7 Years: Too Little Too Late

The Wye Foundation was formed specifically to tackle the problem of low fish stocks. That this was necessary, is in itself a criticism of the previous management. Seven years ago the responsibility for fisheries was separated from the water industry. Most of us looked forward to the benefits of more specialised fishery management.

As well as the duties of water quality control and land drainage, the new Authority was given specific responsibilities to "maintain, improve and develop" fisheries. Unlike the water PLCs, the provision of this service was not fortified with the creation of a "watch dog". Moreover, in the interpretation of how maintaining, improving and developing a fishery should occur, they were freed from any targets and goals. Whereas the committees that governed land drainage were executive, fisheries committees were advisory only.

In the case of the Wye, the new Authority brought no new blood into the management. Added to which, the problems brought on by the one department handling the four conflicting functions of fisheries, recreation, conservation and navigation (FRCN) often resulted in a complete stalemate. "We are watching the situation closely" became the answer to any suggestion of pro-active management. The way forward for them was in survey work, desktop studies and innumerable plans:

"The Upper Wye Catchment management plan", "The Lower Wye Catchment management plan", the brown trout strategy, Review of Welsh region micro tagging, Decline of spring salmon on the river Wye, Section 142 rates, Navigation and so on. I have 3ft 11 ins of these documents and that is only a small proportion of the total!

There was some fieldwork: a fish counter was installed at Redbrook for a three?year trial and a start was made at micro tagging salmon "to see where they go!" However, none of this would directly improve the poor state of the stocks. The annual redd counts, catch analysis and juvenile fish surveys all indicated a very serious decline during this period. More puzzling still was to try to discover who would be actioning all the many proposals and with what? Nonetheless, somewhere between £275,000 and £350,000 went on the tagging and counting. Against this backdrop of considerable disinclination to do any actual management of our river, it is easy to see why the Foundation was formed.

The Environment Agency, successor to the NRA, starts the year with the issue of the 1995 annual report for the Wye. This 1egacy" of past regimens brings news of the lowest ever rod catch (1048) since records began nearly a century ago. Worse still, the juvenile fish survey of both salmon and trout show stocks to be at a very low level too, particularly salmon parr.

Any government looking into issues of cost effectiveness versus results could be entirely excused for making some very substantial cuts and closures here. The money spent simply did not reach the target.On other rivers, there are plenty of examples of success. A recent survey by Scottish Borders Enterprise found that angling is worth more than £13 million to the local economy, of which £12.5 million is derived from salmon fishing. Fishing tourism supports more than 500 jobs here. In short, there is a real value to the economy in having a successful fishery. Arguably, though Tweed has always been a great salmon river it has never been so far ahead of the Wye as it is now.

A common view, is that success has come from the successful collaboration between the statutory body, the Tweed Commissioners (on which is represented the fishery owners, fisherman and other local groups in an executive role) and the Tweed Foundation which has taken on the task of habitat management.

The economic benefit is in little doubt and many will be wondering why on earth do we not have the same system here. In fact, I really believe we can.

So let's put this darker period of the fishery management behind us and look forward to a more positive and productive chapter in the Wye's rather chequered history. From 1997 onwards, The Foundation looks forward to a happy partnership with the "Agency" Countryside Council, English Nature and of course our fisherman and owners.

Dr Stephen Marsh-Smith 
The Wye Foundation