Over the years, Environment Agency Fisheries Enforcement officers, along with partners in local police forces and the Voluntary Bailiff Service (VBS), have been cracking down on illegal fishing. As we get ready to add 2020 to the archives, we ask the question: how have our Fisheries Enforcement Officers tackled the challenges of this difficult year? Adrian Saunders, Senior Advisor for Fisheries Incidents and Compliance, reflects on the highs and lows of the last twelve months.
Throughout this year we have all had to work a bit differently but for much of it, our Fisheries Enforcement Officers have continued to tread the banks of our beloved rivers and stillwaters, undertaking rod licence checks and also targeting poaching hotspots where we have received reports via our 0800 807060 hotline number.
Back in March, the attention of government turned to saving lives from the Covid-19 global pandemic and protecting the NHS. The way we worked had to change, to comply with government rules to protect our staff and the members of the public. We also needed to adapt to having a restricted court service and limitations on patrols undertaken by the 500 Angling Trust VBS volunteers.
Even as many of our teams switched to home working, they continued to take illegal fishing seriously. We continued to respond to incidents that posed the greatest risk to the environment and progressed existing case-loads already going through the courts, whilst they remained operational.
Our investigating officers liaised with third parties like the police over cases that had been investigated during lockdown, providing support, advice and guidance when necessary. We have also issued warning letters, where appropriate, in some cases to ensure the offence committed was captured and considered in the event of any future offending.
Since restrictions were eased back in May 2020, our enforcement staff have been able to get back to their field based activities, with a phased return.
In Cumbria and Lancashire, we’ve focused more patrol efforts on the Border Esk, River Ehen and River Eden, alongside our regular patrols, after we received reports of anglers taking salmon where they shouldn’t, as well as cases of some anglers fishing without licences.
Often, our enforcement work is delivered in partnership with local police forces in England to pool resources, skills and powers. In September, on the Thames, our teams worked with the police to carry out Covid compliant fishing checks. On that occasion, we found a 21.5 % evasion rate (anglers fishing without a licence) with 45 anglers reported of the 210 checked! Typically, evasion rates are around 5%. With a number of people trying fishing for the first time this year, it is perhaps unsurprising to find some people who were unaware of the need for a fishing licence. Through such patrols we are able to educate and inform as well as catch true offenders.
Joint patrols are proven to be very effective at tackling a wide range of issues that prevent safe and accessible fishing opportunities for local communities. They deter and disrupt illegal and anti-social behaviour and also give us the opportunity to gain valuable intelligence that can be used in the prevention and detection of more serious crimes. We often find that people who are willing to fish illegally could also potentially be involved in other, more serious, criminal activity.
Our intelligence led enforcement approach relies on the reports we receive from the VBS and the public. This information is vital in helping our officers work effectively and efficiently to protect and help promote healthy fisheries and retain resilient fish stocks. Our fisheries officers use patrols to gain local intelligence on an area, supplemented with information from volunteers and members of the public. With this they can follow up on any reports made and provide a visible presence as they police fishing activity along the waterways. Our teams are always keen to talk to potential witnesses - anglers, walkers, locals and others on the waterside, but we will always ensure that any activity is carried out in line with the latest government social distancing guidance.
As you might expect, our incident response for fisheries is generally seasonal, with more work to deal with during the warmer months. Unusually for the winter, we still have the full range of incidents to respond to including water quality issues, pollution events and unfortunately fish mortalities. In Warrington, this included a large carp mortality where, in response, we deployed aeration equipment to a club fishery which was suffering low oxygen levels due to decaying autumn leaves. At another club fishery, we assisted a response to a huge algal bloom and a large and very serious milk spillage in Greater Manchester, which threatened a nearby river.
Although the leaves have started falling and temperatures have dipped, our teams still spot plenty of anglers taking to the water, mirroring an exciting year for fishing licence sales. Higher sales mean we can re-invest more in protecting and improving fisheries.
Our teams on the river Nene in Lincolnshire recently responded to reports from a local angling club involving a large gill net left in a Lincolnshire river. The net was promptly seized and our enforcement officers have worked with the club to establish joint patrols in the area to prevent further illegal activity in the future. Our team covering the Great Ouse in the fens, has also been busy seizing illegal nets, as well as working with a local angler who contacted us when he discovered two illegal traps whilst fishing.
Elsewhere, in Skinningrove, East Cleveland, fisheries enforcement officers seized an illegal fishing net
across Kilton Beck, which created an impenetrable barrier across the full width of the beck! Others have been seized from the River Wear and Ryhope beach. Just last month, we worked with the police to detain three men suspected of using a gaff to take salmon from the Wear. Without this intervention, vulnerable salmon stocks would have been depleted by illegal fishing activity.
Illegal nets, traps and other unlawful fishing methods pose a serious risk to our fish stocks and wildlife. The choice made by some people to fish illegally can have a huge environmental cost, impacting valuable species and the fisheries that we all care about. Particularly vulnerable stocks, such as salmon, must be managed carefully and any unregulated activity puts their survival at risk. Illegal fishing also poses a dangerous hazard to other wildlife inhabiting the area.
Nationally, we received around £21 million from rod licence sales last year. This income is essential as it funds our work to maintain, improve and develop fisheries for anglers, people and the environment across England. There is still much to be done, but we are proud that this money is reinvested directly back into our fisheries and angling community. Rod licence income helps us to improve facilities for anglers, help manage predation and protect stocks from illegal fishing. We also carry out fish restocking, manage the impact of invasive species, and work with partners to improve habitats and encourage people to take up fishing for the first time.
With several wellbeing benefits associated with fishing, we would advise anyone looking to get away from daily pressures to take up fishing. Not only is it fun and healthy, but your licence purchase will be contributing to the protection and restoration of much-loved fisheries and fishing hotspots across the country.
Anyone who sees or suspects illegal fishing activity can report it to our 24 hour incident hotline on 0800 80 70 60.
If you’re thinking of going fishing, don’t forget to buy a rod licence. It’s quick and easy and costs just £30 for a whole year. They’re available via the Post Office website and on www.gov.uk and by phone