Amplifying our Influence

 Dead trees and and a devastated fishery shows why we will never agree with the RSPB over cormorants but there's more issues that unite than  divide environmental groups from anglers argues Martin Salter
Dead trees and and a devastated fishery shows why we will never agree with the RSPB over cormorants but there’s more issues that unite than divide environmental groups from anglers argues Martin Salter

I’ve just penned a rather ranty piece for my old mate Jim Harnwell, who edits the leading fishing magazine in Australia, on why Aussie ‘fishos’ should grow out of their aversion to working with other environmental organisations, or ‘bloody greenies’ as they are more commonly referred to Down Under. This was in part inspired by several months of joint work on a whole range of issues with colleagues from the Blueprint for Water Coalition of which the Angling Trust is an active member. Although we are never going to agree with RSPB over issues like cormorant controls I would far rather have them on our side when we are campaigning on issues like the Severn Barrage, against a return to wholesale dredging of our rivers and streams and for an end to unsustainable abstractions that have damaged fisheries and destroyed important habitat for both fish and birds.

The yawning chasm between many environmentalists and the recreational fishing sector in Australia genuinely shocked me during my time out there and led to me to write my Keep Australia Fishing report for the tackle and boating industry. It is a great shame in a country that is fishing crazy, that two groups of people, who, on the face of it, share much in common, should be daggers drawn.

This situation is certainly not so evident in Europe and the USA. Granted the relationships are not without tension but many campaigns to protect and improve the aquatic environment, on which fishing depends, are made all the stronger when there is an effective alliance between green groups and the recreational fishing sector. As I argued in my report…

‘There is no future in having recreational fishers in one corner and environmentalists in the other, for without a healthy aquatic environment and a sustainably managed fishery there will be no recreational fishing in the long term.’

But almost wherever you look, cormorants apart, the fact remains that what is good for fish is good for birds and other wildlife and those organisations concerned with protecting the natural environment see us anglers as great allies in a common cause. And that gives us greater political clout and influence without ever compromising our core role in fighting for fish and fishing.

One of our most best known environmental columnists is George Monbiot, not always someone I agree with, but here’s what he wrote about angling, conservation and commercial over fishing the other day.

It might seem strange for a lover of the natural world to come out in favour of a hobby that involves catching and killing wild animals. But anyone who has come to know a few anglers cannot help but make a couple of observations. The first is that many of the most effective campaigns to protect both marine and freshwater ecosystems have been launched or propelled by sport fishers. They have campaigned fiercely against pollution, dredging, dumping and overfishing. You cannot have healthy fish stocks without a healthy aquatic environment, and few anglers are unaware of that. ……Few people spend as much time outdoors watching and waiting. It is hard under these circumstances not to develop some interest in and love for the natural world. Perhaps as a result, many environmental campaigners were keen anglers when they were children: I count myself among them.

Given that the fierce debate over angling bans in Marine Parks which poisoned relationships between the two sectors in Australia, I was pleased to read Monbiot’s comments in the same article over allowing sport fishing in conservation zones when he said:

It would surely have made more sense to have allowed kinds of sport fishing that cause little damage inside the conservation zones. The anglers would doubtless have been prepared to accept catch limits and other restrictions, in return for much higher populations of fish.

Read the full article here…

Now I’m the first to admit that there are good and bad greens just as there both canny and dumb rec fishing advocates and I’ve been the first to decry those anti fishing groups as ‘lifestyle fascists’ for seeking to impose their personal choices on others. But the fact remains, as Monbiot says, those who love to fish are natural environmental campaigners. And of course it’s not just in the UK that environmentalists and anglers work together on common causes.

In the USA

One of the great American recreational fishing advocates is Tom Sadler, of the Middle River Group of Verona, Virginia, who has for decades worked with recreational fishers in conserving and rehabilitating fish habitat through joint ventures and alliances with conservation groups. This is what Tom wrote on the need for joint working following his recent Australian trip where he was a guest speaker at the 2010 Fishers for Fish Habitat in New South Wales.

The other thing that works, and admittedly it has not been easy, is working with the environmental groups. There was an undercurrent of disdain from some at the forum for the so-called greenies. The US went through, and in some cases is still going through, the challenges of working with our environmental colleagues.

While here in the US they don’t always share the exact same goals as the recreational fishing community, much of what they focus on benefits recreational fishing. Land conservation, water quality, habitat funding, and similar issues are some of the large-scale challenges that both groups not only care deeply about but are working for similar if not identical outcomes. It would be a mistake to ignore the opportunity to seek common ground with the environmental groups and look for the areas where the desired outcomes are in alignment and then work together to leverage each other’s strengths.

Trout Unlimited - Great conservation partners in the USA
Trout Unlimited – Great conservation partners in the USA

More recently I had occasion to get back in touch with Trout Unlimited, one of our sister organisations in the US, over the threats posed by fracking for shale gas to groundwater supplies and fisheries. I was not at all surprised to hear that the well organised rec fishing lobby in America was building broad alliances amongst themselves and with conservation organisations to face down a common threat. I can’t see something like this happening on a national basis in Australia anytime soon which is a sad state of affairs in my view.

Making common cause
Making common cause

Here’s what Chris Hunt from Trout Unlimited told me:

‘We’re working like dogs on fracking in the U.S., particularly as it relates to your exact worries—water consumption and water contamination.  Our mission, of course, is to mobilize anglers on conservation issues, and fracking is a big one for us, both in the Rockies, where the practice has, indeed, been blamed for tarnishing groundwater quality, and in the East, where the Marcellus formation in under Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia is attracting the gas industry like flies to flop.’


One of the big players in the battle over fracking is the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) whose mission statement states:


‘We guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish by uniting and amplifying our partners’ voices to strengthen federal policy and funding.’

I particularly like the concept of “amplifying our partners’ voices” to take an important issue beyond the confines of special pleading by the recreational fishing sector and into the mainstream arena by forging effective alliances. Check out the organisation listed in the TRCP and you’ll see how they are able to tap into constituencies that go far beyond those who just like to fish.

It rained a lot in January - closing Sonning Bridge on the Thames near Reading - and dredging the river would have brought down the floodwaters from the Cotswolds even quicker !
It rained a lot in January – closing Sonning Bridge on the Thames near Reading – and dredging the river would have brought down the floodwaters from the Cotswolds even quicker !

Back to the Future?

Returning to my current bugbear about dredging, which is now nightly in the news as the mythical wonder bullet to solve all flooding, despite the fact that the figures show that the UK received 164.6mm (6.5in) of rain in January, 35 per cent above the long-term average, with 175.2mm (6.9in) in South East and Central England, more than twice the regional average and the highest since records began. Environmental groups, angling organisations, flood defence staff and water management professionals are becoming increasingly concerned that the political and media focus on the Somerset levels, with the constant clamour for increased dredging, has the potential to undo years of work in securing the adoption of more sustainable practices in watercourse management. There are many case studies and evidential reports that show clearly that dredging can often make flooding worse not better and in many cases simply increases the flood peaks creating increased flooding at the downstream end of the catchments. Dredging can also lead to a number of other deleterious, unintended consequences such as severe bank erosion and ecological harm.

This is evidenced in the EA’s recent study into the impacts of dredging here

And for a practical demonstration of the unintended consequences of dredging check out this brilliant little video made by our colleagues in the Wild Trout Trust. It would be nice if some of less informed politicians and commentators were to take time out to view it too.

In artificial and reclaimed landscapes like the Somerset Levels, much of which lies below sea levels there is an acknowledged role for dredging of some main watercourses but also a significant role for sustainable management of water on the floodplain. The concern is that as politicians seek to be seen to be ‘doing something’ in response to the media story in Somerset greater currency is given to calls for a return to a policy of wholesale dredging that caused so much damage in the past.

In situations like these it is of prime importance that the Angling Trust is in a position to work quickly and effectively with strong national organisations that share our concerns and who are similarly committed to protecting the rivers, fish and the wildlife habitat which they support. By ‘amplifying our voices’ we increase the chances of retaining natural watercourses rather than canalised and straightened river channels that are no good to neither man nor fish.

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