The future of our Barbel

I always relish the Barbel Society get togethers and I always feel humbled when I am asked to speak at them. And intimidated to a degree. After all, what do I have to add to the body of barbel catching knowledge when faced by an audience bristling with barbel brilliance? Still, I fumbled through my speech and was overwhelmed by the response on the day and by the wonderful things said since on social media. To those of you who who have made such kind comments, yes, I AM passionate about the future of our rivers and the barbel stocks that are swimming in them..just!

Of course, it’s good to talk about how to catch barbel but only if there are barbel there to be caught. Sadly, it seems there are fewer and fewer fish present in so many of our rivers today, a downward trend we have seen increasingly over this century. I made the point that I am in general a fairly mellow sort of bloke and I try to see all sides of any argument but enough is enough and I feel the need to state the case as I see it whilst there is still time.

Habitat is not the issue!

I made the point at the conference that I only feel confident about talking about rivers I know inside out and in this instance I restricted my comments to my beloved river Wensum. Two summers ago, I watched numerous shoals of barbel between 4 and 12 ounces or so feeding happily on the river’s gravels. There were several hundreds of them in total and they were just the ones I saw myself remember. The presence of these young, home bred fish indicated to me that there is nothing amiss with the spawning beds. It said to me that the river has the food supplies to support seemingly healthy fast growing fish. Habitat therefore is NOT the issue as every fishery scientist would have us believe.
Today, two years down the line, those fish are gone. The hope they offered is gone with them. There is only one single explanation and that is predation.

Cormorants are the issue!

I know this because I have seen it with my own eyes. Over two winters, returning European cormorants have annihilated those young fish. An alien bird population has completely destroyed the river’s hopes for the future. The fact is that the more fishery experts we have, the fewer fish we have. I am done with the habitat mantra. We have the habitat today, we now need the protection that even a river strewn with woody debris cannot provide.

Who will act before it is too late?

This is a nettle that must be grasped. The media? Well the Angler’s Mail is intelligent and responsible and I have high hopes there. The Environment Agency? Despite charging us a licence to fish, forget it. The EA is mired in red tape and bureaucratic gobbledegook. The various river trusts and alliances that are paid to look after the Wensum, including Natural England? Forget them. Fishery scientists exist from one project to another and are dependent on so called river improvement schemes. If they admitted that cormorants are the root of the problem, they are effectively doing themselves out of work. The Angling Trust? Well the whole of the angling jury remains out on the Trust which still needs to show positive leadership if it is to win over hearts and minds.

I am told repeatedly there “is no silver bullet” solution to the problem of disappearing river fish of all species. The phrase is well chosen and spookily apt. Sadly, it is a licence to kill that will bring back life to our river systems. It is not too late but the proverbial clock is ticking loudly.