On the December 3rd some of the unsung heroes of Bridgwater Angling Association were once again using their own time for the benefit of others. This time their objective was to make improvements to the South pond at Dunwear. One of their chores was to rake a clear passage through the reed bed that bisects the South pit to enable the wind to penetrate all the pond and to clear snags of the bottom. Later on in the day another task was tackled, that of helping with the restocking. Around about 2 oclock a considerable stock of fish arrived at the Sedgemoor road entrance to the ponds courtesy of the people from HBS fisheries. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So enough of me.
Around about the very early 1980’s one Harry Sutton who was a dentist in the town and a life member of Bridgwater Angling Association wrote a considerable piece on the subject and history of stocking fish in the Bridgwater area.
Restocking is a somewhat provocative word. Amongst anglers it has so often been held to mean improved fishing. This is by no means the case in most instances. Qualified and experienced fishery people usually take the view that such interference with a fishery cannot be justified without proper investigation into the need, and understanding of the possible consequences. It should not be thought that the more fish put into the water, the better the fishing. In fact it seems that in the past associations have expanded energy and money in making their fishing worse.
On the other hand, criticism of this kind has been made without realisationof the circumstances. The former rivers authorities did not have the fishery departmentments now usual with the water authorities and the same ability to give advice on the management of fisheries. The angling associations lacked the necessary knowledge and money to carry out complex preliminary work. When faced with serious problems, and in particular, pollution or other disasters, they could only do their best. Their efforts may be blundering but it seeems likely that without them many rivers would have been left fishless.
Rightly or wrongly, the association has pratice restocking for well over half a century. The first net for use in connection was purchased in 1925. This was the time when the cost of live fish was realised, and the younger members of the committee came to see the desirability of returning catches to the water. The conception of conservation of fish came to the locality, but it was scoffed at by the older members. However, in due course, it was obvious that it was being widely accepted throughout the country. The general use of keepnets soon followed.
Some very approximate records of fish planting done by the association exist. They show a surprising amount of work having been carried out. They go back to 1925 and may be very incomplete and vague but something useful emerges from them. Time has shown that there is a paucity of evidence of permanent benefit to the fisheries. In many instances there have been the appearance of improvement, but sooner or later there has been a reversion to the former state.
As it has been implied, understanding of fisheries management was very deficient among anglers, and perhaps the widest gap was the lack of understanding what was meant by ‘over population’. Where the average size was low and small fish very abundant, the remedy was to plant more fish. Little consideration is needed to see that the fish have failed to grow to normal size owing to there being insufficient food to meet the needs of a large population. The addition of more fish makes the situation worse. It is the ‘new’ fish which suffer most readily and the effort has been wasted. A good example was provided by two separate occasions when quality roach were introduced into the North pond at Dunwear to rectify a super abundance of small fish. In both instances they failed to appear in the following season. Further the very few which were caught shortly after the introduction showed signs of marked emaciation. This is a matter which should be considered before any kind of restocking is carried out.
When a water is about to be back filled or threatened in some other way it may be laudable to transfer the fish elsewhere. It seems better than letting them perish, but it must be realised that there are hazards attached to putting adult fish into a new environment. The balance of a fishery involves a complex relationship with all forms of life in the water, and this is easily disturbed with adverse results. More obviously, there is no assurance that the new arrivals will be able to adapt to new conditions and sources of food, or that they may not do damage to the existing stocks. It may be interesting to note that some recent research has suggested that fish put into new surroundings may be harrassed by the existing population to the point of starvation.
A very valuable conclusion drawn from records of restocking is that carp and tench have been the most consistently satisfactory. Carp in particular seem to be able to adapt to a wide variety of new circumstances, and to live harmoniously with other fish. There is little to show that the introduction of carp have failed to make long term improvements to the fishing. Some of the successes are very clear. ‘Mirror’ carp has transformed all conceptions of specimen carp. The transference of small carp from Screech Owl in 1925 had profound effects on carp fishing in the lower parts of Bridgwater and Taunton canal. Results with tench are a little more doubtful. There have been failures but the cause was not known. In spite of this they have shown themselves more than worth planting.
Assessments of results obtained with other fish are not easy to make because the data has been masked by pollutions and other adversities, but by and large, reasons for doubt are clear. Thousands of rudd and very many tench have been turned into the Huntspill over many years, but the number caught now cannot be reconciled with any conception of success. There were similar instances that have been observed.
Suitability of the environment for each species of fish is paramount. At one time comittees made quite absurd demands. For instance the Bridgwater Angling Association continued to introduce fish into water where they have little or no chance of survival. About 1926 grayling were planted in the canal at North Newton and this was at the instigation of the secretary of the then Fisheries Board! They were never seen again. Fish turned into waters unfavourable to them cannot be expected to flourish, and will likely to disappear. Ascertaining the suitability of habitat is by no means easy. Information about the general principles of this matter is freely available, but when applied in particular circumstances it often proves quite inadequate. Fish which might be expected to thrive fail to do so. The converse occasionally happens. Presumably each case has to be asssessed individually. This is a task beyond the abilities of angling associations, and probably the capabilities of water authorities are not sufficient. They lack the facilities for what appears to be a very long term operation. It is easier to wait to see what happens! Recently water authorities have been saying much about water quality, but it seems that this is being estimated in terms of what is desired in potable water, rather than the qualities required by fisheries? These qualities are not the same.
The extraordinary fecundity of fish is often overlooked. if the conditions in the water, are right, and this may be something more than water quality as it is understood, restocking would be quite unnecessary. Their great capacity for reproduction is, in fact, at the root of the problem of over population, where the treatment is culling. It is a fact which so many anglers find hard to accept. Advice about making drastic reductions in the numbers of fish has been met with hostility by clubs. Any idea of destruction of fish seems heresy.
It is important to understand that where fish stocks have been depleted, it is essential to try to ascertain the cause, and to consider its removal. If this cannot be done the new fish must suffer the same fate as did those they are intended to replace. Unfortunately, the difficulties are great, and dealing with the cause may be impossible. There are very good reasons for the belief that the decline in the quality of fishing about which there have been so many complaints, can be traced to modern farming methods. It is unlikely that this can be altered!
Two observations may be added. The temptation to plant exotic fish, or any other species not endemic to the district should be resisted. If such fish find the local waters favourable there is risk that they will undergo a ‘population explosion’ which means they multiply vastly at the expense of the existing fish and thereby do great damage. Enterprises of this kind can be justified only by great need. Of course, this is why the use of grass carp for weed control has been resisted. However, it is now firmily established that they will not be able to breed in the waters of this country.
Conservationists in general tend to take a friendly attitude towards angling, but there are a few who think they have reason to be critical. To them it might be said that no body or organisation has done more than the angling fraternity to pressure authority to act against pollution of waterways. This is in every way as much to the advantage of conservation.
Phew, well that’s the history lesson over, Until next time tight lines.