River restoration holds the key to a sustainable future for fishing

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Logo: The Rivers Trust

By Rebecca Duncan, PR & Events Coordinator

Chalk stream (Charles Rangeley-Wilson)
Chalk stream (Charles Rangeley-Wilson)

The Rivers Trust is passionate about protecting rivers for people and wildlife. Representing more than 60 local member Trusts across the UK and Ireland, our movement has a long history of safeguarding precious freshwater fish species.

Rivers are some of the world’s most spectacular ecosystems, but also some of the most delicate, meaning freshwater wildlife is in grave danger. WWF-UK has reported an 83% decline in freshwater species since 1970 – the worst of any species group. Considering freshwater fish represent half of all fish species, that’s incredibly alarming. And while migratory fish move through challenging conditions across the globe during their lives, there are definitely problems right here on our doorstep. A parliamentary report recently deemed that England’s rivers are blighted by a “chemical cocktail” of pollution from sewage, slurry, and plastic(i). Overall, water quality in our rivers has shown little improvement for well over a decade. Add the number of artificial barriers which stop fish from travelling to upstream spawning grounds into the equation, and it becomes incredibly difficult for fish to even survive, let alone to breed successfully.

The reasons for this tragic decline in freshwater fish are insidious, complex, and interrelated. But we cannot allow this pattern of decline to continue. Rivers are the arteries of our landscape, and fisheries management plays a vital part in looking after the species that live in them.

Chalk stream grayling (Paul Colley)
Chalk stream grayling (Paul Colley)

Angling and sustainable fisheries are vital to England’s cultural and socioeconomic life. We recently published a report (ii) finding that fisheries in England’s rivers, canals, lakes, and ponds provide annual economic benefits in excess of £1.7 billion. As well as the commercial value of fish catch, we learned that over 17 million days of angling were enjoyed by more than 1 million anglers in 2020, each of whom invest in fishing licenses, rods, and other equipment. This figure is in addition to unquantifiable health and wellbeing benefits. When employing sustainable practices, including habitat restoration and catch and release as part of fisheries management, angling can be one of the most environmentally friendly leisure activities.

In the past, many fish populations have suffered from arbitrary commercial fishing practices such as the high seas netting of salmon, which is indiscriminate and can take a disproportionate number of vulnerable sub-populations. Similarly, mechanical dredging for shellfish in fragile habitats can be very damaging, seriously harming the environment and sustainability of future stocks and disturbing the whole ecosystem. Netting techniques like trawling can also inadvertently capture and kill other non-target species of fish as part of the bi-catch.

Artisan fisheries such as the setting of crab and lobster pots or long lining with baited hooks are generally sustainable, particularly where practiced locally, and allow non-target species and undersized fish to be returned.

Today, freshwater angling is heavily regulated and requires the purchase of an Environment Agency license. There are many bylaws and controls in place which include close seasons when fish can breed, together with limits and guidance on the use of particular baits and hook types.

Even well-intentioned measures that have been taken to improve fish populations in England can have a harmful effect. The artificial rearing of fish, for example, is often undertaken with the intention of re-stocking rivers to supplement depleted wild stocks. However, this ignores many of the root causes of decline in the first place, typically pollution and habitat degradation. What’s more, the unnatural breeding environment and food provided in a hatchery can cause a skewing of the genetics of stocked fish which when released into the wild, can adversely affect the survival of native stocks.

But that’s enough about what not to do. Anyone working in the water or environment sectors has a role to play in protecting freshwater species, and The Rivers Trust prides itself on enacting real solutions which improve rivers for wildlife. We are always guided by science and committed to fostering cross-sector partnerships to drive river restoration and improvements on a catchment scale.

River restoration work (Action for the River Kennet)
River restoration work (Action for the River Kennet)

Firstly, river restoration often begins at the catchment scale, through reducing pollution and restoring degraded soils. In particular, the condition of land that runs alongside watercourses has a huge impact on their quality. Riverside trees and wetlands intercept water during heavy rainfall and slow the rate of runoff into rivers, moderating flows. Trees and scrub with their root systems also help to stabilise the riverbanks and improve soil percolation rates as well as providing valuable habitat for invertebrates.

Last year, we announced the Woodlands for Water initiative between Defra and the Riverscapes partnership, which involves The Rivers Trust; the Woodland Trust; Beaver Trust; and National Trust. The scheme will incentivise farmers and landowners to create 3,150 hectares of riparian woodland across six river catchments areas by March 2025. We’re incredibly excited about this project, which builds on a strong history of tree planting across the Rivers Trust movement.

We’re also working hard to combat the most harmful sources of water pollution. We’re constantly exploring new opportunities for nature-based solutions such as wetlands, which can filter chemical pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorous from water before they reach rivers. We’ve also been campaigning vigorously against sewage pollution to prevent large-scale discharges of waste into rivers and killing thousands upon thousands of fish. Soon, we will launch the Catchment Monitoring Co-operative to harness the power of citizen science to hold government and polluters to account, and to identify where investment in the sewerage network is most needed.

Tree planting December 2018 (Ribble Rivers Trust)
Tree planting December 2018 (Ribble Rivers Trust)

Habitat restoration and water quality improvement measures are extremely important, but they must be done alongside removal of the physical barriers which prevent migratory fish from spawning upstream. Shockingly, less than 1% of rivers in Britain are free of artificial barriers to fish migration. It’s a complex issue with important implications for local heritage in many cases, so removal of the barriers isn’t always practicable. In these situations, we can build fish passes to help fish get around the barrier. In fact, the biggest fish pass in Europe will soon officially open in Diglis, Worcestershire, thanks to a partnership team including Severn Rivers Trust.

For individuals interested in fishing for leisure, we would urge anyone to make the right choices for the environment. Follow the bylaws and conditions of angling licenses to help to ensure that fish populations are protected. Don’t leave litter or discard old fishing line. Consider using artificial lures, barbless hooks and getting some fly-fishing lessons. Value and help protect wild fisheries, and employ good practice including catch and release methods. These are all simple ways to ensure that angling can be enjoyed by as many people as possible, without inflicting harm on the environment.

Ultimately, The Rivers Trust exists to improve rivers for wildlife to thrive and people to enjoy. Tackling artificial barriers, insidious pollution, and extreme habitat degradation are part of the long journey towards restoring rivers to their natural, beautiful state. This is how we can create a sustainable future for fishing.

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(i) Report published at 00:01 13/01/2022 on

(ii) Natural Capital of Freshwater Fisheries in England

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Posted On: 25/01/2022

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