In Match Fishing’s recent survey, 98 per cent of readers who replied voted in favour of scrapping the three-month river close season. Dave Harrell met up with the Environment Agency’s head of fisheries to talk about the situation.
Dave Harrell: Many thanks for agreeing to talk to us, Dafydd. We recently conducted a survey in Match Fishing about the river close season and the vast majority of our readers voted in favour of scrapping the current three-month river close season. Could you tell us what the current position is?
Dafydd Evans: The situation is exactly the same as it was three years ago. The law was changed on lakes in 1995 and in 1999 we reapproached the close season issue on canals, lifting it in 2000. The main reason for this is that some canals were fishable 12 months of the year while others were not. This is something we inherited from the old regional system.
We carried out a study on the canals that had fishing available all year, particularly focusing on aspects like performance of fish stocks, conservation and the affect on nesting birds to see if lifting the close season on all canals had any adverse impact. We consulted on this and discovered there was little difference between the two, so we allowed fishing all-year round on all canals other than areas of SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest).
Our main issue with any legislation is whether it is good for fish stocks. The conservation of fish stocks is central to the EA and this brings us to rivers. Unlike canals, all rivers already have a close season so there is no comparison with some rivers being open and others not.
Secondly, rivers are not under single ownership. Multiple management carries added problems and risks. Rivers are also more dynamic in terms of area, floods, drought and general stresses on fish – they are definitely tougher places for fish to live. This lack of scientific information meant we could not therefore be sure that lifting the close season on rivers wouldn’t result in an impact on fish stocks.
In 2004 we employed external independent consultants to look at these various issues. They concluded that we would need a budget of £250,000 to carry out the studies to help improve our knowledge, and this is a substantial amount of money that could be ploughed into other key EA work, so we needed to find out first what anglers really wanted. Was there a demand for a river close season to justify the £250,000 spending on it?
In order to ascertain this we surveyed 400 rod-licence holders. From this survey we found that 50 per cent wanted to keep the current close season, 35 per cent were against it and 15 per cent were undecided. Within those numbers, the percentage of actual ‘river’ anglers who wanted to keep the close season was 55 per cent. From this survey and consultation with our advisory Committees we deemed there were higher priorities for the use of these resources.
DH: Would you agree that removing the close season on rivers would bring important and significant income into key local economies?
DE: It might, but the subject of key local economy in relationship to river use is always a difficult one to assess. While we accept that certain river-based areas of the country do benefit enormously from visiting anglers in the summer months, would the same apply from March 14th to June 16th? I’m not sure.
DH: Would you agree that removing the close season on rivers would help struggling river-based clubs and associations?
DE: I would think so, yes, certainly in the short term. But what if fishing in what is now the close season were to impact on fish stocks? These clubs could then lose out in the long term. Are there any other reasons why, apart from the close season, some clubs are struggling?
DH: Would you agree that removing the close season on rivers would increase all of the other social benefits associated with angling participation?
DE: Possibly, but if people want to fish there are plenty of lakes and canals around the country for them to do so.
DH: Would you agree that removing the close season on rivers would help to protect rivers and their wildlife through the presence of angling ‘watchdogs’?
DE: Again, quite possibly.
DH: Is it true that increasing participation in angling is a key EA objective?
DE: Very much so. We are working hard to try to introduce angling to more people, especially young people.
DH: Is it true that developing the environmental-based economy, through such initiatives as ‘The Severn – A Valuable Resource’, is a key EA objective?
DE: Yes. We are currently leading a partnership between the EA, British Waterways, Natural England and local authorities. Stakeholder workshops have and are taking place from source to sea, and we are working with consultants to produce a plan for the whole of the river Severn. A major part of this objective is maximising environment-based economy.
DH: Surely the biggest single thing to help this would be angling on the river?
DE: Quite possibly, but our main concern at present has to be conservation and welfare of fish stocks.
DH: What would be the potential value to local economies of removing the close season on rivers?
DE: That’s a difficult question to answer really, and would depend upon different localities. It depends whether anglers go and fish elsewhere in that locality and still spend money in the local economy. We don’t have the total value this change would make.
DH: Would you agree that it is unfair for river anglers to pay for 12 months’ worth of licence but only be able to fish for 9 months?
DE: No. The total amount required is a cost-recovery exercise and in all honesty there is more money spent on managing river projects than there is on lakes and canals.
DH: Would you agree that the current close-season situation is further exacerbated by the apparent increase in high water levels during the winter, which renders rivers unfishable for increasingly long periods?
DE: The past few years have seen quite a dramatic change to our climate, and as a result we’ve had milder, wetter winters, which have resulted in high river levels. While I acknowledge that situations like this are difficult for match anglers many anglers, such as those targeting barbel, still fish every weekend regardless of conditions. In fact, many of these anglers seem to actually prefer high river levels. If the trend continues, though, I do accept that it will be a problem for water owners and associations losing money.
DH: Given the considerable potential benefits of removing the close season on rivers, what are the reasons for keeping it?
DE: As I’ve already said, our main concern has to be the conservation and welfare of fish stocks, and until we have enough scientific proof to show that fishing all year round on rivers is not detrimental then we have to err on the side of caution.
DH: Is there any evidence to suggest that removing the close season on rivers would have a detrimental impact on fish stocks, given that spawning fish do not get caught? To give you a couple of examples, I’ve fished matches in Ireland in swims that were full of spawning fish that I couldn’t catch because they didn’t want to feed, and on the River Wye, one weekend in February, nobody could catch a dace as they were all spawning. This was on a stretch where, for several months previously, you could easily catch dace weights between 30lb and 40lb from many of the swims.
DE: Until we have more scientific proof it’s a difficult question to answer. I’m not sure.
DH: Is there any evidence to suggest that removing the close season on rivers would be detrimental to other wildlife, particularly given that other river-based recreation has no close season?
DE: It hasn’t been detrimental on canals and I’m not aware of any study to measure this on rivers.
DH: Is there any evidence to suggest that the lack of a close season on rivers in other countries has had any detrimental effect on fish stocks or other wildlife?
DE: If a new survey went ahead this is one of the areas that we would need to investigate, of course.
DH: Why was the close season removed on canals and stillwaters?
DE: There were so many grey areas concerning close-season laws in this country. You could fish lakes and canals in some regions but not others. From the surveys we did it was apparent that fish stocks in those areas without close seasons had not suffered so the obvious and sensible thing to do was to standardise the close-season laws nationally.
DH: Has this resulted in any detrimental effects on fish stocks or wildlife?
DE: No, not to my knowledge.
DH: Will the EA be looking into the river close season issue in the near future then? If so, what is it doing? If not, why not, given the clear potential benefits of doing so?
DE: At present there are no plans to do so and it would need significant funding in place to do so.
DH: Finally, if the close season isn’t going to be lifted in the near future, do you think it might be a good idea to take a number of test-bed, well-managed river venues as an experiment and allow fishing to carry on after March 14th next year? Doing it that way wouldn’t cost £250,000, or anywhere near that figure, surely?
DE: It’s a good idea but it’s a difficult one to implement and you have to ask the question: “How long would we use these test-bed stretches before we could make an accurate assessment?” It could take two or three years before anything conclusive came out of the survey. However, I do accept that it’s a possible idea and one of the strands of the programme that would be needed to give us the overall picture.