Somerset in common with most of the Southwest has been designated a “clean area” with regard to the problem of pollution. Agriculture prevailed and unlike the heavy populated and industrial areas it was not seriously menaced by the quality of discharge which wreaked so much destruction in waterways. In general this was true, but Somerset has had it moments.
During the war circumstances were exceptional. The priorities were considered sufficient to relax even the standards of precaution applicable at that time. Unfortunately, the excuse “there is a war going on” was used to cover much quite unjustifiable neglect. Fisheries suffered badly and a disaster to the Bridgwater and Taunton canal seemed to fall in to this category. The river Tone must have been involved as well. Through some mismanagement a large quantity of gas liquor from the gas works near Taunton was allowed to enter the Tone and it passed into the canal. Gas liquor by the way is A liquid containing ammonia and ammonium carbonate and sulphid, besides other products, obtained from coal in the manufacture of illuminating gas.
This very deadly pollutant devastated fish life over most of the upper reaches. As far as it was possible to estimate , all stocks were killed down beyond Charlton, and the mortality was very severe to Maunsell. For some reason the Tench seemed particularly vulnerable, and it appeared that they were decimated even to North Newton.
Recovery took place but as it may be expected after destruction of this magnitude, time elapsed before the fishing seemed back to normal. At first the water from Taunton to Durston appeared denuded of fish, but with the passage of time roach began to be seen, but in very isolated shoals. Presumably, the flora and fauna was restored quite rapidly, and food was abundant early on so the limited numbers of roach grew to unprecedented sizes. As already canal anglers of the past have record of specimens of over three pounds in weight. Of course, as the population was fully established the number of exceptional fish declined.
It was mainly during these war years that a very grievous and quite tragic decline in the fishing of the river Parrett took place. Previously the Parrett might of been regarded as an anglers paradise. It carried large stocks of fish ; particularly chub and carp unbelievable when compared with present day standards. By 1945 the greater part of this population had disappeared. It is difficult to state the cause precisely, but it seems very certain that it was due to pollutions from Yeovil or perhaps to a lesser extent from the river Isle.
Usually anglers are declined to despair over pollution and its alleviation, so it is a satisfaction to be able to quote an instance of success. Very shortly after the second world war the river Tone was transformed from its deplorable condition to a first class fishing water. The local authorities were prevailed upon to replace the outdated treatment works At Lambrook road with a new plant down the river at Ham. Coincident with this, the Gas board decided to disband the gas works at Taunton, and the industrial discharge came under control. The consequence was that the Tone became, and remained over several years, one of the best fishing venues in the county.
Very unfortunately, however, developments over the years in Taunton have overloaded the treatment works and there have been a decline in the fishing to some extent.
This victory was followed by an attempt to establish salmon fishing in the Tone. It may be correct to say re-establish, because there is ample reason for belief that long ago salmon did run this river. Ova was planted up stream and salmon ladders were built at weirs. The descent of smolts was monitored for several seasons and there may have been some signs of success. But alas the experiment didn’t prove successful. It did appear that salmon did ascend in appreciable number as far as Creech St Michael but failed to pass Taunton.
At one time it was believed that Bridgwater associations waters were to remain serenely and indefinitely free from the above mentioned troubles. In particular ponds were thought to be quite invulnerable, so it may be a matter of interest to note that some time about the first world war or perhaps before then- there seems to have been a very destructive fish loss at Dunwear. It appears to have been brought about by the then prevailing practice of reclaiming clay diggings by silting. A channel was cut to turn tidal water from the river Parrett in to the original south pond (now the car park) Eventually this was filled and became a reed bed. Some contamination must have entered and there was a severe mortality in both the middle and north ponds. Afterwards roach seemed to be absent from these two waters.
Towards the end of the summer of 1922 the Hooper family caused a suprise by catching 3 very large roach from the top of north pond. In 1923 it was evident that they were present in some strength and it was an oportunity for several members to take the much coveted 2 pounders. Probably, this was a factor in the popularity of the pond occuring about then. Regrettably, as time went by, over population took place and only very small fish were caught.
In the late 1950s and in the 1960s there were two separate algae blooms in the north pond. Both were due to enrichment from percolation from a badly polluted ditch. The resulting de -oxidation turned up many fish.
Any sense of security about the associations waters were utterly shattered by the events of 1968. This was an instance where the word ‘disaster’ was wholly justified. First of all a phenomenal thunder storm occurred in the July of that year. It flooded a large part of the Somerset moors just when the cut hay was on the ground. Many square miles of rotting vegetation resulted. Agricultural interests insisted upon drainage, and this brought about a massive and unprecedented mortality of fish. The Parrett, Brue, North and south drains and the West Sedgemoor drain were the principle waters experiencing the slaughter. The total loss was beyond estimate. There was so many dead fish that in places they had to be carried away from human habitation. Very fortunately prompt action by the River Authority in diverting the flow of contaminated water into the Cripps river saved the Huntspill from serious damage.
It appeared at first that the Kings Sedgemoor Drain had escaped, but some 14 days later when other waters were showing distinct signs of clearing, a dam retaining a large amount of pig slurry on a nearby farm collapsed. This resulted in a comparably severe fish kill on all but the top mile of the drain. It was a climax of a shocking episode.
Previous experience on local water ways tended to give rise to hope of a rapid recovery on the Kings Sedgemoor Drain, but this was dashed by extensive engineering works and widening operations in connection with the construction of the Sowey river. Water levels were kept low over a period of at least 3 years. Weed growth grew profusely and after the water level had been restored to normal the weed remained to be a menace. later there was yet another pollution. This time it was due to the disturbance and removal of silt from a ditch leading from Chedzoy and its being drained off before there was time for settling.
The depreciation in the quality of local fishing, about which there is fairly general agreement, is usually attributed to pollution, but observation strongly suggests that many fish loses are closely related to heavy weed growth. Pollution as it is commonly conceived, consists in the main of sewage and frequently is due to housing developments carried out without appropriate extensions to sewage treatment facilities. Without question villages in the region have grown considerably but it is not clear that there have been many additional discharges into the drain.
During the last 30 years or so weeds have become distressingly more prolific. Previously, the drains and canal presented miles of open water. Now they may be choked with vegetation long before the end of the summer. It may be worth making the observation that this profusion of growth is due to the enrichment of water from the use of artificial fertilizers on the land and in this instance the run off from farms may be suspected.
The other important source of excess nutrition is sewage treated or untreated. (The inclusion of ‘treated or untreated seems very ominous). The masses of weed must soon have areas of die-back and it is likely that deoxygenation resulting is responsible for mortalities otherwise thought due to pollution.
Accumulations of weed are capable of creating various conditions adverse to fish life and the ecology of the water as well as a great disadvantage to fishing. The intense photosynthesis in bright sunlight can cause dangerous fluctuations in dissolved oxygen leading to a condition called ‘gas embolism’ where bubbles of gas are liberated in to the body fluids of the fish. Probably a more likely consequence of the photosynthesis is the production of high levels of alkalinity which are equally fatal. It has been noticed that unexplained disappearances of fish such as that of the quality roach from the B&T canal in 1968, have coincided with upsurges of weed growth.
Another aspect of weed growth problem which may be overlooked is the need for space for fish. If a water is heavily weeded they may tend to leave it. It may be imagined that they are in the weed, but is likely that conditions therein cannot support fish life.
Important also is the fact that the loss of bank space for fishing may be serious for a club dependent upon the sale of tickets to pay for present day rents and boy ain’t this more applicable today than its ever been.
The next match for Watchet Angling is at Summerhayes on longs this coming Saturday the 26th of March.
Tight lines Pete C.