John Bailey rails

I’ve bought a copy of the latest issue of The Field. At this time of year there is a bit more fishing displacing the usual dominant hunting and shooting (and young women with no clothes, discretely photographed of course). What most attracted my attention are the two polemical articles by John Bailey, one in which he attacks fisheries scientists’ reluctance to stock and, in the second piece, lack of cormorant control.

It’s not for me to defend scientists, yet this is the age of raging and false information. John Bailey claims that, as a graduate, he was once on the side of science but now supports stocking against the advice of scientists. His reason is based on his travels ‘to all corners of the country’ during which he finds dying rivers everywhere. Bailey is a History graduate, not a scientist, hence perhaps his comment that scientists are getting richer. Most fish biologists are employed by public bodies, where pay increases have been restricted to 1% a year since 2008 — they are getting poorer. He avers that ‘authorities are betraying our rivers’, another bit of bluster uncomfortably reminiscent of the nonsense heard in the Brexit babble.

It’s true that salmon runs have fallen yet more in recent years. Coarse populations in rivers I fish are healthy but perhaps I have not travelled to farther enough corners. I often see frequent restockings of coarse fish to no great purpose: anglers still complain that the fishing was so much better in the past.

The question of salmon stocks is more interesting because they have undoubtedly declined. Scientists point out that stocking is futile except in special circumstances; rivers can only support so many fish and additions are just money down the river. Bailey quotes river keepers in support of his view that lack of fish is due to lack of stocking. In last year’s Gamefisher (annual magazine of Salmon & Trout Conservation, the old S&TA), Andrew Douglas-Home, a Tweed fishery owner, points out that natural stocks of salmon fry are very healthy. Adding hatchery fish would only increase mortality. He goes on to observe that salmon runs have always been cyclical. Whether this is enough to explain low numbers in all rivers is not always clear. A fisheries scientist I know well tells me that the main problem is at sea; for some reason the salmon are just not returning, and no one knows why. Global warming has been implicated, but there are plenty of anglers who don’t believe in that either.

The poor success rate of stock enhancement from hatcheries has been established for some time and Bailey offers no convincing argument to the contrary. He is vociferous too in his condemnation of cormorant management, dramatically claiming that small trout and salmon are ‘hoovered to extinction.’ Now I am not sure myself about the impact of cormorant predation, other than to note, as above, that the rivers I fish have healthy stocks, despite the appearance of cormorants on some of them. I might be convinced if Bailey were to offer some evidence. Like me, I suspect he has not read any research on the subject, which is not surprising as academic journals, apart from being hard work, are not readily available to the public.

His answer, the ‘Slovenian solution,’ is to require club members to put in 40 hours of anti-cormorant duty each season, armed with guns and whistles. In this country such an approach is neither practicable nor legal. I think there is not much doubt that cormorants can reduce fish populations in some circumstances, but Bailey overstates the case. My understanding is that cormorants do not invariably deplete stocks; it depends on the water concerned. Anglers are too ready to believe in simple reasons and answers to the perceived problems in fisheries, problems that may not even exist. John Bailey should be more circumspect.

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