The Angling Trust has concluded negotiations with the Government on the implementation of new measures, announced last year, to improve the protection of vulnerable fish stocks from predation by cormorants and goosanders. The Trust has been campaigning for more than three years for a change to the current bureaucratic and ineffective licensing regime that governs the lethal control of these birds, which can eat between 1 and 2 lbs of fish every day, collectively more than 1,000 tonnes every winter.
Ministers and MPs were sent a copy of a 10,000 word dossier of evidence highlighting how a 15 fold increase on cormorant numbers since the 1980s has seen a collapse in many wild fish stocks and has had a massive impact on rural businesses comprising the £3 billion angling sector. The Angling Trust's Action on Cormorants campaign attracted cross party support in Parliament including from Labour's former Fisheries Minister Ben Bradshaw and the Conservative Chairman of the All Party Group on Angling, George Hollingbery. High profile endorsers included celebrity angler Chris Tarrant and wildlife film maker Hugh Miles.
The new measures will include:
• The funding of three fisheries management advisors (FMAs), to be employed by the Angling Trust from April 2014, to help angling clubs and fishery owners reduce predation, to co-ordinate applications for licences across catchments and to gather better evidence about the number of birds in each catchment;
• A commitment by the government to review the existing national limit on the number of cormorants that can be shot each year in light of evidence gathered by the FMAs from each catchment in 2014 and 2015;
• A simplification of the licence application form to make it easier for fishery managers to apply to control cormorants and goosanders;
• A removal of monthly limits within an annual licence;
• Extension of the control season to May at times of low flow when salmon and sea trout smolt migrations are particularly vulnerable;
• Agreement to increase the national limit for cormorant controls to the emergency level of 3,000 (from 2,000 last year) in 2014/5 if the need can be demonstrated.
The Trust pressed for adding cormorants to the general shooting licence (along with pigeons, crows, magpies etc.), subject to an annual review to ensure the conservation status of the birds was not threatened, but the Government resisted this. However, the Trust is now satisfied that the new arrangements will make a significant difference to protecting fisheries from unsustainable predation, following a commitment from Ministers in a recent letter to the Trust that they will review the national licence limits should demand from the catchments prove this to be necessary.
A major block to more radical measures has been a lack of accurate data about bird numbers. The Angling Trust’s highly successful Cormorant Watch initiative recorded more than 80,000 sightings of cormorants and goosanders in less than a year, and reports from its members indicate that numbers of both species continue to rise at the expense of fish stocks. Although it is generally accepted that numbers of cormorants have increased from 2,000 to between 25,000 and 30,000, official estimates generated from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) surveys have indicated slightly different figures. BTO estimates have a margin for error of some 9,000 birds and take eighteen months to produce after completion of the survey. A key task for the new Fishery Management Advisors will be to gather more accurate and up to date information about the number of birds in each catchment.
Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of the Angling Trust said: “We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we are pleased that the government has listened to the 3 million-strong angling community and has agreed to a package of measure that will offer improved protection to vulnerable fish stocks. We are very grateful to all our members who have supported us with donations and by sending postcards to their MPs. The success we've achieved would not have been possible without their support. Congratulations are also due to our campaigns team, led by Martin Salter, who have done a great job to get this issue up the political agenda. We will continue to fight for better protection for fish stocks from predation, as well as from pollution, habitat damage and over-abstraction.”
Martin Salter, Campaigns Co-ordinator for the Angling Trust, stressed that it was up to angling clubs and riparian owners to make the new arrangements work, adding: “In the past, the number of licences issued has often fallen short of the maximum available due to the flawed and bureaucratic system that deterred applications. We need clubs and fisheries to make sure that Government officials are in no doubt about the need for future national limits to be raised so that we can protect fish stocks and fisheries businesses more effectively in the future. We will be contacting all our member angling clubs, riparian owners and fishery managers with advice on how to implement the new measures in May once we have appointed the new staff.”
He added: "It has been a long fight to get government to realise the damage that the increase in cormorant numbers was doing to freshwater fish and fishing but in Richard Benyon we had a Fisheries Minister who was prepared to take action. It is now up to the angling community to make the new scheme work and give our fish a chance to breed and survive.
"Trevor Harrop from the award winning Avon Roach Project, who organised a petition of more than 16,000 signatures, which was delivered to Richard Benyon outside Defra headquarters in London welcomed the news saying: "It would have been a nonsense to have a new needs based catchment approach to controlling cormorant numbers if it were to be artificially constrained by a national cap. We’ve all worked extremely hard alongside the Angling Trust in securing this breakthrough and we call on everyone to do their best to make the new scheme work in the interests of ensuring sustainable fisheries."