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Emptying the seas

The current BBC programme, Trawlermen: Hunting the Catch makes clear why sea anglers, especially shore anglers, have such lean pickings. The fishing grounds around the British Isles are trawled by numerous commercial fishing boats, often several at the same time in one small area. Last year there were 4269 trawlers operating from the UK. Then there are the overseas trawlers, including about 25 supertrawlers (over 100 meters long) which are capable of netting hundreds of tonnes of fish each day. These may legally fish protected areas.

Some idea of the fishing pressure can be viewed on the globalfishingwatch website.

Fish are never evenly spread. In the relatively small areas where they’re found they are subject to relentless fishing pressure, in spite of quotas and rules governing allowable fishing days. Monkfish, cuttlefish, prawns and all the rest of the commercial species are caught in great numbers; hundreds of boxes are filled and sold at auction onshore.

The harm to the marine environment is not just a matter of overfishing. Scallop areas are ploughed over by the shellfish dredgers, damaging habitat for both scallops and other species.

Technology lies behind much of the overfishing. Huge trawlers can now catch many tonnes of fish in one trip. A striking example is the mackerel trawler with the gear to net huge quantities in one sweep. In the programme it caught 1300 tonnes of fish, sold to an Asian sushi buyer on the continent for £1 million. Mackerel is the top species landed by UK boats, 209,000 tonnes in 2021.

Commercial fishing is clearly big business and skippers can earn as much as £100,000 a year. Only in the City are you likely to find those levels of incomes. Even the deckhands can do very well financially. On one of the programmes a crabber said how he once boasted to his teacher that he earned more money than them aged 15. Mind you, it is a dangerous job and earnings depend on finding plenty of fish, which is becoming more and more difficult.

Not surprising then that the UK commercial catch in 2020 was 623,000 tonnes, a value of £831 million. Despite quotas many species are still overfished. The graph below is the ICES assessment of mackerel stocks (the SSB or spawning stock biomass) since 1980. Unusually mackerel have seemed to fare relatively well, numbers increasing from 2007, but falling in recent years.

I and other anglers have noticed how fewer the mackerel are now during summer. The greater focus on mackerel as a sustainable fishery may mean more intensive fishing is reducing the population. Whatever the reason, numbers are dropping, though still not to the parlous level of cod, the most important commercial species. Since the 1970s cod stocks have declined, bumping up a little a decade ago due to stricter quotas, before declining again.

Back in 1988 John Holden wrote, ‘Without cod, sea fishing would nosedive into oblivion.’ The graph shows that stocks had already declined a long way, and although you’ll still see anglers on the beach, not many cod are caught, even from deep marks like Chesil, and oblivion looks to be the future.

I rarely go sea fishing now. Even fishing from a boat, which gives you a much better chance of a cod or anything else, means a long sail to find them. Two hours was a typical journey, often for only modest catches.

Marine Conservation Zones may eventually contribute to improved stocks but commercial interests are strong. Even anglers complain about restrictions on their fishing and those being introduced to bait digging, despite being ultimately in our interests. Climate change will also have an impact. Warming seas will displace cod northwards, although bass may become more numerous, if they are not fished to oblivion too.

Anglers of all kinds have a lot to worry about but too many are not worried enough. Rivers are polluted by agriculture and sewage; seas are overfished and polluted. We can do our bit by supporting and contributing to environmental initiatives, and not eating farmed fish unless grown sustainably (look for the ASC label), especially salmon. Feed pellets are manufactured from sea fish, notably sandeels, sardines and other small marine species, important parts of the food chain. Aquaculture, apparently a replacement for wild fish, contributes to pollution and overfishing too. We cannot pretend otherwise.

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Rewilding UK-style

The descent of man. Cartoon by Jan, from Private Eye 1578

The current heatwave is coming to its baking end, rainstorms are due, for some. Drought will afflict the country for at least another two months. If we get a dry winter the country will be in a very bad way, and from anglers’ point of view the rivers, especially the southern chalk streams, may suffer irreparable harm. Already the scientists are talking about the drought in Europe becoming the worst in 500 years, which may well be true for us. Britain cannot exit from that.

Climate change is here and now. After a rising frequency of hot dry summers the last three decades, we face the reality of the climate heating as rapidly as the pessimistic forecasts warned. Even if net zero is achieved by the date agreed at COP26, we can still expect more severe weather in the years ahead. And with the current obsessions of our government, even that goal looks fragile.

But what are the rest of us doing about it? What are we anglers, ‘custodians of the environment’, doing? The picture is mixed. Admirable individuals like George Monbiot have been campaigning on the environment and living a greener life for many years. Greta Thunberg vents her just fury at climate conferences and practises what she preaches. But such people are rare. Overall I see limited change in people’s behaviour. In some ways it is worse, as though we want to go down in one long party of consumption.

Large heavy cars modelled on off-roaders are more popular than ever, and I even see these lauded on fishing forums. A new trend has emerged for drivers to sit in them with the engines running. The other day I saw two in a coastal resort with its occupants eating chips, engines idling. There wasn’t even the excuse of air conditioning keeping them cool because the windows were wound down. Today another has the engine running while chatting on his phone. As I pass I suggest he turns it off, citing global warming, etc. ‘Wassat mate?’ he goes, with the aggressive indignation of the guilty. I repeated what I said and he made some incoherent excuse. They’re always incoherent. Burning fossil fuel remains a pastime for some, tourists in camper vans or on motorbikes with nowhere specific to go, joyriders on those hideous jetskis, or as I saw lately, children on mini-motos, ‘funbikes’, with engines that sound like a hairdryer being attacked by a chainsaw. Burn baby burn, climate inferno.

Rewilding is supposed to be a partial solution to our climate troubles. The idea is to restore the environment around us to a better state by allowing man-altered habitats to naturalise and planting flowers and trees to help this along. Reforestation is popular, especially for wealthy landowners who get grants to do this. In the south the only obvious rewilding is the poppied strips along the headlands of otherwise sterile crop fields.

Unfortunately rewilding is looked on rather differently by a sizeable minority. An animal doesn’t usually shit on its own doorstep but the human animal is perfectly capable of this, trailing their rubbish as sheep trail poo. Littering is a huge problem in the country now, worse in the south but you’ll find rubbish up in the mountains of northern England and even the Scottish Highlands. Too many fishermen follow this pattern of desecrating otherwise pleasant countryside. Even on club waters which are strict on litter, I nearly always find lengths of line on the ground. Away from any control the litterers generally have at it, dropping their refuse where they sit or chucking it out car windows when they drive off. On Chesil beach all-nighters certain sea anglers shit on the shingle and leave it there, possibly alongside piles of dead mackerel.

It’s not just anglers of course. Rewilders include wild swimmers, not the kind who will break ice in winter for a dip or swim two miles in a lake but the teenagers who hold impromptu drinking parties by the river and leave the empties and other detritus behind. Maybe they’re the same ones who provide so much work for the litter-pickers after Glastonbury. Then there’s the wild campers who leave all their gear on site when they leave. A lot of this go-wild bad behaviour proliferated during lockdown, presumably by the slobs who normally haunt pubs and car parks. The Houghton Club put a stop to the chavs swimming in the Test for this reason. If our salvation lies in the youth of the nation, perhaps damnation beckons.

All this is part of the do what the hell you like culture. Just because you go fishing doesn’t mean you have any interest in conservation, and too many don’t give a damn. Monbiot is the example to follow but doing without a car is difficult for some when there is so little adequate public transport and shops have moved miles outside towns. There is, however, no excuse for driving outsized vehicles anymore. Still, I don’t see this changing in a hurry, just as I don’t see any fundamental change in behaviour in response to the climate emergency. Some of us walk and cycle more, eat less meat, and write to our MPs pleading with them to actually do something.

For now the rivers are low, the fish running short of water, the water utilities avoiding their responsibilities, the government playing the fool. It’s not a great outlook.

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