What is going on in the estuary?

The promotion of the national byelaws have started to focus attention on just what goes on in the Severn Estuary. Surprisingly few people know the full extent of the commercial operation.

At present there are eight licenced Drift nets operating out of Newport. Their season was curtailed by eight weeks in 1995 to start mid May and finish in August. Recently, all eight have been subject to a net limitation order, which means that should the licensee not renew his licence, it will not be issued to any one ever again. if he does not wish to fish, his boat may be fished by an endorsee. The drift nets declare a catch of the order of 800 salmon pa. In 1998 it was 576.

There are two putcher operations either side of the old Severn bridge, the boundary between Wales EA and Severn Trent EA. Putchers incidentally are ranks of tapering wicker baskets into which fish swim and get wedged. They are covered at high tide and emptied at low. Some face upstream and others down. The privately owned Goldcliffe putchers and the EAs putchers, which extend upstream of the Wye confluence fall within jurisdiction of EA Wales. Both were subject to the 1995 late start byelaw and declare a combined catch of the order of 305. Last year it was 204. Recently the EA have renewed the lease with their tenant but with a number of conditions.

In the Severn Trent district there are both Putcher, Draft net and Lave net operators. The Lave nets start in early February whilst the draft nets and putchers start in mid April. In total they take an average of 2100 fish. Last year they took just over 1400.

Historically, the estuary was very much more of a "free for all" since any fisherman could claim to be fishing for "white fish" - cod and the like - and need not have a licence to fish for salmon. The 1986 Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act put a legal stop to that and the NRA enacted byelaws in September 1992 which effectively removed all illegal nets.

The currently proposed byelaws will have little effect on those fishing in the Welsh region, ie downstream of the Wye confluence. They stand to lose two weeks of May which amounts to some 3.5% of their catch. Upstream, in Severn Trent area, the byelaw proposals would on paper, save nearer 30% of the catch (unless they hang around to get caught when fishing starts in June) the majority of those saved would be multi sea winter fish.

It has never been clear that operators in one part of the estuary would take fish exclusively bound for the adjacent river. To understand how much movement there is in the estuary with its huge tides, consider this: If a fish is stationary at low tide under the old bridge, and goes upstream with the flow, by high tide, it will be 27km upriver and back again by the next low tide. Fish in the estuary do just this - its easier than paddling all day to keep still! This accounts for the effectiveness of putchers. They get many bites at the cherry particularly in low turgid water. The question of which operator is catching fish destined for any particular river is therefore, far from clear. The Severn fishermen will take fish bound for Usk, Wye and Severn and so will the Welsh nets and putchers. You will be aware that the agency has a policy which attempts to proscribe fisheries which take salmon of 'mixed river'origin.

STAINLESS STEEL

Added to that consideration is that some operators have developed a more effective square ended, stainless steel putcher which has no space around it for any escape whatever. Such is the ingenuity of man! It would be interesting to know whether this type of operation still earns the Agency's description (and specific protection) of 'Heritage Fishery'. Consider too that the laws and regulations for commercial fishing were made in times of almost continuous plenty and took no account of the fact that there would be anything other than a harvestable surplus. Nor would natures bounty ever require a substantial input in the way of management costs as indeed the rod interests now pay but the netsmen all but avoid.

Assume for a moment that all the byelaws become law. We will have a situation where rod fishermen on the Wye will be returning fish and contributing towards restoration of the run. Commercial fishermen will be killing what amounts to brood stock for an estimated profit (using their declared catches) of no more than £30,000 with little ongoing benefit to the rural economy. How much quicker would the release of 1000+ fish help the recovery? With the potential of a huge boost to rural funds from rodfishing it is not sensible to suggest anything other than a complete moratorium, if temporary, on killing fish is the only solution for right now.