Mighty sturgeon caught up in battle royal

Fishing rights: The Queen enlisted in campaign to have rare caviar- bearing species reintroduced

Stephen Goodwin
Monday 26 August 1996 23:02 BST

Two stuffed fish in Doncaster's municipal museum and Her Majesty the Queen have been enlisted in a businessman's attempt to get the mighty sturgeon reintroduced to the waters of south Yorkshire.

Landing a sturgeon would rank high in most anglers' dreams. The caviar- bearing fish can grow to 11ft and "tail-walks" out of the water like fighting giants of foreign seas.

The sturgeon is also a royal fish. In the 14th century, Edward II decreed that any caught in English waters must first be offered to the monarch. A 200lb specimen caught in the Humber estuary was accepted by the Queen in 1953.

However, it is thought that the predator fish could damage local fish populations if it escaped into rivers during flooding and, as an introduced spe- cies, there is the risk of disease.

Robin Goforth, who owns Hayfield Fishing Lakes, near Doncaster, would like to be able to offer the palace more sturgeon but has been thwarted by the Environment Agency (EA) and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Last week, he wrote to the Queen begging her, in suitable language, to "prevail upon Your Ministers that they may reconsider their decision".

The Ferrari-driving entrepreneur applied in 1994 to introduce 200 sturgeon of up to 8in to his two lakes. He already stocks 32 species of fish in the lakes which attract some 2,000 anglers a week. But despite scaling the project down to 20 fish, experts at the ministry and the National Rivers Authority - as the EA used to be known - were not persuaded.

For two years, Mr Goforth found himself engaged "in a game of ping-pong" with two government agencies while paying for advice from a third, the Farm Advisory Service. Armed with a warrant, officials paid a surprise visit and spent hours netting the lakes. "It was like a drugs raid," he said.

The small sturgeon had been returned to a fish-pond and aquarium supplier. Like carp or other fish species, they would have grown to whatever size was natural to their environment. "In my lake they would probably have got to the size of a large carp, say 30 or 40lb."

Sturgeon were regularly caught in the river Don until the turn of this century. But because of the installation of locks and weirs, together with pollution, they ceased swimming up from the sea to spawn in rivers.

Two stuffed six-footers in Doncaster museum have been central to Mr Goforth's case. But the EA claims the fish he wanted to introduce were hy-brids and that the lakes are on a flood plain.

"There was a very real threat that if there was flooding, sturgeon could get into the river. We really could not be sure what the effect would be on competing fish and whether there would be a risk of disease," said an EA spokesman.

Mr Goforth countered that he would comply with any quarantine conditions, and, anyway, the EA did not know whether his sturgeon were native-type or not. Now he is waiting for a reply from the palace.

Richard Lee, news editor of Angling Times, has caught sturgeon in stocked lakes in France and does not think anglers would have many qualms about their reintroduction.

"The majority of anglers just like getting their string pulled. Catching a real tail-walking monster would make most of them jump for joy," he said.

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