Fishing Lines: Pond life, and a licence to print money

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Not so long ago, you could fish free on any public water in England or Wales. Nowadays, you need a rod licence - £24.50, or £66.50 if you want to fish for salmon and sea trout. Even 12-year-olds must pay a fiver, though if they are anything like pre-teens in my time, they will claim to be only 11 if nabbed by a bailiff.

We were supposed to have the right to fish in perpetuity under the Magna Carta, but smart lawyers specialising in finding loopholes in ancient documents found King John's draughtsmen had left out an "or", or something, and now I have got to pay to fish my garden pond or risk a fine of up to £2,500.

To be fair, the Environment Agency, which polices the scheme, has done some sterling work on restocking waters, dealing with pollution, improving fisheries and so on. But I'm pretty certain that fishing generally isn't any better than pre-licences, and I read somewhere that at least one in 10 still fails to buy a licence anyway.

I must admit that I haven't been checked for about seven years - I've got one, for any smartass bailiff hoping to nab me in the back garden. But it doesn't inspire confidence on how successful a proposed licence for sea fishermen might be.

Those who dangle a line from boat, pier or beach have so far escaped the clammy hand of a bailiff on their shoulders. But now David Miliband, the Environment Secretary, wants to impose licences on the million or so sea fishers out there.

He claims it would help fish stocks, provide launch sites for small boats and create artificial reefs. But once again, such a move would overturn a right that anglers have enjoyed for nearly 1,500 years, established by the Digest of Justinian, a Byzantine legal codification - though I believe it was actually Ethelred the Unsuccessful who made sure the law went through.

Can the government really say that common law doesn't really count? Well, seems so if you take what happened in fresh water. And ministers will doubtless look covetously at the maths. (£25 x say, one million = enough for 25 fact-finding tours for the whole Cabinet to the US, where sea licences are already in place.)

More to the point, will it make any difference? The National Federation of Sea Anglers oppose licences unless they bring obvious benefits, like banning trawlers from a mile of the shore, stopping gill-netting on reefs and in estuaries, and ensuring that species with little value are left alone by the commercial sector. Fish such as conger eels, dabs, flounders, small sharks, rays and mullet are worth pence to a trawler but are prime targets for sea anglers.

The Government has invited comments, but a petition is already under way to scupper the scheme, though a Bill to change the law is not expected until 2009.

I'm ambivalent. The licence system worked wonderfully for striped bass on the eastern US seaboard but I fear administration will gulp up all the money here. If bailiffs can't be bothered to walk along the river Ouse towpath, will they really patrol 2,500 miles of our coastline?