Net loss as life sucked out of British waters

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The Independent Online

So, a whole week in Devon and no fishing to be had. The water was too low and what little fish there were were way too easily spooked. But most of them had taken refuge, quite wisely, in deeper, cooler water that was impossible to reach.

So, a whole week in Devon and no fishing to be had. The water was too low and what little fish there were were way too easily spooked. But most of them had taken refuge, quite wisely, in deeper, cooler water that was impossible to reach.

On the one hand I was pleased of this respite since my RSI had got so bad - exacerbated by fishing - that wrist braces are now part of my daily wardrobe. But to be denied the simple pleasure of sitting by one of Devon's many beautiful rivers trying to hook a wild trout was hard.

Pete was as restless as a tiger on a hot day. Every time we passed a river in the car, no matter how small the river was, we had to slow down and look at water levels. Sadly it didn't rain once the whole time we were there. Every few hours he would take the crumpled map out of his pocket that showed us where we could fish with our permit. And he would study it to see if there was some beat that he had perhaps overlooked.

I had resigned myself to not fishing for a week and busied myself with snooping round lots of lovely National Trust properties deciding where I would like to live next (Coleton Fishacre in Kingswear), and trying to work my way through every local cheese and variation on a pork sausage.

There were also local papers to be read and many of them were full of sea-fishing news which made grim reading. One fisherman was reported as giving up his boat and licence to fish after 25 years because it has got so hard to make a living. The difficulties were due, he said, to the decrease in stocks and the huge amounts of red tape from Brussels that governs the industry with its Common Fisheries Policy, which tells the netsmen where, when and how they can fish, how many of them can do so at any one time, and how much they can catch. This was in the same week that the World Wildlife Fund announced that cod is now an endangered species (did you have fish and chips last night?)

Illegal nets were also found off the Cornish coast, illegal because the mesh size was smaller than that allowed by the EU (which is 80mm, and 120mm for gill nets - used for hake - while those found were 40mm and 100mm) and the nets trap undersized fish. These sort of nets can decimate fish stocks at a time when fishermen are coming under pressure to preserve them. So you can perhaps see why it made everyone very angry. The finger was pointed at the Spanish, for three reasons: they are known to use those kinds of nets, South-west fishermen have their nets inspected regularly and there is no market for such small fish in this country, whereas there is, apparently, in Spain.

What frustrates UK fishermen is that not everyone in the EU sticks by the rules (I'm sure they don't some of the time, either). If Spain is anything like Italy, it has a very short-sighted view of conservation (Italians see nothing wrong with shooting songbirds). Sadly, I think this is all just another symptom of the crazy, greedy, me-first world we live in.

I came back to news that low water levels had caused hundreds of salmon to die in the River Ericht (which feeds into the Tay) in Blairgowrie in Scotland. Lack of water meant the salmon battered themselves on rocks trying to get up river and with the hot weather they picked up fungus diseases which spread to the other fish and killed them. Heartbreaking to think of them having got so far in their heroic journey only for them to die in this way, piled up against the weir, their fit, pink flesh rotting and stinking out the summer air.

The only good news was that sea lampreys have been discovered back in the Thames - a sign that the river, declared biologically dead four decades ago, is now less polluted. However, lampreys are blood sucking fish (they look like small eels with a hooded, hooked mouth) that attach themselves to other fish and suck the life out of them. What a perfectly apt, if chilling, metaphor for man's relation with his world.

a.barbieri@independent.co.uk

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