Opinion & Letters,
Why the angling campaign is flawed Sea Angler reader John Tisdale considers why anglers have lost out yet again to commercial shing interests
What next for UK sea anglers? Specifically, those who enjoy both the angling experience and retaining a few fish for the table. The recently announced regulations limit us to a single fish over 42cm in any 24-hour period from July 1, and none at all in the preceding months.
In practical terms, this could actually mean virtually no fish retained by many anglers, because so many fish captured are below the minimum landing size.
By comparison, the commercial fishery has been subjected to minimal changes to their fishing opportunities. As our Fisheries Minister George Eustace has stated: “It will make almost no difference to our inshore commercial bass fishermen”. If then, there is no apparent need to restrict commercial exploitation, why should recreational anglers be heavily penalised?
The bass stock is a shared national resource, to which all citizens should have fair and equal access. We should consider the motivation for this iniquitous decision.
As yet, there is no law banning the sale or consumption of bass. We are free to buy as many as we wish from a commercial fisherman, or to consume as much as we can pay for in restaurants. Is it, therefore, reasonable or acceptable that we are so severely restricted? I believe it is neither reasonable nor acceptable. We need to consider several factors.
The decline in bass stocks in recent years is well documented, and marine scientists have advised major reductions in annual exploitation. All involved in stock exploitation should therefore be prepared to do their bit to reverse this decline.
As anglers, we have already educated ourselves in the need to practice conservation. Most anglers carry out a high degree of catch and release; taking just enough fish for your own needs is the new norm.
There are, indeed, precedents for setting some restrictions on our freedom to exploit our fisheries. Witness the closed seasons, bait restrictions and bag limits imposed on salmon anglers. Trusting game anglers to fish responsibly has seen catch and release rates rise to nearly 80 per cent. Furthermore, in situations where the EA has deemed it necessary to temporarily close a river to angling, during say an outbreak of disease, the same restrictions are applied equally to commercial salmon netting operations.
This indicates then that there is a better balance between different interests competing for access to the same scarce resource. It might also inform us how better to proceed when negotiating access to the bass fishery. How did we suddenly arrive at a situation where we are denied fair access to our fishery?
WEak lobby group
The issue is complicated as decisions regarding access to the bass fishery are regulated at
“Focus should move from saving bass to saving our anglers”
three levels – European, national and local. At both European and national level, the overriding decision is how to square the circle of conflict, between what is recommended by scientists and by the demands of commercial fishing interests. Inevitably, scientific advice is watered down to suit the needs of politicians who must present an acceptable deal to their commercial fishing lobbyists. Witness the words of our own Fisheries Minister after December’s European fisheries meeting, when he boasted of getting increased access for the gill net fleet. There were no such concessions for recreational anglers.
This immediately informs us of a vital fact. We are a very weak lobby group compared to the commercial sector. This is despite the fact that we present ‘evidence’ to the contrary about our numbers and the scale of the socioeconomic impact of recreational angling. Clearly, this is not believed, or the politicians feel that it can be safely ignored because we have no effective means of demonstrating our concern or displeasure. Commercials can, by contrast, threaten to disrupt markets or blockade ports.
Further weakening our position is the lack of any identifiable unified lobby group. We are a set of disparate focus groups within which there are serious policy divisions. We do not pay a licence fee, as is often pointed out by the commercial sector. The reluctance of sea anglers to embrace the licence issue probably undermines their claim to be taken seriously.
The claim of BASS and the Angling Trust to be the voice of 800,000 sea anglers is patently untrue. What is the total membership of these two organisations? Politicians are wary of statements that stretch the truth and are unlikely to be persuaded by the subsequent narrative. At present, there is no mandate for either organisation to act for, or negotiate on behalf of, the majority of recreational anglers. Unless that situation is addressed and rectified, then they will remain simply small focus groups with narrow objectives.
Having identified the strength of the commercial lobby compared to that of anglers, what other factors have led to the reduction in the rights of anglers?
BASS and the Angling Trust consistently produce well-reasoned, evidence-based, referenced papers to support their case. The effort is well intentioned, but naïve. Is it meant to influence the politicians, who may know very little about fishing or angling, but have the support of their departmental staff and civil servants, who are there to brief them on all aspects of the subject, rendering further debate unnecessary? If so, it doesn’t seem to be effective. Moreover, the politicians making pragmatic choices could regard it merely as frothy rhetoric.
The commercial sector doesn’t seem to apply the same reasoning. What the politicians hear is “our livelihoods are at stake”, “the scientists are wrong”, “there are plenty of fish out there”, and “it’s unacceptable”. Unscientific, plenty of sentiment and a hint of threat. But it works, albeit with some caveats and a few hoops to jump through.
Recreational sea angling may also be guilty of overplaying its hand. Claims of the tonnage of fish taken by anglers and the fishing effort involved make us an obvious and soft target for restrictions. By showing firm action against us, politicians can claim to be taking major conservation steps with minimal risk of a difficult reaction.
By contrast, the commercial sector acts to reduce the evidence of its impact on stocks. This is sometimes aided by there being no requirement to record small catches in some cases. It seems that a few extra fish for commercials is acceptable, but one extra for an angler is a crime.
The tactic of pressing for a catch and release policy is patently flawed. It has given administrators, commercials and politicians the impression that all anglers are content not to retain fish.
While most of us quietly practice mainly catch and release, it should never have been offered as a negotiating chip before achieving a comprehensive conservation policy from the politicians. In fact, we should have taken the same approach as the commercial sector by simply saying we want more. We should have refused the three-fish bag limit and asked for six.
Another way of demonstrating our weak position is the use of online, cut and paste letters and petitions to politicians. These people are not fools, and the use of such tools is easily recognised and carries little weight. All you get in return is a mass mailed, meaningless response.
It is clear that recreational anglers are difficult to motivate, even given extreme threats to their sport and their civil rights. It may be very difficult to regain what we have already lost, but if we do not change our approach, we may lose even more, as the strategy of restricting angling opportunities in favour of commercial interest has now been established. So how should we proceed?
Save our Anglers
I would suggest that the focus should move away from saving our bass to saving our anglers.
The politicians already know bass are in trouble and have no interest in seeing them disappear, but they always have to make the same pragmatic decisions.
Therefore, let the scientists advise and the politicians decide. At the same time, try to establish a truly unified voice, which can use different tactics to fight for our rights to a fair share of the national resource. This may be difficult, as we lack true professional advocacy and we don’t have the resources to buy it.
An alternative strategy might be to employ a champion who could find cause in saving both the bass and the bass angler. One celebrity chef and a campaigning newspaper (such as Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall and the Sunday Times) would have infinitely more impact with both the public and politicians than anything anglers could achieve as a group.
In the meantime, I know of anglers who intend to ignore the regulations after considering the risk of prosecution to be low. While this approach has some attraction, it does carry significant risk, apart from which, I do not want to be criminalised for retaining a reasonable number of fish for the table.
In conclusion, we can only speculate on what the consequences of the ‘bass ban’ might be for the future of angling. It may have no effect on the angling industry, or it may herald a decline. What we can be assured of, is that it will certainly not improve its prospects.
From July 1, recreational anglers will be restricted to just one bass over 42cm
A catch and release policy has given the impression that all anglers are content not to retain fish