We can make our rivers and fisheries better was the upbeat message from Saturday’s successful ‘Improving Coarse Fish Stocks in Rivers’ conference organised jointly by the Angling Trust and The Rivers Trust, at Barston Lakes near Solihull.

More than 70 delegates attended the conference, representing angling clubs and river interest groups from across the country. They heard from highly respected fisheries scientists that coarse fish stocks in rivers need a variety of healthy habitats in order to thrive. These include variations in flow and channel characteristics, physical habitat such as fallen trees and overhanging branches in order to escape predators such as cormorants, goosanders and otters, adequate breeding and nursery areas, and refuge areas for young fish to avoid being washed downstream during floods.

The conference also heard how practical action by anglers and Rivers Trusts to improve habitat has seen dramatic improvements in recruitment, fry survival and increased fish stocks. The conference aimed to spread good practice and encourage clubs and fishery managers to emulate some of the groundbreaking work undertaken by organisations such as the Westcountry Rivers Trust, Wye and Usk Foundation, and many others.

Dr Mark Everard (Director, the Bristol Avon Rivers Trust) explained how coarse fish depend on a range of habitats to provide food, refuge from spates and predators, and a diversity of sites for spawning and the survival of fragile juvenile fish. He showed that habitats have been substantially lost on many of our rivers, affecting the ability of coarse fish to sustain their populations. He called on angling clubs and volunteers to consider and protect the ‘natural assets’ in their fisheries, allowing vegetation to encroach into river margins, leaving fallen trees in the water, fencing off river margins so that cattle and other stock do not damage important bankside habitat, and protecting and creating small backwaters that can be vital for small fish to survive until adulthood.

Dr Martyn Lucas (Durham University) presented clear evidence that coarse fish often need to migrate many miles up and down rivers to complete their life cycle, commenting on the need to tackle migration barriers. He described radio tracking studies that proved that even small artificial barriers such as gauging weirs in rivers can prevent species such as barbel and chub from reaching their spawning grounds. He stressed that fish passes were only partially effective and that, in many cases, fish could only get up and down them under certain conditions. There is a pressing need to invest in studies to demonstrate how effective fish passes are for different species and their various life stages, and to improve designs where appropriate.

Martin Salter, Angling Trust National Campaigns Coordinator made a powerful speech calling for coarse anglers to be given a fairer share of Environment Agency resources. He later presented a film made by the Avon Roach Project and legendary film-maker Hugh Miles, extracts of which are available online at http://www.avonroachproject.co.uk/avon-roach-project-roach-picture-gallery.html, showing how Trevor Harrop and Budgie Price have helped restock roach into the Hampshire Avon, a once renowned roach fishery that had been decimated by cormorants, by installing spawning boards and stock ponds alongside the river. The pair won the Angling Trust’s Fred J Taylor award for this excellent project in 2011.

One of the UK’s top river match experts, Dave Harrell, described what he felt were the reasons for the decline in coarse fishing on many rivers in recent decades, including the accessibility, year-round opening and reliable returns from commercial stillwaters at a time when rivers are declining in fishing potential. Dave pressed for everything to be done to restore the natural fish populations to our rivers.

Andy Crawford from the Environment Agency presented a multi-million pound project to restore fish habitats on the River Tame, a tributary of the Trent. Much of this work has been funded by gravel companies and other developers along the river. The Environment Agency’s Geoff Bateman and Godfrey Williams gave presentations about the work they do to monitor, protect and improve coarse fish populations.

Arlin Rickard, Chief Executive of The Rivers Trust said: “The rivers trusts are amongst the fastest-growing environmental movements in the UK, and we would love to see the coarse angling community get more involved to make sure that we are doing everything possible to help coarse fish populations. The Rivers Trust can offer practical and funding advice to any club or individual who wants to get involved in taking action to improve the fish stocks in their river.”

Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of the Angling Trust said: “In the run up to June 16th, the Angling Trust wanted to shine a spotlight on the issue of coarse fish populations on rivers and the practical things that can be done to protect and improve these stocks. We will be working closely with The Rivers Trust to provide practical advice to our member clubs and fisheries about the work they can do, and the support they can get, to improve the fishing on their waters. The Angling Trust will continue to campaign in Westminster and take legal action on issues such as over-abstraction, pollution, cormorants and hydropower, but there is a great deal that can be done on the riverbank to protect fish stocks.”