Reflections on the recent zander workshop

Long read: By Dennis Hunt

Gudgeon on weighing scales Gudgeon on weighing scales

One of the more interesting topics in the fisheries world over the past few years has been the debate, which at times has been extremely heated, around the spread of non-native fish species in our waterways, especially zander.

Led by Eric Edwards, a well-known and respected predator angler and chaired by Mark Owen, Angling Trust with the support of Canal & River Trust recently organised a workshop to which key representatives of bona fida organised groups, clubs and organisations were invited to attend and contribute. I was privileged to be asked to represent the 120 or so active Let’s Fish! coaches.

Current regulatory position on returning zander

We heard from Dave Ottewell (Natural England) and two representatives from the EA, plus Natural Resources Wales, who had prepared an advanced slide setting out their position about zander in Wales. My interpretation of what Dave had to say was that except for the Fenland rivers where zander were introduced legally by the then water authority, the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 would most certainly currently apply. The relevant clauses state:

  • Section 14 W&CA prohibits introduction into the wild of any animal which is not ordinarily resident in, and is not a regular visitor to, Great Britain in a wild state, or any species of animal or plant listed in Schedule 9 to the Act
  • Schedule 9 lists non-native species already established in the wild, which continue to pose a conservation threat to native biodiversity and habitats. Zander are listed as Schedule 9 species

So as the law currently stands, anglers can be prosecuted for illegally returning zander and it would be up to the police whether to take this prosecution forward based on the evidence.

The EA went on to explain that a risk assessment was currently being carried out in relation to the future keeping of zander, which would be available to the public for consultation soon. The EA then went on to explain the Keeping & Introduction of Fish Regulations 2015 (KIFR).

Rock and a hard place

A little piece of me was expecting fireworks to make an appearance when John Ellis came up to speak. Luckily the audience was made up of sensible and generally knowledgeable folk who appreciated the complexity of the situation, whichever side of the fence they happened to sit. In a lengthy presentation, John expanded on the nature of the Trust’s current KIFR permits. At the end of his presentation, various canal stakeholder groups, getting on for a dozen in total, followed with an all too brief opportunity to present their views.

On illegal introduction

I take my hat off to the various pro zander representatives for there were, best I could tell, no dissenting voices to the view that zander has been stocked illegally in the canal network at some stage during the 1970s and spread through some of the Midlands system. Everyone totally condemned further illegal introduction. It therefore logically follows, and nobody appeared to argue to the contrary, that action to manage any illegal introduction and limit the impact of these illegal introductions is entirely reasonable, thus supporting the Trust’s current work, which is supported by numerous stakeholders.

It was pleasing that so many people backed up the current approach that has been endorsed consistently by the national advisory group and the FAAP steering group. Best I could tell, there was not a single dissenting voice in the room to the concept of preventing further spread both to new areas of canal and associated river catchments, helping maintain and restore the traditional fishery on the Grand Union Canal, preventing the establishment of new isolated populations or helping restore SSSIs to favourable status.

Revisiting Midlands canals zander zone

In what I felt was a pragmatic presentation looking to highlight win: win options; John Ellis raised his desire to revisit the possibility of a small Midlands canal zander zone under KIFR the whereby zander could be legally kept by Canal & River Trust and thus returned alive by anglers without fear of prosecution. This had been applied for in 2015 by the Trust which surprised me a little for the Trust seems to receive so much negative publicity on social media and yet here they had tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to support the pro zander cause. The 2015 application was not granted by the regulators and following any further application it would of course be up to the regulators to give consent to this or not.  

Assumedly, this proposed zone would be based on the patches of the two clubs who rent fishing predominantly, although not exclusively, for zander fishing. This is something personally I think I could support in exchange for the pro zander group formally supporting the current ongoing removal work at other locations. This pragmatic compromise would hopefully start to heal rifts within the wider angling community, thus I do hope that it is possible for the regulators to support such a pragmatic proposal. However, I do appreciate their difficulty for allowing one non-native invasive species to persist could encourage miscreant anglers to think about illegally stocking the next non-native invasive species they would like to fish for.

Eradication

John’s presentation also touched on the hypothetical prospects of eradication, something that John suggested was with great effort certainly possible in the narrow canal network but which he seemed highly reluctant to have to pursue unless the regulators insisted on it.  It was clear that it would take an extraordinary set of circumstances to achieve complete draindown of the deep and wide Gloucester & Sharpness Canal, which in any event is linked to the River Severn, so a pragmatic approach would be to allow zander to be returned here by those anglers who wish to do so, a point also picked up on by the Institute of Fisheries Management. John also asked for views on the possibility of creating zander fisheries at totally enclosed stillwaters; something worth looking at if there are fishery owners who may be interested, and the regulators are prepared to allow it.

 

Zander in a net Zander in a net

The wisdom of the doctoral thesis

As fate would have it, I ended up sitting next to the author of the only Ph D on UK canal zander, namely Dr Phil Smith. In his presentation, Phil highlighted the unique nature of turbid canals and highlighted the scientific evidence of the reduction of both roach and the iconic gudgeon that more traditional canal anglers witness in their own catches and match results.  

Following a brief but interesting history of the electric fishing boom boat, Phil went on to explain the science behind his calculations, that to be effective in allowing recovery of native stocks and preventing further migration, electric fishing using modern equipment needs to be carried out twice a year as this reduces biomass significantly to allow recovery of silver fish to start.  

It seemed to me that few in the audience had studied the science in detail, thus Phil’s clarification based on his research evidence proved most helpful and supported the observational evidence of the likes of Peter Laughton and thousands of traditional anglers on the Grand Union and other turbid canals.

Fenland drains

While Neville Fickling’s presentation on the situation on the Fens was very interesting, it was soon clear the two environments were massively different; hence the Fens are no guide to what happens in the boated Midlands canal network. One is essentially a clear water ecosystem whereby these boated canals are highly turbid all the year round. Neville also gave a long list of fisheries where zander has been illegally introduced by anglers over the years. As a law abiding and respected predator angler, he must have found this to be a very embarrassing thing to have to do to confess the sins of fellow anglers with similar fishing interests in the public domain. So, I take my hat off to him for having the courage to step up to the plate in beginning the process of educating that small but vociferous minority of ill-informed anglers who think it’s somehow appropriate to encourage the illegal spread of non-native invasive species.

It’s good to talk

Despite my Let’s Fish! presentation and the opportunity to comment during the day being all too brief, I left the meeting in a positive mood as did everyone I spoke to. There is certainly potential for a solution that would allow the Lure Anglers Canal Club and Tusses to continue to provide the fishing their most of their members enjoy and likewise enabling the present, and in my view necessary management to continue elsewhere to protect the remaining canal fisheries and river catchments not yet impacted by zander. For the present, it’s very much watch this space and a question of keeping fingers crossed to see what the next few months bring.

Last date edited: 24 May 2019

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The fisheries & angling team

The team undertake a diverse range of work including looking after the Trust's £40 million worth of fish stocks, managing agreements with over 250 different angling clubs and helping more people, especially youngsters, take up angling on the canal. Follow this blog to keep updated with the thoughts and work of the team.

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