Fishing Lines: More than just a little fishy

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The Independent Online
Bryan Meade's obsession has cost him pounds 27,000 and his health, swallowed 12 years of his life and almost wrecked his marriage. He has had death threats, and twice his motorbike brakes have been tampered with. His successes have been few. But the 54-year-old Holyhead man is still determined to stop the most successful fishing method ever discovered.

Monofilament gill nets came to the UK in 1979 and have had a devastating effect. Fish are unable to see and avoid them, unlike traditional nets. Soon, areas where fishing had once been exceptional were almost devoid of life. It's not just fish that have been affected. Gill nets are indiscriminate, trapping seals, dolphins and diving birds.

Because they are often set very close inshore, they are also highly dangerous to boats, divers and even swimmers. The main target is bass, along with salmon and sea trout. The only fish for which there are no total catch quotas, bass sell commercially for pounds 5 a pound and as much as pounds 10 in the shops, making them far more expensive than salmon.

A netter taking 10 bass a day averaging 5lb is making pounds 250. In recessionary times, and with a 160-yard net costing just pounds 55, a huge 'black' economy has flourished. Legislation is hazy and policing almost non-existent.

Meade, a machine operator from Holyhead, has produced a national report on this and pestered MPs, ministers and fishery officials. A network of concerned contacts supplied him with details, such as two lorries a week travelling to France with an estimated pounds 700,000 of bass. All this investigative work has brought him so far is threatening phone calls and death warnings.

It's easy to dismiss him as an interfering busybody, snitching to the Revenue on people who are just making a few quid on the side. But Meade says: 'I believe this black economy is worth at least pounds 50m and is now almost as large as the legitimate fishery for bass.'

It has also devastated stocks. Meade has documented one boat alone that has taken 85,000lb of bass in a few months. In one case, he counted 445 nets in a two-mile stretch. It is almost impossible to find a popular angling spot off much of our coastline that is not walled with gill nets trapping everything from salmon to cod. The recent 'fish war' off Cornwall was less about Anglo-French relations than gill-netting.

Meade has two major gripes. First, lack of licensing means the nets are often (deliberately) set wrongly, so a four-inch mesh is reduced to two inches, catching all the immature fish. But his pet hate is 'ghost nets', that break away because they have not been tied properly, and continue to kill fish as they drift. 'It is eight to 10 years before the net breaks down, and all that time they go on killing. Predators are attracted to trapped fish, and they too get trapped. These nets are like deadly spiders' webs in the sea.'

Despite Hodgkinson's disease, Meade has averaged nine hours a day for the past 12 years, badgering politicians and international fishery authorities, and he has had some small successes. He forced gill nets to be removed from rivers. He played a big part in the Irish ban on commercial fishing for bass, and his pressure forced the Ministry of Fisheries to conduct a five-year research programme. This resulted in 36 bass nursery areas being set up (though Meade claims indiscriminate fishing is still taking place in these places).

Monofilament nets are banned in Canada and off much of the United States and Australia. 'In California, the nets almost wiped out white sea bass in under three years. It will take at least 35 years for that fishery to recover. We are going the same way. In my view our inshore fisheries have a maximum of five years unless action is taken on gill-netting. There won't be any fish left to catch.'