Fishing Lines: Bravo to Brussels for saving the Estuary for English anglers

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The Independent Online

And now, let us give praise to the European Union.

Bet you never thought you'd read a panegyric to Brussels in this column. It's true that when things are quiet and not much seems to be happening, I've resorted to railing at the lazy, pampered, greedy, out-of-touch, self-serving, bureaucratic, health-and-safety-obsessed, garlic-chomping halfwits who now seem to run our country. But I was wrong.

I can now reveal that, far from wanting to give every fish in our waters (never mind the fact that it was only born three days ago) to Spanish trawlers with seven-mile nets, the EU really have our best interests at heart.

I never trusted that Ted Heath anyway. How can you put your faith in a man who owns a big boat but doesn't go fishing? So when he sold our seas just so he could join the Euro Club, it was bound to end in tears. Ask anyone whose family once earned a decent living catching a few hundredweight of cod.

For anglers, the Common Fisheries Policy has been a disaster. Fish that trawlers never bothered with but which kept anglers happy are now being hoovered up: skate, pollack, black bream, even flounders. Some boats now trawl so close to shore that beach anglers risk getting their lines caught.

Look at today's sea-fishing magazines. You're seeing fishermen pose with rockpool fish: gobies, rockling, dogfish, pouting. Once it was a huge joke to catch them. Now they are all that's left to catch.

Or so I thought. But fishing in the Thames Estuary with the Bradwell boat skipper John Rawle last week, our party caught fish after fish. Not tiddlers, either: big smooth-hounds up to 10lb, tope, thornback rays. Skate are now so prolific, Rawle said, that on the right tide it's possible to catch 30 or 40 fish averaging 7lb.

But what of cod, a fish that is now considered so endangered that conservation-minded restaurants are refusing to serve it? "We've had our best year for ages, and I reckon next winter will be even better," Rawle said. He showed me his records. Day after day, catches of 30, 40, 50 cod. Wow! That's like fishing used to be.

In the US, they don't hold endless hand-wringing meetings when catches slump. They close a fishery to trawling. When things are really bad, anglers can't fish either. And it works.

So how come we're catching proper fish off Essex again? Has Bush negotiated a secret deal – you send more troops, I'll stop the netsmen? Not quite, but it's almost as surprising. There is a three-mile exclusion zone off our coast, allegedly to protect our fish. Doesn't work, of course. Except in a place like the Thames Estuary. Three miles from the coast, in the Estuary, can mean you're almost in London or stopping off for lunch in Ipswich.

But now the EU have ruled that three miles means not from shore, but from a line drawn right across the Estuary's mouth. Suddenly, trawlers that were raping this shallow nursery area can't come into the playground. And the fish are thriving.

Of course it's a mistake. But try telling a bureaucrat thathe's wrong. It will take yearsto change the rules.

In the meantime, fishing off Essex is wonderful. Piece ofcod, anyone?

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