Days numbered for killer fish

Tougher rules will protect native species from aliens, reports Stephen Goodwin
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The Independent Online
Britain's native fish are to get new protection from exotic alien species that either dominate or devour them in the underwater battle for survival.

Tighter controls and stiffer penalties for the release of non-native species into rivers and ponds are one of two government proposals which received a general welcome from the country's 3.3 million anglers. Ministers have also launched a review of salmon and fresh-water fisheries aimed at better management and conservation of stocks.

The new rules will hit owners of fishing lakes who offer anglers the chance to hook monster-sized cat fish or sturgeon, although the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) has yet to work out how it will deal with aliens already settled in commercial ponds.

The real threat to native species arises when the exotic newcomers either escape or are deliberately released into rivers or canals. The introduction of the signal crayfish and the zander has already had catastrophic effects, with the humble native crayfish, for example, driven to extinction in many streams.

Announcing the proposals yesterday, fisheries minister Elliot Morley said existing rules governing the release into the wild of non-native fish were not easy to enforce. Moreover, they did not cover fish farms and other waters not recorded as wild.

"You may find it surprising, but if you had a piranha or Nile perch and you wanted to put it into your local pond, there's nothing really to stop you," he said. However, even if the new rules remove difficulties over interpretation there will still be a problem of policing, with no significant extra money available.

It is accepted internationally that the introduction of non-native fish and shellfish can have far-reaching and undesirable ecological consequences. Native fish can suffer direct competition for food, damage to their environment or new diseases.

"Unless some further action is taken, it seems inevitable that native flora and fauna will continue to be put at risk with the attendant danger of another seriously damaging introduction, perhaps on a scale similar to that caused by signal crayfish," Maff said.

A total ban on imports of non-native species would be contrary to European Union law. However, Maff believes a licensing system could work. From next year, anyone wishing to keep or release non-native fish on a specified list would have to apply for a licence - and probably be refused. The draft black list already includes types of sturgeon catfish and carp, and zander, American brook trout and Mediterranean barbel.

The review of salmon and freshwater fisheries honours a commitment in Labour's Anglers' Charter. It will be aimed primarily at preventing over- fishing and dealing with anglers' complaints about regulations dating back to the last century.

t A pounds 300,000 scheme has been launched to revive salmon runs in the River Esk, North Yorkshire, and make the banks more attractive for otters and bank voles. The 22-mile Esk is Yorkshire's only salmon and sea trout river, but the salmon population has been declining for 30 years as bank erosion has led to silt smothering the gravel beds where they lay their eggs.

The partnership for the Esk has brought together landowners, farmers, fishing clubs and government agencies. Around pounds 112,000 will come from an EU fund and pounds 75,500 from the Ministry of Agriculture.