Steve Partner’s case for abolishing the keeping of a record fish list (Angling Times 14th July 2009) is a strong one yet if a record list did not exist you can be sure that someone would soon create one. It is as if the angling world abhors a vacuum.
Flawed though our current process for maintaining records is, we still need to know what the benchmarks are for the main freshwater species. Just how big a carp, barbel, tench, chub or roach can we expect to catch in the British Isles? The practice of keeping a list of ‘record’ fish goes back to the early days of angling journals such as Fishing gazette and The Angler’s News, which takes us back to the 1880’s.
In the early days of Angling Times in the fifties, it made considerable efforts to establish the mechanism for keeping records. It took several years and some setbacks before the British Record Fish Committee was set up in its current form. Further setbacks followed. The infamous cull of historic yet unbelievable records in 1968 caused furore with many records left vacant for a while. Some of the old records were eventually restored when new evidence emerged.
More trouble brewed when first, the Whitehall pike fraud fiasco erupted and then the ruling on producing the body of the fish foundered with Chris Yates’ record carp.
Much more recently, the difficulties with identifying true roach, rudd and crucian carp are finally being tackled with DNA testing thanks to the perseverance of Andy Nellist and others including myself, and the scientific research that backs the method.
It is clear that the angling press needs these accurate records as much as keen anglers do. Imagine asking what the biggest roach caught in the UK and getting the answer, even from acknowledged experts as ‘About four pounds, or is it five pounds?’ This benchmark, measured as accurately as possible, the correct species identified and excluding hybrids, caught by fair angling in season, with witnesses, gives us a reliable measure that we will find hard to better.
Hybrids cause a particular problem in that it is common with some species to find that they grow bigger than the parent species. Roachxrudd hybrids growing to five pounds are a good example. Crucianxcarp hybrids easily reach eight pounds. Some species can also easily be confused. Record roach claims that turn out to be ide or crucian claims that turn out to be goldfish being two cases in mind.
It is true the average angler probably struggles to have much clue on what weight the current records are, where they were caught and by who but that is immaterial. The scientific arguments over DNA, weighing procedures and witnesses are boring to the layman. Remarks by those not party to complex scientific papers such as Neville Fickling’s comment (AT 14/7/09) that how can you possibly find a true roach to test against demonstrates how little understood DNA testing is. (The answer is that you test many roach (at least 30) from many waters (at least 30) with both physical characteristics and DNA to establish the ranges of the DNA markers. These ranges (of DNA markers) are much narrower than the more generally accepted physical characteristics determining species such as scale counts and fin ray counts which are often misquoted in books).
There remains, and probably always will remain scope for error, and bogus claims. It is not that long ago that the record rainbow trout was disallowed when the captor finally admitted that he’d found the trout dead in the water. He’d got away with it for years until his conscience finally got the better of him. Even with the current list, many serious anglers suspect three fish of being there under false pretences through problems with species identification. And once a fish is on the record list it can be very hard to get it removed; admitting that a fish should never have been accepted is an awkward problem.
Steve justifiably complained of the amateurism of the BRFC. That is a harsh condemnation against some hardworking volunteers but there remains room for improvement.
These are my ideas:
Any organisation can become complacent over time, with the same people doing the job for too long. Mistakes are made and procedures stagnate. Yet with our very history at stake we cannot afford this.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg; inadequate funding, failure to get the best people for the job, and flawed procedures all contribute to mistakes, controversy, and growing frustration.
We need to start afresh.
What’s the answer?
Sponsorship has been offered, yet none accepted. This is a double edged sword; the money is vital, and so is independence from interference. Yet such deals exist in many other sports so what’s the problem? I think that doing this properly (coarse fish only) needs at least £10,000 a year.
You need the right people for the job. Single minded, expert and focussed; four dedicated people would suffice. Qualifications? The ability to catch big fish comes last, and distracts from what is required. So what is needed? At the head a strong leader, decisive, an expert in public relations and able to give steer to the vital decisions. The second role is fish expert, well versed in the latest identification techniques. Backing these should be two investigators doing the donkey work; getting DNA samples tested, collating witness statements, and checking evidence.
We need better procedures, especially on fish identification. DNA sampling must be mandatory for roach, rudd, crucians, and in time, silver bream and brown goldfish. Our current coarse fish list has fish that shouldn’t be there due to flawed identification techniques. Photo evidence simply isn’t enough for species like roach, rudd and crucians, and even dissection won’t settle all doubts. I was present at a follow-on meeting with the BRFC the day the current record roach was accepted and know that doubts expressed did not hinder its acceptance.
Scale checking and weighing techniques need improving. Scale testing must be brought within the committee; this is cheaper than using Weights and Measures, and allows examination of the scales. The method of dealing with rounding errors needs changing
There are other changes needed but these two are the most important ones.
Professionalism and PR
I’ve already mentioned good PR; that extends to the angling press and a professional website presence as well. Both are there for the taking.
Current “contentious” records e.g. roach, rudd and crucians, must revert to the last authenticated record. The Jones’ roach and Alston rudd could be re-instated; it might also mean some vacant records with a new qualifying weight.
As Northern Irish fish are already covered by the Irish Committee let’s exclude them from the British list.
Finally, let’s have a clean break and ditch the obscure non angling targets, like minnows, bullheads and sticklebacks, the enigmatic walleye, and pumpkinseed and bitterling.
Let’s ditch the current amateur set-up and turn to a professionally run organisation fit for the twenty first century before our record list descends into farce.
So who’s for a fresh start?