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Rules spark 'unfishable' rivers fears; Angling clubs fear days are numbered.

Byline: ANDREW FORGRAVE farming@dailypost.co.uk

ACAR parked near a small tributary of the River Dee provided the first clue.

As a popular spawning stream for salmon, suspicions were aroused among river bailiffs who, last week, were carrying out extra patrols in North Wales to tackle illegal fishing.

When they searched the car, they found a dead male salmon and a gaff. Police were called, two men were cautioned and the items were confiscated.

The incident was significant mainly for its rarity: cuts in bailiff numbers no longer incense anglers in quite the way they once did, but only because there are fewer fish left to be poached.

Besides, the angling community now has bigger fish to fry: new compulsory catch-and-release (C&R) bylaws in Wales which, they claim, will decimate the sport, denude riverbanks of rods and savage the Welsh rural economy.

Last Friday, a coalition of angling interests wrote to Hannah Blythyn, the Welsh Government's new environment minister, demanding their voices be heard. Included was a thinly veiled warning of a potential legal challenge.

"The proposed angling method restrictions will have little or no impact on reversing the decline in migratory fish stocks," said the coalition.

"But they will effectively make many rivers in North Wales unfishable. The imposition of pan-Wales bylaws may be open to judicial review."

Signatories included John Eardley of the Prince Albert Angling Society, Dolgellau, and Reuben Woodford, of Afon Ogwen Anglers, Nant Ffrancon.

Also putting his name to the letter was Chris White, of the Campaign for the Protection of Welsh Fisheries. Other clubs are known to share their views.

At the heart of their concerns is a belief that the bylaws are misguided and will do little to reverse fish stocks. Instead of targeting anglers, they say Natural Resources Wales (NRW) should be focusing its efforts on curbing river pollution and reducing predation by fish-eating birds, which would boost the number of smolt (young salmon) in rivers.

It's estimated that, due to predation, 40% of smolts never reach the sea on their annual spring migration. However, at present, NRW will only permit 10% culls of cormorants and goosander populations, whereas in England the figure is 20%.

Anglers argue their own impact on fish numbers is relatively small: while they catch an estimated 15% of a river's total stock, more than twothirds are released under current voluntary C&R measures.

The angling coalition said: "Increased control of predators would have a far greater impact on reversing the decline in migratory fish than the draconian measures proposed on anglers."

Neither has NRW made good on its promises to mitigate the closures of fish hatcheries and end the third party stocking of rivers, say anglers.

Both moves - designed to help indigenous fish populations - were deeply unpopular with angling groups at the time.

To sugar the pill, NRW pledged to remove migratory barriers and improve habitats. Objectors have since felt hoodwinked. "There are few examples of this happening at all, yet alone on the scale necessary to replace the shortfall in fish stocks caused by hatchery closures."

Everyone accepts fish levels are too low and that action is needed. So concerned is it about fish declines in Wales' 21 principal salmon rivers, NRW is prepared to make itself unpopular with anglers by introducing the sweeping C&R measures. However, anglers insist that declines have been over-estimated and that some rivers are fishing just fine. One problem is the number of anglers who fail to submit a catch return - last year the figure was 45% - giving an incomplete picture.

For fisheries with accurate records, such as those on the Afon Dyfi, catch returns over the past five years averaged 28.31% higher than NRW's official salmon monitoring figures. When it comes to sea trout, the data is even more flawed: most anglers themselves admit they "hazard a wild guess" when asked to record the number of fishing days each year.

For the salmon and sea trout that do remain in Wales' rivers, anglers complain they are afforded too little protection by thin-on-the-ground enforcement officers.

A 2010 survey of 70 anglers on the Mawddach revealed three-quarters had never come across a bailiff for at least five years. Numbers have since fallen further: there are now just 16.4 for the whole of Wales. One poor chap has to cover an area which includes the Dyfi, Dysynni and Mawddach, stretching from Barmouth to Aberystwyth and inland to Llanidloes and Oswestry.

Angling clubs have responded by introducing - and policing - their own measures to conserve fish stocks. Some put photos of poachers on social media - often to little avail, they complain.

As the eyes and ears of Welsh rivers, surveillance would shrink rapidly if angling numbers declined. Poaching would rise again and negate any gains that might be made from a compulsory C&R scheme.

Moreover, much of the voluntary conservation work currently carried out by anglers, such as removing invasive species like Himalayan Balsam, could also disappear.

"It is unlikely this will continue when we are treated with such contempt," said anglers. Although 70% of caught fish are currently returned to rivers, most anglers want to reserve the right to take one home for the pot.

A mandatory C&R would render the sport meaningless, a view underlined by a survey of 70 Mawddach anglers in 2010, which showed that only 22.86% would continue to fish if it was introduced.

No one really expects almost 80% of anglers to hang up their rods. Nevertheless, some clubs may be forced to close and the impact could be profound.

Many angling clubs pay riparian landowners in excess of PS25,000-a-year for access to rivers. That's certainly the case at one site next to the Mawddach, which hosts 31 caravans owned by visiting anglers.

These anglers pay a total of PS20,202.24 to the site owner and a further PS4,421.35 in rates to the local council. A recent survey of spending habits suggested they contributed a further PS102,225.50 to the area's wider economy.

For this reason, angling clubs say their contribution to the Welsh economy is double NRW's PS74m estimate, and that their loss would be catastrophic It's not all about money, of course.

Closure of local angling clubs, they argue, may be contrary to Wales' Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, as members would be deprived of the "stress-relieving benefits of angling". Suspicions that NRW's bylaw consultation was "pre-determined" have done little to lower blood pressures.

The angling coalition letter concludes: "The fishing methods used on many North Wales rivers have been passed down from father to son for over 100 years and represent the culture and heritage of the angling community in North Wales.

"NRW will destroy this rich heritage at a stroke."
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Publication:Chester Chronicle (Chester, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 14, 2017
Words:1128
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