The not-so-funny farms; fishing lines

Fish farming has moved some way on from the days when monks scraped leftover beans-on-toast into their stewpond to fatten up the resident carp. The pounds 20bn industry has trebled in the past 10 years alone and is growing at more than 10 per cent annually. Many familiar sea fish - halibut, turbot, bass and bream - are becoming modern aquaculture's equivalent of battery chickens.

Purists like me insist that farmed fish taste like day-old chewing gum, but sadly, most people can't tell the difference any more. Any salmon you buy will almost certainly be farmed and the fish mentioned, along with Dover sole and cod in the near future, will all soon come from the same source and taste like supermarket bread.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature recently added Atlantic cod and haddock to a list of creatures at risk of extinction. With Britain steadfastly refusing to cut its catches, it may not be long before our national fish becomes as exotic as truffles or caviar. Seems silly, I know, but prospects aren't good. Raising funds to rescue rhinos is fairly easy. But I can't really see the tofu-chewers marching down Whitehall with Save the Haddock banners.

Where does this leave sea fishermen? The decline in their numbers has not been as dramatic as those of cod and haddock, but fewer dangle a line off a boat or pier these days because there are fewer fish around. If the trawlers can't catch them, with all those gadgets like scanners, global positioning, sonar, Decca and Parlophone, what chance has the average Joe with a worm on a hook?

Maybe sea anglers will have to resort to my friend Ian's stratagem. Most of his fishing was done off the extremely unproductive Bangor Pier, where fish were a rare sight. In desperation, he started counting crabs, but even they were uncommon. So, to make his catches sound more impressive, he counted crab legs.

A gloomy scenario, maybe, but it may not be the only option. In a few years, you might be able to go fishing in north Cheshire, more than 30 miles from the coast, and catch many of our familiar sea fish in a saltwater lake.

It's part of a hugely ambitious scheme scheduled for a 780-acre site at Vale Royal, near Northwich. The core of the pounds 55m project would be a National Angling Centre but there would also be a museum, a giant aquarium, aquatic research laboratories, fish-rearing facilities and room for more than 1,000 anglers to fish. There would be facilities for coarse and trout anglers, but sea fishers would not be left out, says Edward Rowan, managing director of Andico, the company behind the project.

His company has already spent more than pounds 300,000 on feasibility studies and has the backing of the angling organisations and Cheshire county council. "All the consultants are working on a contingent basis, even the lawyers, because they believe in this project," he said.

Now pounds 55m represents an awful lot of jumble sales. But Rowan is hopeful that at least half will come from a lottery grant. He also believes the centre will make money because a key part of it involves using more than 100 acres of reed beds as a biological filter to clean water from a nearby chemical plant.

The untreated water has three times the salinity of sea water, but Rowan says feasibility studies have shown that it should be possible to create a saltwater lake once ammonia has been removed from the effluent and the salinity diluted. The bad news is that even if everything goes to plan, the centre is unlikely to open before the year 2000. By then, it may be better to turn the lake into a giant fish farm, and to hell with the anglers.