Steve Partner: Ignore these at your peril

If Mark Lloyd was ever under the impression that heading up the most important organisation in fishing was going to be easy, he’s not any more.

Last week the head of the newly-formed Angling Trust walked out of a crisis meeting on otters – and straight into a wall of venom, accused of participating in a whitewash.

Some anglers have already left the body by way of protest, while a slew of high-profile names like John Wilson and Martin Bowler – key opinion formers in the sport – have issued public statements of disgust. And as for what the rank and file members, the silent majority without the ear of the press, make of it all is anyone’s guess. Suffice to say, Mark Lloyd’s had better weeks.

So what is it that has caused so much anger? Well, the perception among many within the sport is that the Trust didn’t do enough to fight angling’s corner, instead rolling over to be tickled by the likes of Natural England and the Environment Agency.

Yes, the Trust may have left having secured more fish for restocking purposes in affected areas, but did it really get to the root of the problem? More crucially, does it even accept there is a problem at all?

By describing the otter issue as ‘localised’ and saying that other ecological problems, like abstraction and pollution, contribute as much to fish deaths as otters do, the Trust has belittled something that is causing nothing short of destruction on a growing number of our fisheries.

Otters are wreaking havoc across running and stillwater venues alike, destroying large sections of waterways and wiping out entire generations of fish. The Teme, Wensum, Great Ouse, Windrush, Dorset Stour and Bristol Avon have all been decimated, with large areas now devoid of any sizeable fish. Otters, it has been argued, are to specimen anglers what cormorants were to matchman, so failing to acknowledge the seriousness of the threat is at best naïve and at worst plain ignorant.

When Mark Lloyd sat down with the interested parties last week, no-one expected him to miraculously solve a very complex problem, but they might have expected more of an argument from a man paid to represent his members.

In his defence, there is no easy answer. Those in fishing who claim a widespread culling programme is the answer are so far wide of the mark it’s dangerous. Public perception is everything, and the doe-eyed, big-whiskered Tarka is held in greater affection than any fish ever will be. So for angling to appear anti-otter would an incalculable PR disaster.

But, given the untold damage this apex predator can cause, and the fact that they are increasing in numbers so quickly, the sport just can’t sit back and ignore what’s happening. Data needs to collected, studies launched and evidence,  anecdotal or otherwise, collated by the EA until we can establish the facts. If, as we suspect, otters are becoming uncontrollably destructive, then management plans – much as they are with cormorants – need to be implemented to protect the livelihoods of fishery owners and the sport of the anglers who fish them.

Those fighting the otter’s corner will argue that the sight of these aesthetically pleasing species is the sign of a healthy river, and their return a victory for ecological rebuilding. But the natural balance has been upset. In the era when otters were found in numbers in this country the rivers were very different places. They had an abundance of eels – which, despite recent claims to the contrary, are the otter’s natural food – but nowadays there aren’t many left. The upshot is they eat what they can, whether it be a 1lb perch, a 2lb chub or an 18lb barbel. Worse still, they leave their running water habitat in search of food and head for stillwaters and their expensive carp.

Negotiating a re-stocking policy – funded, incidentally by the rod licence – may have been claimed as something of a victory for the Trust, but by not addressing the cause of the problem, history will simply repeat itself. Introducing new fish is little short of ringing a dinner bell.

The otter problem is the first major issue the Angling Trust has had to confront and, on the evidence of last week’s meeting, it has failed in its duty to its members. As mentioned, no-one expected the issue to be solved but by refusing to acknowledge the severity of the situation, it has already lost a degree of faith. Coarse anglers are notoriously difficult to mobilise but they will back a cause – like cormorants – if they feel the hierarchy  representing them is in their corner.  

The Angling Trust is a body set up to represent fishermen of all disciplines, but there remains a suspicion that those who control it don’t have the necessary understanding of the key issues that affect coarse anglers. It’s a problem that needs urgent attention. Coarse fishing is where the power base lies, and if the Trust is serious about reaching its 100,000 member target it needs to recognise that fact.

If Mark Lloyd did underestimate the depth of feeling towards otters then he’s in no doubt of it now. How he reacts may well define his – and the Trust’s – immediate future.