Hard to imagine though it is, otters seem to be causing far more damage than mink, which are almost certainly around in far greater numbers.
In my life I have only ever seen two otters in the wild, both run over and lying in the gutter in Portugal’s Algarve. In England I have seen countless mink, and will never forget the sight of three of them swimming around Tommy Young’s keepnet during a Captain Morgan match on the River Arun in Sussex.
Accepting that otters are responsible for all the problems is therefore very difficult for me to accept, but it seems unavoidable. Although it may not be immediately obvious to all, a call for a cull is totally unacceptable. But fishery owners, including clubs, should have the right to protect their stocks and if that means removing a predator that is impacting their business, how can that be wrong? Otters are patently no longer in decline if the hundreds of reports of big-fish casualties up and down the country are correct.
Of course it’s easy to look at match weights and specimen fish sizes and generalise that sport has never been better, but does that stand up to scrutiny? Sure, big species such as bream, barbel, chub, carp and tench have all done well. But has that happened because there are many fewer fish competing for the same larder?
Taking my local River Thames as an example, the Francis Francis club has fished the same section of river in almost exactly the same way for over 100 years. Its records show that roach and dace have diminished to a point where they are rarely weighed in, when in the 1950s and 1960s roach bags of 30lb-50lb were common. The club record bream was under 4lb from the late 19th Century until almost the 21st Century. It now stands at 10lb 1oz. Members regularly target carp and take multiple catches during their four-hour Sunday sessions.
Now go back to New Year’s Day 1980. An open match, run by Steve Sanders of KC Angling and featuring 46 anglers, saw 28lb 4oz win the match. I was second with 27lb 7oz and Ken Collings was 23rd with nearly 14lb. Most people had double figures.
Otters have had nothing to do with that decline, but it is the reason that they’re now taking big fish. The small fish, and the eels, simply aren’t there any more and that creates a huge imbalance that must, somehow, be corrected.