Britain’s big barbel boom has officially ended - and many experts believe sport will take years to recover.
Since 1998, when the Great Ouse began to dominate the history books, river records have tumbled across the country, with as many as 28 falling in a season. But during the last campaign that figure crashed by a staggering 89 per cent - and the trend looks set to continue with just three falling during the current season.
The news has prompted some barbel specialists to paint a bleak future - and it’s otters which are getting most of the blame.
“The figures don’t lie,” said barbel historian Dave Mason, who has compiled the river records in the last few years. “It wasn’t very many years ago when there were anywhere between 20 and 25 records falling in a season, and now this has slumped to three. It’s a huge drop. Otters have obviously had a massive effect, but I would like to a see a proper scientific study to find what’s gone wrong.” Martin Bowler is a big-fish angler who was well positioned to enjoy the barbel boom of the last decade, landing a series of giants including a British record. But he is adamant that period can be consigned to the history books.
“Barbel fishing, as we know it in this country, is over - and it’s only going to get worse,” said the Angling Times columnist and star of Catching the Impossible.
“Otters have had a massive impact and while they are present in their current numbers, trying to restock is a waste of time - you’ll just be serving up sushi to the predators. If the cormorants don’t get the small barbel, then otters get the big ones.
“The way I see it, anglers have a choice - either we have chub and barbel in our rivers, or we have cormorants and otters. We can’t have both.” Founder member and now president of the Barbel Society, Fred Crouch, has an equally bleak outlook for the species - but thinks bigger, less vulnerable, venues could emerge.
“The reintroduction and spread of otters have had a massive effect,” said Fred, who has been targeting the species for more than 60 years. “They don’t just take fish, they disturb spawning grounds, too. Whole areas and stretches that once contained fish are now barren on many rivers.
“Venues like the Wye, which have supported otters for years and are big and wide enough to sustain predators, will become more and more popular.
“I am a naturally optimistic individual and I’d like to think we’ll get through this period, but I’m worried. People will simply have to change their aims and objectives because the era of very big fish is over.”