Fears are growing this week that cormorants may have wiped out the record dace shoals of the River Wear, leaving what was the most prolific stretch of water in the country for the species virtually devoid of fish.
The dreaded sea birds were once too timid to visit busy town centre stretches such as the silverfish hotspot in the middle of Durham, but now hold no such worries.
Catches have plummeted, with swims which only last year virtually guaranteed 50lb nets now failing to produce a bite.
And Angling Times can reveal that a similar scenario is unfolding at a number of the country’s most productive inner city river stretches, where cormorants are showing little regard for the presence of anglers, members of the public and boat users.
North-East angler Simon Ashton, who holds the British dace record with a fish of 1lb 5oz 2dr, taken in 2002, has witnessed the destruction first-hand on his beloved Wear.
He said: “They have fished the stretch to death in the space of a year. We used to get up at 5am just to get a swim, and could guarantee a fish virtually every chuck, but I went there earlier this season and didn’t have a bite.” Simon is at a loss on how to deal with the situation, which he says has got gradually worse as the birds have lost their inhibitions.
“These creatures are no longer sea birds, they are urban dwellers. They live in comfort in public areas, so cannot be touched. Even in rush hour, with cars above their heads on the bridge and boats either side of them - they have no fear. I feel like putting out an SOS - we desperately need help in sorting this problem out.” Another angler who is all too aware of the desperate situation on the Wear is Steve Maitland, manager of Hartlepool tackle shop Anglers Services. He said: “From October to March, 60lb or 70lb bags of quality dace were quite common, but not any more. The recent EU meeting on a pan-European cormorant management plan basically put the decision back to the individual countries’ respective governments. I’d like to see the likes of Martin Salter sort this problem out before irreparable damage is done.”
Other famous urban silverfish havens suffering at the hands of the increasingly confident birds include the Belmont stretch of the River Wye in Hereford. Top match angler and tackle shop owner Paul Woodward claims it is not just the cormorants that are becoming ever more audacious in their attitude.
“They used to be scared of people and could only really be found in rural areas. Now they seem to know that they are safe in urban areas and can’t be shot. They are almost blasé. In Hereford we also have a growing population of goosanders, which hunt in packs and herd the shoals into the edge in great numbers. Last year I saw a pair of adult goosanders with 22 young in tow! They’re clearly thriving.”
When AT contacted the RSPB, spokesman Graham Madge admitted that it was not uncommon for the behaviour of birds to change as they adapt to new surroundings. He said: “With many species of birds, it is possible for them to learn about certain situations and use their findings to their advantage.
The spread of information among that particular population of birds can then be rapid.”