Ministry acts on overfishing: Coracle fleet to be cut back

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Midnight arrived before the two coraclemen returned to the river bank, their paddles virtually silent as they stroked the black, slow-moving water. They stepped ashore, rolled up their net and shouldered their boats, then displayed the reward for their night's labour - a single sewin. It was a beautiful fish, silver and glistening, but it was just the one.

Midnight arrived before the two coraclemen returned to the river bank, their paddles virtually silent as they stroked the black, slow-moving water. They stepped ashore, rolled up their net and shouldered their boats, then displayed the reward for their night's labour - a single sewin. It was a beautiful fish, silver and glistening, but it was just the one.

"There used to be more fish than this but not now," said John Hopkins, 62, as he made his way up the small jetty. "There is not a lot in it for us."

Complain as they might about the size of their catch of sewin, or sea trout, compared with that of 20 or even 10 years ago, the small band of coraclemen of Carmarthen, Pembrokeshire, may soon be facing even greater problems.

Today is the deadline for them to object to a review of fishing policy that would give the Environment Agency the power to cut the number of coracle licences on the three rivers in west Wales on which the ancient boats are still used.

The proposals to preserve fish stocks in the review, jointly written by the Welsh National Assembly and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, would deprive licence holders of their right to appeal.

The coraclemen believe it could mark the end of a tradition that dates back 2,000 years. Mike Elias, 50, the secretary of the Carmarthen Coracle and Netsmen's Association, said: "They will be able to cut our licences whenever they want while there is not one proposal that promotes or maintains net fishing.

"It was a full-time occupation for my father but increasing regulation and the cutting of the fishing seasons has now made it impossible for us to earn a living from it. There are only about 25 boats left fishing but if the review has its way there will soon be none.

"We've been here for 2,000 years, we are part of history and by removing us they will begetting rid of part of the history of Wales."

Though the first written records of the flat-bottomed boats - traditionally made from animal skins but now from pitch-covered cloth - are in the writings of Giraldus Cambrensis, a 12th-century cleric, many historians believe they are pre-Roman. Martin Fowler, who runs the National Coracle Centre in Newcastle Emlyn, Dyfed, believes they date from the Bronze Age.

Whatever their origins, there is little doubt that the current state of the coracle is precarious. While they were once widespread across Britain and Ireland, there are now only three rivers on which coracles are still used for fishing - the Tywi, which flows through Carmarthen, the Teifi, which passes through Cardigan, and the Taf, which reaches the sea at St Clears.

Between the three rivers there are just 25 licences issued, allowing the coraclemen to fish with nets for sea trout and salmon from 1 March to 31 July. It is not easy work. Fishing only at night when their nets are less visible to the fish, the coraclemen drift downstream in pairs, holding their net - 40ft long and 2ft across - between them. The idea is to keep it as close as possible to the river bed.

"It is skilled work. It looks easy but it is something that has to be learnt," said Raymond Rees, 67, a net fisherman for more than 40 years, but who now concentrates on making coracles and running his fishmonger stall in Carmarthen market, where he sells the gently flavoured sewin.

"We have fished this river for 800 years. We are not all goody-two-shoes but we are not idiots either. A fisherman wants to look after his own interests. He is not going to take all the fish so that there are none left for next year.

"The trouble is that the scientists are lumping us all together. As far as they are concerned, we are all [commercial] netsmen."

Everyone agrees there are fewer fish running up the rivers of west Wales than at any other time Some blame pollution, some blame over-fishing on the river. A spokesman for the ministry said: "We are using the latest scientific information and research to develop a number of ways to protect fish stocks for the future of the industry."

But the coraclemen say it is what is happening out at sea, away from the river and beyond their control, that is threatening fish stocks and putting them at loggerheads with anglers and environmentalists.

Mr Rees and others blame the commercial fishing operations that drop their drift nets at the mouth of the rivers, hauling up sewin and salmon in nets intended for sea bass and other non-river fish. "If the authorities want to do something they must deal with what is happening at sea where they are fishing on the feeding grounds."

"There are 50 per cent fewer fish here then there were 10 years ago. Twenty, even 10 years ago, it would have been unheard of for me to buy sea trout [for my stall] from anywhere other than this river."

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