Mike Handyside believes our estuaries and harbours should be net-free fish sanctuaries
THE NETSMEN’S stranglehold on the law may end soon with the banning of nets in the estuaries and harbours of Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Sea- and game-anglers are being urged to contribute to an imminent (December 7) review of netting regulations, which could set a precedent for protecting other coastlines, allowing UK fishery policy to catch up with forward-thinking countries such as the USA and Australia. In Florida, a gill-net ban has proved hugely successful at saving fish stocks, while New South Wales has benefited from Recreational Fishing Havens and Queensland has net-free zones. Could Hampshire’s famous havens soon justify their name, with fish entering Southampton Water and Portsmouth Harbour receiving legal protection. It’s an exciting prospect. The Southern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (IFCA), one of ten regional IFCAS with jurisdiction to six nautical miles offshore, recognises the importance of the Solent and surrounding coastline to declining migratory fish stocks. It also acknowledges that sea angling across England supports a staggering £2.1 billion of total spending, along with 23,600 jobs (2012 figures). These statistics would be massively higher if, to the 884,000 sea anglers, you were to add resident and visiting salmon and sea-trout anglers. Net-free zones would undoubtedly swell the ranks of overseas fishers who flood to Britain, not least to historic rivers such as the Itchen, Test and Hampshire Avon. Others rivers that would benefit from a ban include the Meon, Stour, Piddle and Frome. Sea-trout migrate along the coast so we can also include the Arun, Adur and Ouse in Sussex and the Axe in Devon. Net gains would be vast compared to Defra’s figures of only 6,000 commercial fishermen landing just £160 million worth of fish. These netsmen currently work in an absurd, over-complicated legal entanglement of rules and regulations, containing more loopholes than some of the mesh they shoot. Following a ban, commercial operators, instead of hauling huge lengths of gill-netting, might choose to carry rod-and-line fishers, excited and happy to pay handsomely for vastly improved stocks. Surely, the net return would be higher than fishing for almost worthless mullet, which become cat food and crab bait? Unless they were, perhaps, catching something else in their nets, with a far greater price on its head: a bycatch of salmon, sea-trout and bass (other than those taken with authorised quota)? All of which must be returned to the sea dead or alive, according to law. Grey mullet have typically been targeted in harbours and estuaries using ring nets, hand-hauled by single operators on small shallow-drafted vessels. Should this form of netting continue (one of three proposed options in the review) Southern IFCA suggests that a series of principles be adopted, but, these, like previous regulations, are open to abuse. For example a ring net, no more than 350m long or deeper than 6m, shall be attended constantly and shall not be set across more than three quarters of a channel, and retrieval, without pause or delay, must begin within ten minutes of the net being set. Who will be watching all this? Surely this isn’t the preferred option. Nor is the second option, where ring nets operate at least 3m below the surface. In theory, salmon and sea-trout swim close to the surface and nets set 3m below the surface, supposedly, don’t take them. In practice, that’s nonsense. Southern IFCA are keen to point out in their consultation document that harbours and estuaries are “…important places for people to enjoy through recreation”. They also say that netting regulations should “support the use of estuaries and harbours by bass and other fish populations as nursery and refuge areas” and “provide protection to migratory fish species as they transit through…”. The authority also states it has responsibilities to manage fishing activities in sites of conservation importance: “This is of particular relevance to this review as, within the district, the Atlantic salmon is listed as a species of Community interest in two Special Areas of Conservation and both the Atlantic salmon and the brown/sea-trout are referenced in the citations of several Sites of Specific Scientific Interest. Additionally, the Atlantic salmon was identified as a
BELOW Not just a blot on the public coastline, but present-day netting is a legal entaglement, with more loopholes than some of the instruments themselves, causing migratory fish decline.
MIKE HANDYSIDE is an enquiring environmental fisheries photojournalist. He has worked on rivers, professionally and voluntarily, and has flyfished for more than 40 years.