Fishing Lines: British return as laughing stock

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The Independent Online
FOR A very reasonable fee, I may just be able to save this year's World Angling Championships from being an unholy disaster. The event, scheduled for early September in Nottingham and expected to attract 40,000 spectators, has run into a small hiccup - all the fish have disappeared.

Holme Pierrepont, the national water sports recreation centre, was opened in 1973 by Ted Heath, then Prime Minister. The 2,000-metre international rowing course was never stocked with fish, but they found their way in anyhow through a grille that separated the water from the River Trent. By the 1980s they had flourished to the extent that a series of top events were held on the water.

This persuaded the National Federation of Anglers to put Holme Pierrepont forward for this year's world championships, the first time the competition has been fished in Britain since 1981. Ah, the events of that weekend still cheer me up when I am feeling low.

It was held on the River Avon at Luddington, near Stratford, chosen so other countries' competitors could see something of our countryside and fish on a scenic river with historic connections. What they actually saw, once they had waded through a foot of mud to reach the bankside, was a river in full flood. It rose two feet during the competition and by the second day fishing was close to impossible.

Even if you forgive the NFA for being idiotic enough to choose a river prone to flooding (in the past 30 years, the only such waters selected for the world match have been picked by England and Ireland), it was harder to forget some of the weekend's other events.

My fondest memory is of an NFA jobsworth refusing to allow BBC cameras into the officials' car park, and telling the crew to use the public car parks two miles down the road like everyone else. After carrying their kit that distance, then walking another mile along the bank to find the fishing (all this in torrential rain), they were showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

Oh, that was some weekend. There was the Angling Times balloon that escaped its moorings in the high wind, tangled in power cables and left Stratford without electricity for several hours; the tackle display ( pounds 5 entry) that nobody went to; Stan Smith, the England team manager, who had said his side would be unbeatable whatever the conditions, explaining why England had finished only second; and the memorable presentations, made in a swampy field amid thunder and lightning, so you couldn't hear a thing.

It would not be like that this time, the NFA promised. The organisation sent observers to the last three world matches to make sure it did not repeat the mistakes of Johnny Foreigner. It has been trumpeting how this year's competition will serve as a worldwide model. Sponsors have already been tied up, the hotels booked, the tackle show prepared, arrangements fixed for car parking within the same county, an international parade through the streets of Nottingham organised - but there are no fish to catch.

For a change, this is not the NFA's fault. The fishery management expert Bruno Broughton has surveyed Holme Pierrepont and found that most of the fish have disappeared, almost certainly down cormorants' gullets. An electronic survey of the whole water, showing the extent of the fish loss, will result in nearly 4,000lb of bream and roach being stocked over the next week.

If none die, this may be enough to save the day. However, stocking will not remove the cause of the problem. Broughton has recorded up to 40 cormorants on the water (locals claim there are often more than 100) and it is eminently possible that this latest batch will end up as guano too.

You can scarcely blame the birds. They have been driven inland because there is nothing to eat in the sea. Rapacious trawlers working inshore and using more efficient nets have devastated sea stocks. No wonder the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds estimates that 75,000 seabirds have died in the past year.

Broughton said: 'The long-term solution is to ensure there are sufficient stocks of small sea fish to give them their normal source of food. So it's a political matter rather than a fishery issue.'

That is not much consolation to the 30 countries who will be expecting netfuls of fish come September. But there may just be an answer. I'll tell you all about it . . . next week.