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Crossing a line: do anglers make good freshwater conservationists?

April 26, 2011

River Hodder, Lancashire, England

“I make a very close link between our belonging here and the will to fish.  There is no natural medium in which the sense of life on earth is more evident than in water . . . Most of the things which are least pleasant about life now are the things which are most antithetical to fishing.”Bernard Venables.

For Bernard Venables (angler and author of Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing), anglers could be amongst the most knowledgeable and passionate conservation champions, a trend borne out of vast amounts of time spent immersed in the freshwater environment.  It is perhaps only natural that Venables founded the Angler’s Conservation Association, a successful UK freshwater conservation charity run by anglers, which is now part of the Angling Trust.

With freshwater ecosystems facing continued threats such as pollution, climatic change, invasive species and water abstraction, there is a need for increased focus and effort on their conservation.  How far can anglers play a part of this effort as effective freshwater conservationists?

When you look at the history of the conservation movement (a great book on this topic is Bill Adams’ 2004 Against Extinction), there are examples of groups and individuals involved in hunting becoming vocal and effective conservationists of the environments in which they hunt.   In The Empire of Nature, a fascinating history of the role of colonialism, empire and big-game hunting in the conservation movement , John MacKenzie describes the formation of the Society for the Preservation of the Fauna of the Empire in 1903, a pressure group of hunters-turned-conservationists concerned with the preservation of Africa’s large mammals.  This organisation evolved into the influential, global charity Flora and Fauna International.  Whilst the transition from ‘poacher to gamekeeper’ in this example is marred by issues of colonial dispossession and enclosure of historic land rights and natural resources, the basic point remains: that there is a historic precedent for recreational hunters to become passionate conservation champions.

Anglers as conservation champions

Salmon at Stainforth Force, Yorkshire, England. (Image: Ribble Trust)

The Angling Trust is a UK charity which aims to reverse declining fish stocks (both freshwater and marine) and address pollution, water abstraction and invasive species issues in freshwater ecosystems.  Speaking in The Guardian in 2009, Mark Lloyd outlined the value of uniting anglers for conservation as: “Anglers are not the usual woolly liberals you get in the WWF or the National Trust. They range across urban and rural areas and both working and upper class. Together they are very powerful”. 

Freshwater angling is a phenomenally popular pastime – in the U.K. alone over 1 million licences are sold by the Environment Agency each year.  When this large, varied supporter base is combined with anglers’ deep connection with the freshwater environment – as suggested by Venables – there is the potential for a large, vocal movement championing freshwater conservation issues.   The Our Rivers initiative calls anglers “the curtain twitchers of the riverbanks“, providing a network of individuals who can give early warnings on potential environmental threats.

On a European scale, the European Angler’s Alliance brings together organisations like the Angling Trust with a mission to: “safeguard the fish stocks and fisheries of Europe and to protect the interests of all those who fish with rod and line for recreational purposes.”.  A key stated aim of the EAA is to promote sustainable recreational fishing which actively helps conserve or restore the health of the freshwater environment.  The size and structure of the EAA means that it has the leverage to effectively lobby European policy decisions on key freshwater conservation issues like the Water Framework Directive.

Loch Affric, Scotland

Crossed lines?  Critiques of this support

With so many anglers lending vocal support to freshwater conservation issues, is it unnecessary to try to offer critiques or caveats to this successful movement?  I feel that it is worth thinking critically – however briefly – about the forms angler-led conservation movement may take.

Whilst freshwater fish populations often provide excellent indicators of water quality and wider ecosystem health, such angler-led conservation initiatives must be careful not to only prioritise the fish species valuable to anglers (for example, brown trout, carp, salmon), and ignore those less pursued but important to ecosystem function (such as gudgeon, ruffe or minnow).

Similarly, how do the recreational and social benefits of angling – outlined in one form or another by many such organisations – balance against the environmental problems caused by overstocking (especially of sport fish like carp and rainbow trout) and non-native species introductions in certain fisheries run exclusively for recreational angling?  And what about the threat to fish, birds (and humans…) posed by broken hooks, weights and monofilament line discarded in waterways?  Finally, should a coarse fishing community which has campaigned for the right to continue fishing during spawning seasons in the spring months be taken seriously as an effective ally for conservation?

These are simply the environmental concerns.  From a land rights perspective, could conservation become a new argument for wealthy, angling orientated, landowners to exclude other users (e.g. walkers, kayakers, wild swimmers) from gaining access to waterways?  Perhaps this is too big a jump to make (and slightly reminiscent of the debates around the early hunters-turned-conservationists and resulting enclosure of protected areas for conservation) but it is worth bearing in mind.

From an ethical point of view, some may see a fundamental problem in anglers who cause harm or discomfort to animals purporting to be their effective conservation stewards (disclaimer: I’m writing this article as a lifelong fishermen).  This is a debate that stretches back to the initial formation of groups such as the Society for the Preservation of the Fauna of the Empire in the early 20th century, and reflects some of the difficult decisions the conservation movement must make about choosing allies for the wider conservation goals.

Tying a knotty debate together

With this in mind, it should be celebrated that responsible, environmentally orientated anglers provide such widespread and vocal support for freshwater conservation.  As I’ve discussed, the individual knowledge, understanding and affinity for the environment provided by long hours spent immersed in nature whilst fishing, coupled with the wide network of participants make angling groups a powerful ally for freshwater conservation.  However, maybe we should keep in mind the potential issues discussed above when thinking about the form and effectiveness of this support.

A fascinating debate, and one we’re keen to hear your voice in.  Let us know your thoughts, comments and critiques in the comment box below.

Rob St.John
Communications & Project Co-ordinator, BioFresh

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