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Fishing and the environment: why the two are inextricably linked

Robert MacDougall-Davis

15th October, 2010

Anglers may set out to hunt fish - for fun or food - but they are also some of greatest protectors of aquatic environments, argues Robert MacDougall-Davis

It was American ecologist Aldo Leopold who said 'harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left.' This sentiment rings true in angling. You cannot enjoy good fishing without taking great care of the environment in which you fish. Angling and the environment are inextricably linked and a flourishing aquatic and terrestrial ecosystem is synonymous with good fishing. The majority of anglers not only love and respect the environment in which they fish, but also go to great lengths to protect and conserve the health of the aquatic ecosystem as a whole.

The need for protecting the aquatic environment

The need for environmental protection has never been so great. Our freshwater and marine environments are fragile and impacted upon by a raft of human activities. Our rivers, lakes and streams are under constant threat from agricultural run-off and diffuse pollution, invasive species, siltation, point discharges from sewage treatment works and industrial activity, water extraction, forestry activity and much more.

Rivers are particularly vulnerable to such pressures because as they flow through agricultural land and inhabited areas, they accumulate more and more pollutants which can reach harmful levels in a river's lower reaches. The marine environment is under threat too as commercial over-fishing decimates fish stocks and vast gravel dredgers and otter boards, dragged by trawlers to guide fish into their nets, rip the seabed to pieces destroying fragile communities. There is an array of other environmental pressures influencing both the marine and freshwater environment, not least the impact that a rapidly changing climate is having on all manner of aquatic organisms.

Angling and fisheries conservation

Anglers play an important role in protecting and conserving the aquatic environment. They act as custodians of the waters they fish and are often the first to notice and report pollution incidents or other environmental issues that need addressing. Only this September two fly fisherman in Cambridgeshire noticed, for the first time in Britain, the presence of a highly invasive and ecologically damaging killer shrimp (Dikerogammarus villosus) darting through the shallows of Grafham Water reservoir. The scientific community and the relevant authorities were alerted and rapid steps are now being taken by anglers, scientist and other parties to contain this problematic crustacean before it spreads far and wide.

While the killer shrimp may be bad news, the presence of some invertebrates is very good news. Aquatic invertebrates are extremely sensitive to pollution and so excellent indicators of water quality. One such invertebrate species is Baetis rhodani (the Large Dark Olive) which only thrives in well oxygenated and unpolluted water. Fly fishers routinely observe and record this species and many others and are quick to notice unexpected changes in their abundance that might indicate a pollution incident.

Much of the fisheries research in Britain is stimulated by concerned anglers and fisheries scientists who seek to find answers to key environmental questions. One such question is why have Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) populations plummeted throughout their range over the past few decades?

The scientific evidence suggests the decline is due to a combination of factors ranging from parasite infestations, arising from the dirty business of some salmon farming, to barriers to fish migration, habitat loss and water quality issues. Anglers have played a key role in the conservation effort by helping to collect data (e.g. scale samples), carrying out habitat restoration work and releasing gravid hen fish destined for their spawning grounds, each of which will deposit around 8200 eggs.

Some individual anglers have gone to extreme lengths to save the Atlantic salmon. Orri Vigfussen, Founder and Chairman of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund, is one such angler. He has successfully brokered the buyout of numerous unsustainable commercial drift net fisheries and is credited with having saved in the region of 5.5 million Atlantic salmon.

Sadly, despite the substantial conservation effort, the latest research paints a gloomy picture for ‘The King of Fish'. Atlantic salmon are anadromous; they live in the sea and migrate to freshwater to spawn. Research suggests that rising ocean temperatures are re-distributing zooplankton and nekton, an important part of a salmon's diet, to more northerly latitudes. This has serious implications for juvenile salmon, for they now have to travel much further on their perilous journey from freshwater to their feeding grounds resulting in a rise in marine mortality.

The future of the Atlantic salmon is unclear, but one thing is certain; without the conservation efforts of anglers, scientists, environmental organisations and many volunteers, our fisheries and aquatic environments would be in a much worse state.

Species preservation from an angler's perspective

It may seem a curious paradox that an angler who sets out to hunt and perhaps kill a particular species of fish may also be dedicated to protecting that species. Indeed, many fisheries scientists are also passionate anglers. Anglers preserve the fish they seek and the aquatic environment not just to improve their catches, but because they recognise the inherent non-monetary value of preserving the natural world. Most anglers develop an almost spiritual respect for their quarry and conscientiously follow conservation guidelines as recommended by fishery scientists, while accepting that such guidelines are transient and not always infallible. Responsible sea anglers, for instance, carefully return all bass below 36cm in length so as to ensure they spawn at least once before they end up in the pot.

Making a difference

As individuals we all make choices that influence the environment and there are ways that everyone can do their bit for aquatic ecosystems. Many of the chemicals we flush down our drains, such as phosphate in washing powder, threatens the aquatic environment. Phosphate is the limiting factor for growth in many plants and is not always successfully removed by sewage treatment works. High phosphate levels can promote algal blooms which are very harmful to fish, invertebrates and other aquatic organisms. By simply using phosphate free ecological washing powder and dishwasher tablets you are directly contributing to improving water quality in your local area.

Another way anglers and non-anglers alike can help improve the marine and freshwater environment is to pick up litter and report any signs of pollution, such as fish-kills or chemical spillages, to the appropriate environmental authority (e.g. Environment Agency, Scottish Environmental Protection Agency). You can do your bit for the marine environment too. The best way to combat unsustainable commercial fishing is to make sure the fish you eat is sourced from sustainable fisheries. This helps to improve marine fish stocks and the health of the marine ecosystem as a whole.

Angling and the environment go hand in hand. The majority of anglers develop a deep sense of responsibility when it comes to protecting, enhancing and preserving the aquatic environment. Angling changes the way you look at the environment. It instils a respect for the natural world and teaches you the need for sustainability and a natural balance.

Robert MacDougall-Davis is an angling writer, photographer and adventure fly fisherman. His website is Wild about Fishing.

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