The charity making life better by water

Reporting people taking fish away from canals and stillwaters

Incidents of fish theft are often going unreported or perhaps get reported to the wrong organisations. Here’s the legal position and who is best to report incidents of fish theft to if you do happen to stumble across them.

Inspector Imran Mirza of West Midlands Police and Peter Mathews CMG, chair of our West Midlands Waterway Partnership

Ownership of fish on canals and stillwaters

Fish in canals and stillwaters belong to the owners of the canal or stillwater bed. In the case of most of the UK canals and our reservoir stillwaters, the Canal & River Trust. As they are owned, these fish are capable of being stolen. Stealing of these fish would be an act of theft in law.

However, it's important to note there are some fish that cannot, by law, be returned to our waterways. These include zander and the other non-native invasive fish, the topic of a recent anglers' workshop.

Who should you report fish theft to

So, if you're sure people are stealing or about to steal native fish species, report it to the local police by calling 101.

The police enforce the Theft Act, 1968, and fish theft is a recordable offence. If the Police cannot provide a response due to other local priorities, then that's their decision. However multiple reports and repeat offences in the same area are used for what is known as intelligence led enforcement, i.e. the location on their systems becomes a “hot-spot” of activity. Sooner or later, if the reports keep coming and are substantiated, action will occur.

Should we involve the Environment Agency or Natural Resources Wales?

These bodies enforce the Salmon & Freshwater Fisheries Act, 1975 (as amended), which includes unlicensed angling, setlines, and illegally set nets/traps often referred to as fixed engines but they don't enforce theft.

However, theft of fish and the use of unauthorised methods to take fish may be entwined. If someone is using a seine net, electricity, trap or other instrument to catch fish, call 0800 807060 or 03000 65 3000 in Wales.

If it is safe to do so, try to get photographic or video evidence of the crime as this will prove useful further on down the line.

What about Canal & River Trust

Canal & River Trust doesn't have specific fisheries enforcement powers nor a fisheries enforcement team. However, we work in partnership with our customer angling clubs, the excellent Angling Trust Regional Voluntary Bailiff Service (VBS), and the local Police/PCSOs.

When working without the Police or warranted Environment Agency officer, there's a need to strike the balance of safely challenging the offenders and observing the details of the offence to report to the Police later. Canal & River Trust employees, angling club bailiffs (water keepers) and VBS volunteers are not warranted constables so have no powers to detain/arrest a suspected offender.

I heard about it down the pub

To make progress on a national scale, we do need more anglers, boaters and members of the public to come forward to provide first hand witness statements to the Police and if necessary be available to attend court. The value of a second-hand witness statement is very limited e.g. “I have been told by a bloke I met in a pub last week that three old men were taking some sort of fish home a few day ago in a bucket”.

However, when an eye witness says that “between 5am and 6am on Saturday 16 June I saw three men aged between 75 and 80 taking or attempting to take fish. They laid out a long seine net which had bright yellow corks and their appearance is etc etc …” it is a much stronger piece of evidence for it to go to court. Unfortunately, we don't get many people wanting to go to court to be cross-examined over their witness statement.

Reports to the Trust

Regrettably our powers are limited. Each report we receive by email through our enquiries email is looked at on a case-by-case basis to see what the best way is to help. Where time allows, we work with the voluntary bailiff service (VBS) and the local angling club to walk the fishery. If an offence is taking place, challenge the suspected offender (when safe to do so) and report the details on to the Police and if appropriate the Environment Agency or Natural Resources Wales. It can be a slow and frustrating process. The only option we have is to work with and support the law enforcement bodies through a legal process.

Fish theft on rivers

Fish in rivers are considered to be wild creatures. They can't be stolen but can rendered into captivity once caught. In many areas regional EA/NRW byelaws allow for the taking of some fish species of certain defined sizes. Sometimes the fishery owner or controlling club has its own rules around returning all fish that contradict the fishery byelaw. In that situation, it would be up to the club to take action against the individual for breaking a specific club rule. It would not be a matter for the EA/NRW to pursue unless the angler has breached the byelaw.

Incorporating Eastern European communities into British fishing culture

All too often people are quick to point the fingers at the Eastern European community, the vast majority of whom are law abiding. Great strides have been made in recent years to integrate migrant anglers into the UK fishing community. This work has been led by the Angling Trust through the Building Bridges project.

‘They' = me

If you do care passionately about this issue, and want to be a force for good and go the extra mile rather than just an everyday commentator on social media, options include getting proactively involved with your local angling club, perhaps as a club bailiff (water keeper) or volunteering for VBS.

If this is a step too far and circumstances don't currently allow for that level of commitment, then at least do report anything you see to the police on 101. And spread the message to those you meet as to the appropriate cause of action if they ever witness anything suspicious.

Last Edited: 01 July 2019

photo of a location on the canals
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