Steve Partner: These people can help save angling

They are a perceived by some as angling’s No1 threat but Steve Partner sees the Eastern European community in a different light entirely…

It’s been a conundrum that’s baffled some of angling’s greatest thinkers: Just how has fishing beaten the credit crunch?

As the UK struggles with the biggest economic crisis in decades, so our collective belt has been tightened. Money is scarce, priorities have shifted. Hobbies that cost have had to take a back seat.

But fishing is different. Fishing is positively booming, flourishing at a time when other participant sports flounder. Rod licence sales are up nearly 30 per cent on 2000 figures, numerous tackle companies are reporting their best sales in years and plenty of commercial fisheries have enjoyed a boom in day ticket sales. In the modern era, we’ve seldom been in ruder health.

Some will point to the relative cheapness of the sport as the reason why, but while that may address stability, it doesn’t explain the lift. Others will say it’s the element of escapism in times of woe that makes it so attractive. But again, that isn’t a valid explanation for the leap.

There have been no recruitment drives or initiatives. No, fishing has grown for one reason and one reason only – Eastern Europeans.

Most of angling will, I don’t doubt, need to read that sentence twice to make sure they’ve understood it correctly. Eastern Europeans responsible for helping to keep fishing afloat? What, the same group of people who have been solely responsible for systematically emptying our rivers and lakes? The same group of people who use barbaric and illegal tactics to indiscriminately kill our sporting quarry for the table? The same group of people who show complete and utter disregard for the laws of the land they’ve been lucky enough to enter?

Yes, you read it correctly the first time. In my opinion, Eastern Europeans have not only been responsible for angling’s recent success – they could prove to be the saviours of the sport.

First things first. I’m not stupid. I am aware of the problems that a proportion of these people have caused since the recent influx of immigrants began. Coming from countries where the culture is to eat what you catch – including coarse fish – some have arrived on these shores with scant regard for the rules.

If they use tackle it’s normally illegal but preferred methods involve set lines, nets and any other crudely created contraptions whose sole purpose is to remove as many fish possible in the shortest time span. Symbolic images like that of the pike head skewered on a post on the banks of the Forty Foot Drain infuriated – and galvanised – the sport.

Such is the problem, angling as a community has displayed a rare show of unity and campaigned to get the bylaws changed to make the process of removing fish from public access venues illegal, thus making it possible for the Environment Agency to prosecute offenders.

It’s quickly become the sport’s hottest, and most controversial, topic.

But let’s take a step back here. Can we honestly tar the whole community with the same brush? Do we really think that every angler of Eastern European descent is a law-breaking fish thief? Is it realistic to claim that the angling percentage of the estimated half-a-million who’ve moved to this country don’t buy rod licences and don’t spend money in the tackle shops? To believe so would be ridiculous.

Of course there is a minority who don’t stick to the rules, but there’s also a minority of people from this country who fish illegally. No, they might not eat what they catch but they still think nothing of flouting the rules of the land in which they have been born and brought up.   

Rod licence evaders long pre-date the recent arrival of Eastern Europeans, and there is nothing to suggest that the average nine per cent of those checked who are caught without the correct documentation are all of foreign origin.

Consider this. A few years ago an AT reporter joined EA bailiffs for a routine rod licence check on the River Nene. A total of 32 anglers were checked over a morning, the vast majority of Eastern European origin, and only one man was caught fishing illegally. He was English.  

Now, I know it’s only one example, and I know it’s only anecdotal, but this kind of evidence contradicts popular opinion.

I would fall short of calling the angling community racist. But there is definitely an argument for suggesting that immigrants are being used as scapegoats. Like I’ve said, some are solely intent on removing fish by whatever means possible as a way of providing a free meal, but it is simply too sweeping to blame the state of our fisheries on Eastern Europeans.

Pollution, abstraction, cormorants and latterly otters have all played their part in the demise of many of our natural venues and are collectively responsible for far greater damage than a minority of people taking, in relative terms, a tiny fraction of the billions of fish that live in our rivers.

Of course, many refuse to see it that way. After all, it’s far easier to blame something you can see (especially when it comes from foreign shores) than it is something you can’t. Pollution can wipe out millions of fish but because it’s largely a faceless crime, it’s hard to pin the blame on individuals. But physically see someone remove a fish from your river and immediately you have a face – and race – of people to take your anger out on.

Banning Eastern Europeans from fisheries is not the answer. Not just on  ethical grounds but because shunning this community is extremely short-sighted. While every lake owner has the right to decide who should and should not visit his water, such sweeping – and incendiary – decisions lack financial sense. Why cut off an important revenue stream because of the actions of a minority? I’m certain these same people wouldn’t ban all Northern anglers, for example, if a few were caught breaking the rules, so why apply the same principles to Eastern Europeans? 

What, then, is the answer? Clearly there are cultural issues that need to be addressed here. Coarse fish in this country are considered a sporting quarry and not a cheap meal, so education – and not alienation – is the key.

The EA has funded schemes in East Anglia where the emphasis has been on teaching these newcomers good practice, but these initiatives must be spread nationwide to mirror the movement of people they are aimed at helping. 

Facts are facts. Eastern Europeans have arrived here in the UK en-masse. In the countries from which they have come – Poland, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and the Ukraine – angling is a very popular pastime. Subsequently, rod licence sales here have risen. It really doesn’t get any simpler than that.

Angling has, then, been left with a choice. Embrace change and welcome this new blood as a shot in the arm – or continue to make them scapegoats for wider, issues. Which way we jump may just shape the sport’s short-term future.