Hooked on angling: why a nation spends £3bn on most popular hobby

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It might not be cool, like computer games. It might not be super-cool, like the iPod. But angling - old-fashioned, reliable angling - is still Britain's most popular pastime, and is now worth more than £3bn a year, according to the most comprehensive review of Britain's fisheries.

It might not be cool, like computer games. It might not be super-cool, like the iPod. But angling - old-fashioned, reliable angling - is still Britain's most popular pastime, and is now worth more than £3bn a year, according to the most comprehensive review of Britain's fisheries.

Boosted by thriving fish populations in rivers that are getting steadily cleaner, angling continues to attract huge numbers of people, with nearly four million men, women and children saying they had gone fishing in the previous two years, the report from the Environment Agency says.

And sitting by a river or lake with a rod is seen by the agency not just as a leisure activity but as a tool for social inclusion, involving young people - and often troubled youngsters - in deprived and urban areas.

The report - Our Nation's Fisheries - provides a snapshot of the fish populations in England and Wales, and the angling communities they support. It discloses that coarse fish are doing better than ever in many waters. For pike, perch, carp, roach, tench, bream and similar fish, the situation is very healthy.

"Thriving and diverse coarse fish populations are now present in more rivers than at any time in the past century, including their restoration to many previously polluted and completely fishless rivers," says the report, pointing out massive investment in sewage treatment has made a big difference to previously empty watercourses such as the Rother in South Yorkshire, the Stour in the West Midlands and the rivers of the Manchester conurbation.

Environment Agency scientists caught fish at 98 per cent of sites surveyed, with 50 per cent of sites producing eight species or more - a huge improvement on a decade ago, when many rivers were grossly polluted and fish communities were restricted to just a few fish of one of two species.

The most species-rich sites were on the river Mole in Surrey and the river Lymm in Lincolnshire, both of which reported 14 different species, and the most abundant stocks were found on a tributary of the Avon in Warwickshire .

But two species are in trouble. Eel stocks are critically low, and the number of juveniles returning to rivers has collapsed to just 1 per cent of historic levels. Salmon stocks are also seriously depleted, with 70 per cent of salmon rivers in England and Wales failing to meet their conservation limits in 2002 and 46 per cent achieving less than half of that break-even threshold.

The agency estimates that up to four million people are regular or occasional anglers, with about 1.2 million buying an annual licence (not needed for sea fishing). It calculates that the angling economy - the amount spent by fishermen on tackle and travel - now exceeds £3bn annually.

With a statutory duty to promote angling, including its social value, the agency is encouraging the use of fishing as a form of social inclusion.

The report highlights the increasing number of schemes to encourage angling, especially among young people in deprived and urban areas. Working with individual fisheries and angling clubs, charitable trusts, angling governing bodies and local and central government, the agency is trying to identify and exploit opportunities to increase access to fishing, especially low-cost ones.

The report highlights schemes such as Get Hooked on Fishing, part of a police initiative in Durham, which has reduced offending among young people and, by also reducing school truancy, has led to improved behaviour and general educational performance.

With an investment of £340 per participant per year for the scheme, it can save the taxpayer more than £150,000 for every custodial sentence avoided, the report says.

"This project is unique in using angling to tackle extreme cases of social exclusion," says the Durham Agency Against Crime. Led by professionally trained people with police backgrounds and experience of working with young offenders, the scheme has achieved remarkable results ."

The Environment Agency's Head of Fisheries, Dafydd Evans, said:. "As well as having a significant economic and environmental role to play, the fisheries of England and Wales provide important social benefits to many people."

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