Britain is experiencing one of the hottest summers in memory - fish stocks are under threat, and more anglers are on the bank. As a result this is the busiest time of the year for Environment Agency officers.
Angling Times were recently given exclusive access behind the scenes with Darren Bedworth – a fisheries and biodiversity team leader - to discover just what they get up to on a day-to-day basis and how your rod licence money is spent…
Everyone who buys a rod licence wants to see EA officers on the bank, just as people like to see a bobby on the beat. In answer to these calls a number of fishery marine patrol units were set up to in a bid to stamp out illegal angling and fish theft.
I was invited to spend the day with Whiskey 520, a patrol unit on the River Mersey in Warrington, Cheshire. The team, who wouldn’t look out of place on an episode of the A-Team, had a military appearance and carried equipment including night-vision goggles, hand-cuffs, communication radios and stab vests. If you thought that fisheries patrol was lightweight think again.
Every member of the squad is a keen angler and as intimidating as they looked, they explained that heavy handed tactics are rarely required.
The team, which is part of the North-West Enforcement for the agency, rely heavily on intelligence, as pointed out by Darren, who regularly joins the patrols as part of his duties. “It is not just a case of going along the river checking rod licences,” he said. “We work closely with angling clubs, councils and the public as well as the local police - who often partner us on patrols or when we make a discovery.
“There is no point checking areas which have been covered two or three times in the same year unless it is a noted hotspot for illegal activity. We prefer to concentrate our time on checking areas where criminals think they might get away with it,” he added.
The work is certainly paying off, and in three years the unit has checked 700 rod licences on the river’s Dee, Weaver and Mersey with dozens of anglers fined for fishing without the required documentation. Two men were recently fined hundreds of pounds in court for using gill nets after a surveillance operation by the team.
As well as spending time with Whiskey 520, Darren, also based in Warrington, is one of a handful of officers who work hard, day in, day out in a bid to improve fisheries and support angling activities.
Many of the waterways in the North of the UK have for years been blighted with pollution and fish stocks have suffered as a result. But thanks to the work of Darren and his team, some of these rivers such as the Ribble, Mersey and Irwell are now thriving.
EA officers have worked closely with the authorities and water boards to help improve the quality of water as well as being on the look-out for signs of pollution and work on fish habitats. Darren has also overseen a massive re-stock of venues like the Irwell which has been boosted with over 10,000 new fish in the past three years alone.
“Due to the work we are involved in and the government’s Water Framework Directive, which ensures water quality is legally kept to acceptable levels according to EU guidance, rivers like the Mersey are far better than they were a decade ago. We have monitored fish populations which have increased dramatically as a result,” he said.
Officers like Darren are also well aware of the problems caused by migrants who come to the UK for work, and in the past few weeks teams from his region have visited dozens of work places which employ Eastern European workers to hand out leaflets explaining UK catch and release laws. They have also placed adverts in specialist publications which have a high readership of migrant workers. “We are not blind to the fact that many problems concerning poaching are due to the large influx of Eastern Europeans but the solution is in education as well as enforcement, so we fight it by being intelligent about it.”
Other tasks undertaken by officers like Darren include building anti-predation devices such as floating islands, stillwater surveys - of which Darren estimates he has been involved in around 200 since 2005 - tree planting, climate change impact research, as well as pollution and fisheries response - something which has kept officers busy this summer due to the heat which has seen thousands of fish in distress as a result of oxygen levels crashing.
EA officers daily duties include:
- River patrols
- Rod licence checks
- Educating migrants
- Fish rescues
- Construction of anti-predation devices
- Stillwater surveys
- Climate change impact research
- Habitat improvement
- Pollution and fisheries response
- Providing fishery management advice for local clubs
- Removal of invasive species