Environment Agency finally shows its teeth to fish smugglers

Last week their concerns were limited to little more than how many anglers were coming through the door. Now, though, their very existence could be on the line. A few of the nation’s thousands of fishery owners, I wouldn’t mind betting, are sitting slightly less easily than they were a few days ago.

Why? Because the Environment Agency - the much criticised body anglers pay millions of pounds to every year via the tax of the rod licence - has, at long last, shown some balls.

Fisheries, it has promised, that are illegally stocked with outsize foreign monstrosities are set to come under the microscope. More than that, if the owners can’t provide cast-iron proof of where their fish have come from, they can - and will - be stripped of their money-making assets and prosecuted. Businesses could be shut. Jobs could be lost. And angling could, finally, have a deterrent that actually deters. 

Be in no doubt, these new measures are severe, far-reaching and, for the guilty, capable of inflicting life-changing damage. But they may also form part of the most radical and most welcome initiative in the Agency’s relatively short history. Fishing is on the brink of its biggest clean-up operation in living memory.

The guilty owners, will, of course, know exactly who they are. Doubtless anglers will, too. It doesn’t, after all, take Morse-like deduction to work it out. One day a venue is run-of-the-mill, same-as-the-rest average, the next it’s grabbing headlines with huge carp, catfish or, most ludicrous of the lot, sturgeon.

The owner pleads ignorance, the captor smiles for the pictures in a slightly bemused but no less happy way, and the authorities are left to watch on in rueful frustration.

Despite suspecting, knowing even, that the fish have been illegally introduced, unless they are able to catch the culprits literally red handed in the act of stocking fish without due documentation, the EA is hampered by outdated and ineffective rules - and left powerless to do anything about it.

Basically, some fishery bosses have been able to act with complete and disreputable impunity. But not any more. Not if the regulations currently being formulated by the Agency are made law anyway.

These new rules will not only make lake owners provide proof of the origin of their fish, the EA will also have the power to remove illegal stocks and prosecute guilty fisheries.

More importantly, though, is the resulting by-product. If no-one wants to risk taking short-cuts any more, it could administer a mortal blow to the black market industry that remains a large, embarrassing and costly thorn in the side of the authorities.

Despite this week’s very high profile and very welcome victory, with officials seizing fish with a market value of around £250,000 at Dover, this still only represents a tiny dent in the armour of a trade worth many millions every single year. Success, however pleasing, must be seen in perspective. But what if there were no market for foreign giants? Smuggling, in theory, could become a thing of the past.

‘Could’, though, remains the operative word.

Undertaking this kind of clean-up operation, however welcome, is, of course, still a long, long way from becoming reality. Assuming the proposals are even made law, there remains the small issue of practicality.

Where, for example, does the Agency start? With the obvious? Sturgeon are clearly no longer indigenous to these isles, barbel don’t naturally live in stillwaters, and giant catfish or carp that mysteriously appear haven’t hatched, eaten voraciously, and then grown to 50lb-plus overnight. In these circumstances, assuming the legal paperwork is absent, action, you might think, would be relatively straightforward.

But what about those venues where the evidence is less clear cut? The kind of places where the stockings have been equally underhand, but the fish have been in residence long enough to be considered legitimate. And what about the occasions when carp are knowingly moved from rivers to stillwaters - but the owner hides behind arguments like natural causes? Or where fish miraculously, and mostly unbelievably, leap in weight weeks after they’ve been supposedly introduced?

Suddenly, the new legislation doesn’t seem so black and white. In fact, the area is so grey it almost renders the next question redundant. What, though

I still ask, will happen to any of the fish successfully seized after being proved dodgy?

It’s too simple and too throw-away to suggest they should be destroyed.

Regardless of origin, it seems a travesty to kill any fish, especially those of significant size. Could a period in quarantine, long enough to ensure the creature is not a disease risk, be the answer? Re-housing, rather than recycling, remains an avenue for investigation. That prospect, though, is some way off.

What is inescapable, even in the murk of the actual logistics and policing, is that, on paper at least, this is a huge step in the right direction. I am no great fan of the Environment Agency - the vast sums of money it takes from anglers every year remains difficult to justify when our rivers and lakes are routinely left at the mercy of polluters, cormorants, illegal angling practice and, latterly, otters - but credit needs to be given where credit is due.

For far too long loopholes as wide as the Channel Tunnel itself have allowed money-driven importers to cheat the system by illegally bringing foreign fish into the UK. On arrival, their contraband has been snapped up by a willing number of fishery owners who believe these ready-made whackers will generate immediate and profitable business. The consequences of their actions - in the shape of diseases capable of wiping out the rest of their stock - are ignored in the chase for cash. Time and again, greed outweighs conscience. 

The upshot has been a huge black market business that has not only threatened the welfare of our indigenous stock, but undermined the livelihoods of those resident

UK-based dealers ¬ and the law-abiding fisheries that stock with their fish ¬ who are fighting a losing battle. Buy clean, legal but, ultimately, smaller and more expensive specimens, or cut corners and break the rules? Sadly for some, that question has become a no-brainer.

Soon, though, it might not be so easy.  Those that have seen themselves as above the law are very much in the firing line. No longer will fishery owners be able to hide behind smug indifference and pathetic claims of ignorance. And, as a welcome consequence, no longer will those smugglers who have acted with complete disdain continue to earn illicit profit while continually jeopardising waters with diseases like KHV. As I’ve already said, if there’s no market, there’s no industry.

Those that have knowingly broken the rules in their attempts to short-cut the system with illegally stocked, disease-prone foreign giants have every reason to be concerned. The Agency, they’ve been warned, is coming - and this time it’s armed.