Neville Fickling, Chris Leibbrandt, Chris Fowles, Dr John Tate, Pat Henry, Denis Moules, Bill Rushmer, James Sarkar, Phil Wakeford, Jerry Lloyd, Martin Mumby, David Greenwood, Karen Sarkar, John Cheyne, Terry Theobald, Chris Wardle, Stephen Harper, Paul Belsten, Steve Bown making this a veritable Who’s Who of the piking world.

Dilip Sarkar with one of his numerous river twenties

Dilip Sarkar with one of his numerous river twenties

There’s a lovely foreword by Angling Trust Ambassador and Severn specialist Des Taylor:

“A ‘river pike’ book was long overdue, for since the John Sidley classic ‘River Piking’ of 1987, there has been very little written about piking in rivers; to be perfectly honest there are very few anglers who could write about river piking anyway. I’m glad to say that Dilip has managed to enlist a true ‘expert’ to write on every river mentioned in the book, which, added to his own extensive personal knowledge of the Midland rivers, makes this the most comprehensive work on the subject ever written. This is a book for the piker who wants to catch fish without a name, whilst dreaming that one day the mother of all river pike will take the bait. To quote Roderick Haig Brown, “A River Never Sleeps”, which is so true. For the river piker, the river is constantly changing from day to day and year on year – but as river anglers, we simply would have it no other way.”

River Pike has already had some rave reviews. As I said I’m no pike fisherman but I loved this book as it is a great read with some terrific stories.

Description: 204 pages, full colour throughout.
The cloth-bound edition is limited to 500 copies at £35 plus £5 P&P
To order your copy of RIVER PIKE, please visit http://www.harperanglingbooks.co.uk

So there you go, something for the travelling angling, the hardcore river pike specialist or the seeker of more gentle quarry in the ponds of Old England. I hope you get something as good in your fisherman’s stocking this Christmas.

Time to get rid of the bass nets

16 Nov
With bass stocks in deep trouble it's time to stop netting

With bass stocks in deep trouble it’s time to stop netting

The recent publication of the European Commission’s proposals on bass fishing in 2016 “to halt the dramatic decline in this important stock” are certainly radical but are they fair, effective and proportionate?

The proposals, which will be put to the Council of Ministers next month, include; “a complete fishing ban for commercial vessels and recreational anglers in the first half of 2016”, and in the second half of 2016 “a monthly one tonne catch limit for vessels targeting sea bass and a one fish bag limit for recreational anglers”. This crisis has been brought about by years of overfishing compounded by, until recently, a marked reluctance by fishery managers and politicians to heed the ever more apocalyptic warnings from the scientists.

We cannot go on like this

We cannot go on like this

Organisations like the National Federation of Sea Anglers, now part of the Angling Trust, and the Bass Anglers Sportfishing Society (BASS) have been campaigning for the introduction of bass conservation measures for best part of 20 years. Things looked hopeful in 2004 when the Net Benefits report by the Cabinet Office recommended that fishery managers look at making bass a recreational only species. Sadly, the report stayed on the shelf and although in 2007 we came close to achieving an increase in the ludicrously small and unsustainable minimum size limit of 36cms, under the then Fisheries Minister Ben Bradshaw, this was stopped at the last minute when Bradshaw was reshuffled and his successor, Jonathan Shaw, caved into pressure from the commercial sector.

A breakthrough of sorts came earlier this year when the Commission bypassed the deadlocked politicians and introduced a package of emergency measures which included a ban on mid-water trawling for bass from January to April in order to protect the existing spawning stock biomass. They also brought in new monthly catch limits on commercial boats, a raised minimum landing size to a more sustainable 42cms and a three fish bag limit for anglers. Welcome as these measures have been they were introduced more than two years after scientists at the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) had issued clear advice for at first a 36% and then an 80% cut in bass mortalities. It seems to have been a case of ‘too little too late’ as unfortunately the situation has further deteriorated. The ICES advice for 2016 recommends catches of 541tonnes. This is effectively a 90% reduction on 2014. Even if all targeted fisheries were closed the commercial by-catch of bass would exceed the recommended figure of 541tonnes. All of which means that for the bass stock recovery measures to be effective far greater restrictions will need to be placed on the harvesting of the species.

A catch and release angling close season for bass would be no bad thing

A catch and release angling close season for bass would be no bad thing

I will return to what I think needs to happen to the commercial fishery but let’s first address the idea of a one fish bag limit. Whilst I am firmly of the view that anglers must play their part and accept sensible limits on the amount of fish they can take a reduction of this magnitude on the sector that causes by far the lowest impact on bass stocks is anything but fair or proportionate.

The Angling Trust issued the following response to the Commission’s plans:

“Government figures show that recreational sea angling is enjoyed by more than 800,000 people in the UK and is worth £2bn to the economy. Bass is our most popular sport fish and a huge amount of bass caught by anglers are returned to live, breed and fight another day. Anglers have been warning about commercial fishing causing a decline in bass stocks for the last 20 years and it is only recently that the European Commission and the Member States have started taking the issue seriously.

“Whilst we welcome the proposals to further restrict the commercial harvesting of bass it is monstrously unfair to lump all forms of bass fishing together. There is absolutely no equivalence between a trawler dragging a huge net across the ocean and a group of anglers going out at the weekend with a rod and line and fishing sustainably within agreed size and bag limits. The Angling Trust intends to tell the Commission that they are picking on the wrong target.”

The European Anglers Alliance (EAA) of which the Angling Trust is an active member, has already identified that the technical detail of the Commission’s proposals are unclear with regards to whether the ban on fishing in the first six months of 2016 refers to recreational fishing. We are currently waiting for a correction from the Commission in order to clarify this and in any case it’s difficult to see how catch and release angling could be caught by any proposal.

Welsh bass guide Matt Powell with the sort of fish most anglers would want to see returned and allowed to breed

Welsh bass guide Matt Powell with the sort of fish most anglers would want to see returned and allowed to breed

Commission Proposals

Moving on to the measures proposed for commercial fishing in the second half of the year, this is what has been proposed under Article 10 of the regulation:

  • Spawning aggregations need protection, so no catches should be allowed in the entire distribution area of the stock for the first six months of the year (January 1st to June 30th 2016).
  • Due to unavoidable by-catches of bass by trawls and seines, they will be permitted 1% of the weight of the total catch to be bass.

The New Economics Foundation, a respected think tank which has studied these issues in depth, certainly feels that more needs to be done to reduce commercial over fishing.

We called for decision makers to apply a best value approach when allocating access to bass. Our evidence showed that hook and line fishing for bass produced the best value to society, while trawlers provided the least when applying a combination of 13 social, economic and environmental indicators.

Instead, the 1% flexibility for demersal trawlers and seine netters gives them a get-out clause, allowing them to keep fishing in areas where they will catch bass. They will not be spatially or temporally excluded from the bass fishery, but will continue to catch bass in critical areas as a valuable bycatch. This is not what the reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) aims to do it aims to reward selective, low impact and responsible fishers especially small scale fishers.

In other words the one tonne limit will do little to lessen the impact of drift and gill netting, which has done so much harm to bass stocks, and the 1% by-catch rule would give the trawlers and seine netters a get out of jail free card and allow them to keep targeting bass in certain circumstances. Surely now is the time to bite the bullet and take these damaging nets out of the bass fishery altogether?

Any regime that allows netting will create by-catch issues and is inevitably open to abuse. Anglers known fine well that bass are regularly netted from the supposedly protected nursery areas under the pretence of targeting mullet. The removal of the bass nets would provide some relief for other species that are prone to the activities of the poachers and unlicensed netsman.

I start from the position that it is all about the fish not the fisherman. Without self sustaining fish stocks we have no fishery and no fishing. Nobody has a God given right to catch and sell the publicly owned resource that constitutes the fish that swim in our seas and oceans. They certainly have no automatic right to taxpayers subsidies or to receive compensation for not being able to keep on fishing for the same stocks that they themselves have been overfishing for years. As the New Economics Foundation and others have shown a hook and line commercial fishery is sustainable and line caught bass give the best value for the commodity. They command a higher price than netted fish and if they are captured undersized they can be returned with an excellent chance of survival.

Bearing all this in mind it is difficult to understand why the Commission is proposing that the line fishery has its monthly catch limit cut from 1300 kg to 1000 kg while the netters have had no reduction in their catch limit. I would argue that this may in fact contravention of article 17 of the Common Fisheries Policy which relates to sustainable fishing.

Another important advantage is that a slot size would be easy to implement with a line caught fishery and for recreational fishing, allowing the old and heavy spawners to be returned to add to the stock. The minimum landing size could be increased without the need for an expensive change of gear. This would mean more bass being able to breed and a stock that would increase year on year. What’s not to like about removing the nets and having bass stocks survive and prosper in hook and line fishery with a substantial no take close season?

Bass are a recreational only species in Ireland

Irish bass expert John Quinlan has done more than anyone to persuade politicians of the value of bass angling. Bass are a recreational only species in Ireland

Next Steps

Over the next fortnight we will be liaising with our colleagues in the Bass Anglers Sportfishing Society (BASS) and our partner organisations in the European recreational fishing sector in producing a carefully worked response to the Commission’s proposals. This will focus on trying to ensure all sectors contribute to the conservation of bass stocks in a more balanced and proportionate way. We intend to put this forward for consideration at the December meeting of the Council of Ministers where we hope to see the Commission’s original proposals amended.

I’ve set out here my own personal views, and yes, they would result in some hardship for some commercial fisherman but if we carry on without embracing effective and meaningful bass conservation policies then there will be no fish for anyone to catch, either for fun or for food.

So here’s my six point plan for bass:

1) We should support a lengthy close season to protect the spawning fish as long as it’s over the right period and operated on a no take basis which allows for responsible catch and release fishing. This is a point well made by Henry Gilbey in his recent blogposts here http://www.henry-gilbey.com/blog

I would, however, question if January to June is the appropriate period when the bulk of the spawning and associated migration begins in November and is over by May.

2) I want Europe to move to a hook and line commercial fishery only and before the commercials start screaming blue murder I should point out that this is less severe than the recreational only status applied by Ireland and likely soon to be adopted by the Isle of Man.

3) And should the Commission agree with this approach what would be a fair contribution from the recreational sector? I would happily see the minimum landing size rise for all to 45 or even 50cms and by introducing a maximum size of say 60cms we would be obliged to return the important big breeders.

4) Until last year we had no recreational bag limits at all and in my view the current three fish per day limit could be reduced to two fish as part of the type of proportionate package that I’m suggesting.

5) There would also need to be a substantial increase in the number of inshore bass nursery areas and better protection for estuaries in order to create an environment in which young fish have the best possible chance of surviving and thriving.

6) And, most important of all, and end to the totally unsustainable and damaging practice of netting for bass which is at the root cause of the overfishing that has caused the stocks to crash in the first place. With something like 80% of domestic demand for bass being provided by plate sized farmed fish there is simple no need to have nets in our fishery.

With European bass stocks on the precipice now is the time to make up for a generation of complacency and inaction. Perhaps it’s all too much to hope for but if the scientists, the politicians and the European Commission can all sing from the same song sheet for a few more weeks then radical reform really could happen and our big, beautiful, silver bass might just be offered a future.

These beautiful fish deserve a future

These beautiful fish deserve a future

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