Just a week after the Angling Trust was saved from ruin by the likes of John Wilson and Keith Arthur, Steve Partner asks whether anglers really care about anything – other than catching fish...
So, the answer’s been staring us in the face all along, then. The real reason why the much-heralded Angling Trust needed some of the sport’s biggest names to save it from collapse had nothing to do with a complete lack of focus, understanding or financial prudence. No, its failure was down to you. That’s right – it’s anglers who were to blame.
Forget the fact its chief executive made outlandish, unrealistic and downright naïve forecasts about the membership. Forget also the fact that, so far, it has completely failed to connect with coarse anglers over issues like otters. And forget, too, the fact that its basic housekeeping was so badly handled that several staff have already been made redundant. Because if you believe those within the Trust, its perilous predicament is all down to a lack of support.
Such a notion is, of course, complete tosh. No ailing business should ever blame its customer base for being unresponsive. Make no mistake about it, the Trust is in dire straits because it over-estimated membership income and under-estimated what it takes to motivate the sport. It is as simple as that.
To expect anglers to join by default, as some people seem to believe, is naïve. Do you think that those million-plus twitchers who belong to the RSPB do so merely for the love of birds? No, they do it because membership not only provides entry to a body so powerful that it can – and does – effect change at Government level, but also for the fringe benefits that include free entry to nature reserves, free magazines and free books. It’s a long way from a loyalty card and liability insurance. That, though, is a debate for another day.
More relevantly, this indifference does raise an interesting question about fishermen. In a month when AT revealed that just 66 people out of a sport populated by several million bothered to register their views on crucial law changes you have to ask: Is there a more apathetic, lazy and, ultimately, selfish bunch than anglers?
Sound harsh? Well, consider this. For the last four years anglers from all disciplines, from coarse, game and latterly sea, have grumbled, moaned and whinged about Eastern Europeans taking fish for the pot. Some, driven by anger and frustration at the antiquated and outdated byelaws that allow this to happen perfectly legally on many places, have even bordered on outright racism. Without doubt, it’s caused the sport’s collective blood pressure to rise quicker than anything since cormorants.
So, after weekly complaints from anglers far and wide, Angling Times put the issue on the news agenda on a very regular basis. We were joined by the likes of Keith Arthur and Labour MP Martin Salter and, eventually, the body that makes fisheries law in this country – the Environment Agency – agreed to change the rules to make it illegal to remove fish from public venues. But before acting, the Agency commendably wanted to know exactly what anglers wanted before rewriting legislation.
A consultation period subsequently began and all those who had complained, written letters to the press, logged on to forums and generally moaned to anyone who’d listen, were invited to make their opinions known on a purpose-built website. Essentially, a million-plus rod-licence holders were given the chance to shape their sport for the better. But before Angling Times shamed some into action, just 66 people had taken part.
To describe that number as risible doesn’t go close to doing it justice. In fact, pathetic, dismal and feeble would be nearer the mark. If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be funny. But there really is nothing humorous about a body of people (a body so big it’s often claimed to be part of the largest participant sport in the country) that is so ambivalent towards something so important. But that, in nutshell, sums up fishermen.
Of course, it shouldn’t come as any great surprise. Anglers, as a rule, are an entirely selfish bunch who seem to think that if there’s no personal gain, they can’t be bothered. As long as they can go fishing at the weekend, nothing else seems to matter. The ‘I’m all right, Jack’ mentality pervades this sport more than any other.
We’ve been here before. Getting anglers to join the fight against cormorants, the other scourge of our fisheries in the last 20 years, proved to be an uphill task. And even when a modicum of success was eventually achieved and licences were made available to those who could prove their livelihood had been affected, the take-up was low.
Then there are organisations like the Angling Trust. Membership numbers – given the four million-plus anglers there supposedly are in the UK – are pitifully low. Less than 10,000 people have signed up and, even given the role of the ‘Magnificent Seven’, that number is unlikely to rise drastically in the near future.
It seems we are more than happy to part with upwards of £2,000 for a top-of-the-range pole, or fork out £500-plus for a syndicate ticket, but getting us to pay £20 to join the body charged with safeguarding our future is nigh-on impossible. Crikey, there’s even still people who begrudge – or even duck – paying £26.50 for a rod licence on value for money grounds.
You might be inclined to say ‘so what?’ But the fact is this apathy leaves the sport toothless, with our representatives lacking the weight of numbers to actually get anything done. Just imagine what we could achieve if even a third of the rod licence buyers (somewhere in the region of 400,000 people) joined a governing body? That kind of and power, and the subsequent finance generated, would put the sport in a very healthy place to both swat critics and source new blood.
Some will argue it’s because bodies like the Trust don’t offer them enough to justify the membership fee. But I think there’s a more fundamental reason than that.
This attitude, it could be argued, is merely symptomatic of a sport where the participants are intrinsically selfish. After all, fishing by its very nature is an individual pursuit which at its core pitches one person against his quarry. Could that be what makes us a group of people so indifferent and apathetic?
What also undermines our ability to unite is the fact the sport is so fragmented, with so many different branches that are often at odds with each other. Subsequently, we find it impossible to unite under one cause. So what we have is strength in physical numbers, but an overall weakness in ethos. It’s each man for himself, and to hell with what might happen tomorrow.
Can we change the habits of a lifetime and find some impetus to go with our voice? Or will we still moan ourselves silly but fail do anything about it – even when all that’s required in some cases is merely logging onto a website? I know where I’d put my money…