Top-flight anglers have their say on otter predation

The following statement was issued after a meeting between the Angling Trust, the Environment Agency and Natural England to discuss the impact of otters upon freshwater fish stocks.

Joint statement:

Otters and Fisheries

The Wildlife Management Group met recently to exchange information and to seek opportunities to resolve issues regarding otters and freshwater fisheries. The meeting was attended by experts from the Angling Trust, Natural England, the Environment Agency, the Angling Trades Association and others.

It focussed, in particular, on the problems involving predation on specimen-sized coarse fish in rivers, although a wide range of issues were also debated. The continuing issue of fencing for selected stillwaters was also discussed in depth

The Group identified the areas of common ground, and it has started to explore how it can help anglers and the Environment Agency develop healthy and balanced river environments and habitats capable of supporting sustainable, diverse fish populations.

Work is progressing on establishing the current distribution of otters, listing useful reference documents and producing guidance to fishery managers on creating sustainable habitats for fish and other forms of wildlife. 

During the meeting it became clear that there are several, widely-quoted misconceptions about otters which need to be addressed and corrected:-

• ‘The otter predation problem has arisen because of the reintroduction programme’. Otter numbers have increased naturally throughout Britain as a consequence of successful recolonisation and breeding following a major decline in numbers caused by pesticides. The reintroduction programme has simply increased the speed of recovery in parts of England, notably in East Anglia.

• ‘The reintroduction programme is continuing unchecked’. Between 1983 and 1999 a small number (117) of captive-bred otters were released to the wild by the Otter Trust. The Vincent Wildlife Trust released rehabilitated animals between 1990 and 1996 (49), over half as part of a Yorkshire release programme, but also a few into East Anglia, Northumbria and on the Trent. No introductions of captive-bred otters have occurred since 1999. There have been releases of rehabilitated or orphaned animals, once they have been nursed back to health, which number no more than four or five a year. As far as it is practicable, rehabilitated otters are released back to the areas where they were found.

• ‘Trapping or culling is needed to control otter numbers’. There is no call or case for the culling or trapping of otters, which enjoy full protection under international and national legislation. Otter numbers will be constrained by available breeding habitat and prey.

• ‘Otters are eating coarse fish because of the decline in eel populations’. Otters are opportunist predators which tend to catch and consume fish most readily available to them. There is no evidence that they ‘prefer’ or select particular fish species.

It was agreed that the over-arching strategy should be to create and maintain healthy aquatic environments where balanced populations of fish and otters can co-exist in a sustainable manner.

The majority of complaints about otter predation on rivers have arisen where fisheries are suffering from one or more environmental problems - over-abstraction, pollution, habitat damage, etc. The Group recognised that there are and would continue to be site-specific problems involving levels of predation which may reduce the amenity and fishery value.

The Group is exploring areas of possible applied research which might be usefully undertaken to enhance knowledge of otters in the wild and their impacts on fisheries with unbalanced fish populations.  It would appear that problems are localised to certain rivers, rather than being universal, and it is important to understand why this is the case.

Part of that process will be to identify fish populations which are considered to have been adversely affected by otter predation to assess the nature and severity of the problems and to cross-reference this information to historic fisheries data sets. The Environment Agency is to examine a programme of priority fish restocking to restore sustainable fish populations to these fisheries.

In addition, it was agreed that an information pamphlet will be prepared and issued, setting out the facts about otters and fisheries and providing guidance on how specific problems can be minimised, especially on stillwater fisheries where the impacts on economic and social benefits arising have been most significant.

This will complement the recent publication of a joint advisory booklet by the Environment Agency and the Wildlife Trusts on ‘Otters and Stillwater Fisheries’.
These will be among the matters for discussion when the Wildlife Management Group meets again, in the next three months.


Top anglers speak out

The four supposed misconceptions have caused concern amongst the nation’s anglers, many of whom think that the Angling Trust has jumped in bed with the EA and NE.

Many ‘named’ anglers are expressing their disappointment and some are even threatening to withdraw their membership of the new, unified governing body.
The following are reactions to the meeting and further anecdotal evidence of the impact the UK’s biggest mammalian predator is having on some river systems:

John Wilson, MBE

The otter issue is all interwoven with cormorant predation. I was warning about the impact of these predators in my books 20 years ago.
Silvers and juvenile fish stocks in our rivers are in a worse state than ever.

The EA are bloody toothless. There should have been a national cormorant cull a decade ago. The Agency has a statutory obligation to safeguard fisheries and inland waterways.

I can now see a situation where there will be bugger all fish left in our upland rivers. I can see the Wensum from my study window and I have watched it happening every day. All our hard work as anglers has gone down the drain. It’s such a shame. It makes me so sad.

Fisheries consultant Keith Wesley, Bedwell Fisheries Services

I know for a fact that Natural England gave permission to release 24 otters a 1km squared area in Gloucestershire. I know this because someone at Defra claimed such behaviour probably contravened animal welfare laws!

I’ve surveyed ponds in Norfolk and found no fish whatsoever after being called in by concerned local clubs and anglers who wanted to know what was wrong with their fishing.

An EA fish survey of one stretch of the Great Ouse saw the stretch downgraded from a Category A to a Category C fishery due to a crash in the numbers of adult barbel which took place over just three seasons.

In the past three years the EA has contracted me to investigate eel populations in various catchment areas. How can you release an apex predator and claim it isn’t impacting on declining eel populations?

Elsewhere the public is being asked to sponsor otters with money that’s used to build holts to encourage their spread.

As for fencing stillwaters, that will just concentrate otters on unprotected, wild fisheries.

For the EA to claim there’s no problem is absolute rubbish. They know perfectly well there is but it isn’t politically correct to admit it.

I oversaw the stocking of 1,400 fish into two lakes at Ryemeads. After six months we only found three and after a year just one! If the Agency doesn’t help clubs and fishery owners there are going to be messy battles all over the place.

We were all hoping the Angling Trust would stand up for anglers and back us to the hilt. I’m glad I waited before joining because to my mind they’ve fallen at the first hurdle. What they should have demanded from NE and the EA was the impact assessment that should have been carried out before these animals were released. Where are they?

The Angling Trust can’t speak for anglers if it doesn’t speak to them and listen.

Trefor West

I fish for 10 hours a day, five days a week over the summer, it’s my job. I think I’m in a good position to observe what’s happening. We’re talking about a total wipeout of barbel on the Cherwell, the Windrush, the upper Thames, the Teme, the Leme and the Warks Avon. All have been hit by otters. As I guide it’s my job to know where all the big barbel in the river live, right down to each specific bush and snag. A hundred big barbel have vanished from the Cherwell and the banks have been littered with carcasses. In just four seasons 30 years of fishing has gone down the drain.

No matter what fish are re-stocked this isn’t going to benefit me in my lifetime. The damage is done; the situation is irretrievable. What’s the point in creating ideal spawning habitat if there’s no bloody brood stock left in the river?

Having read last week’s joint statement this is yet another example of angling’s leaders being so far out of touch it’s unbelievable. Anglers deserve to see some proper scientific research carried out. Fourteen 15lb-plus fish have vanished from Adam’s Mill and I’ve only seen three spawning fish on the stretch this closed season.

Gary Stone, an Essex carp syndicate boss near the Suffolk Stour

We’ve just had three carp killed by otters on our 6 acre lake. All the 25 members have had to dig into their own pockets to help find the £8,000 to £10,000 needed to fence off the fishery.

I’m disappointed with the Angling Trust’s stance on otters. It’s irresponsible of them to play these predation problems down instead of standing up for the angling community and protecting fisheries.

The dearest fencing quote was £23 per metre. Couldn’t the Trust arrange a deal with a big fencing contractor to help fisheries source sensibly priced fencing?

Dr Bruno Broughton, independent fisheries consultant who chaired the recent meeting

This process has got to lead somewhere and have a practical outcome. Anglers need to help collect hard evidence of specific problems affecting fish stocks. That evidence then needs to be investigated seriously and unbiasedly.

Cherwell barbel angler Daniel Empson, from Bicester

In my first season’s fishing (2003/04) on the Cherwell I caught 93 barbel, including 33 doubles. From my first sighting of an otter barbel numbers started falling. My second season I caught over 30, my third I caught just two.

The same has happened on the Windrush – there’s nothing left. All around Oxford the story’s the same and now the Bristol Avon going downhill fast. Everywhere else will be the same in five years’ time.

The EA must know what’s happened from its survey results. There’s nothing wrong with these habitats, the predators are simply eating all the fish.

Tim Norman, Dorset-based big fish angler

I’m disappointed in the Trust. I don’t know where there aren’t any otters, so how can anyone claim the problem’s ‘localised’? And claiming that a natural balance will eventually be established is just a cop out for people who don’t want to do anything.

Our river environments are almost perfect, there’s just no fish in them. The only reason can be predation.

What does it say to you about the natural environment when the EA fisheries department is advising you to fence your fishery? It says to me that they expect otters to be eating all the big fish!

Phil Smith, Coventry-based big fish angler

The EA should let us know whether it has downgraded the category of some rivers after surveys revealed a collapse in fish stocks. Something needs to be done now or there may be little left in five years.

Richard Bowler, Great Ouse barbel and perch angler

If you want to know about the otter’s impact just look on the Internet.

An otter survey on the Somerset Levels in 1975 revealed the bird feather content of spraints was 4.7 per cent. The latest survey in the same area two years ago has seen that feather content rise to 41 per cent. To me that suggests that otter’s diet has significantly altered as a result of a crash in the eel population.

I’ve watched barbel spawning at three places on the Great Ouse this season. I saw a total of seven fish. In the mid-90s I’d have observed 20 at each site! Numbers have crashed. Catching Ouse barbel is at least three times harder than it was a decade ago. If the Trust’s bosses are being paid to represent anglers then maybe they should try talking to some to find out exactly what’s happening on the bank.

John Everard

The EA needs to be challenged when it claims the decline is due to poor habitat. Where’s the science to prove this? I’ve been dealing with these rivers all my adult life. I know these rivers very, very, very well and they’ve always had a superb diversity in fish stocks.

It was only three or four years ago I had the guys in the local fisheries department ringing me from the banks of the Cherwell all excited about finding numerous different year classes of barbel in their survey. Now there are barely any left.

Specimen barbel only became prevalent when the otter declined. Now otters have returned the barbel itself is in steep decline. Anglers always warn about these problems first but no one ever listens to us until it’s too late.

I know Graham Scholey who was made an MBE for his work on the UK Otter BAP. Last week he told me that anglers are just going to have to get used to catching fewer big river fish.

The chief executive of the Angling Trust needs to defend anglers and fish. At least Graham Scholey is fighting his corner.

Richard Knowles, secretary of the Thames Fisheries Consultative

Fifteen otters were released in Lechlade over a very short space of time. There was clear evidence of predation at the time and those animals spread up the Windrush.

I’ve argued with Graham Scholey about otters specifically targeting barbel. It’s a top predator which exploits those prey species which is most readily available.

Around Oxford we’re seeing the impact of a multitude of predators, primarily cormorants, signal crayfish and otters. The resulting decrease in recruitment has seen the average size of fish rise as a result of less competition but it has left the population more vulnerable to otters.

It’s no use releasing large numbers of predators if there isn’t plenty of readily available prey. Yes, a balance will return in the long run but what will happen in the short-term? A European indicator species, the barbel, will be damaged.

The EA tends to bury its head in the sand and repeat that there needs to be habitat improvements but there’s no evidence whatsoever that in-stream habitat of Thames tributaries has deteriorated. The EA needs to stop denying that otters are having an impact. We’ll never have natural recruitment if the brood stock has been wiped out.

Andy Nellist

When otters declined there were fewer cormorants, no mink or signal crayfish, and far more eels and rudd. To artificially encourage the spread of this apex predator into such a radically altered ecosystem without proper scientific investigation could prove to have been grossly irresponsible.