Bass Anglers’ Sportfishing Society

Fighting for Bass and Bass Anglers’ since 1973

Devon's Living Coasts conference

On 12 April 2000 Malcolm Gilbert presented the following paper at this workshop entitled Maximising sustainable socio-economic benefits from fish stock resources.

“Firstly, just a little about myself. I am not an academic, I have no scientific training or qualifications, I am in the true sense of the word – a layman. I have, however had thirty years involvement within recreational sea angling from a number of different perspectives.

I was born in Cornwall, and after a few years away in my late teens/early twenties, I returned to Cornwall where I developed a family retail fishing tackle and sports goods business. Some twenty-five years ago I started a business specialising in the processing and marketing of frozen angling baits throughout the UK and Ireland.

Towards the end of the seventies, stimulated by what I considered to be unsustainable commercial overfishing, I developed a growing interest in marine fish stock management issues. Through the eighties and early nineties I use to remonstrate frequently with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food through my MPs, and three years ago got together with a few similarly-minded friends to start a serious campaign for better management of the European sea bass. Inspiration, in part, came from the United States where there had been some remarkable restorations of previously depleted fish stock resources.

I am currently European Liaison Officer for the Bass Anglers’ Sportfishing Society and the Fisheries Liaison Representative for the National Federation of Sea Anglers, which is the governing body for recreational sea angling in England. I also represent the UK on sea angling issues in the European Anglers Alliance.

I hope that some of you here today will be anglers, but almost certainly the majority of you will not be. Just out of curiosity how many of you are anglers? (even if only occasionally so).

One of the difficulties when I talk to a non-angling audience is how to convey to them what it is that motivates anglers to become so obsessive with their sport. Angling is first and foremost a participant sport. It rarely makes good viewing and I have to admit that most of the angling films I look at do little to entertain me and must do a great deal less for non-anglers. In order to try and show you some element of the appeal of angling, I would like to read a few words from a book written by a Michael Wigan, who writes for The Field. He also writes occasionally for the broadsheets. He published a book some years ago called Last of the Hunter Gatherers and it was really concentrating on the crisis facing fishing fleets and fish stocks as overfishing has been allowed to take place. There is a chapter headed Sport Angling.

One of the most attractive ways to use a resource is to enjoy it and then leave it behind. Sport fishing has this unbeatable, quite unassailable virtue. It does not harm the stock. Either the numbers caught and retained are so low as to be irrelevant or in the USA, where sport fishing has been taken further than anywhere else, the fish are played and then put back. In sport fishing Mecca’s like the Florida Quays, fishing guides report that almost nothing is retained by anglers any more; even potential record breaking specimens are being returned unmeasured.

Indeed, returning fish has taken on an almost mystical significance. An American salmon angler buttonholed me in a Helsinki hotel, whilst on a fishing trip on Russia’s Kola Peninsula, and staring hard into my eyes said “hitting that fish on the head would be like killing my mother”. As an unimpeachable way to exploit the fish resource, sport fishing has few equals. Except, that is, for reef viewing through a glass-bottomed boat. Over this simple voyeurism, sport fishing has the advantage that its adherents actually gets to grips with the fish in its environment, selecting a lure that will attract it, then playing it on tackle expressly designed to communicate the power of the fish through the length of the rod to the angler, and finally appreciate its splendour at close range. Simply the frisson of being in physical contact with big fish shining, unblinking, disturbingly different from their captors, is one of sport fishing’s inscrutable attractions.

The socio-economic characteristics of sport fishing are highly favourable. It provides relaxation in the open air on the earth’s least pressurised surface. It can be performed by anyone of any age, regardless of handicap. Even a blind man can be rigged out and put in the fishing chair to wait for the bite. It provides, if a sample of the catch is retained, top-notch food for the table – fresher than it could be procured any other way. Its environmental impacts are almost zero; for those who fish off their own flat feet from the rocks or the beach – literally zero. Sport fishermen are the best and the most numerous early warning reporters of anything peculiar affecting the environment they use. With their catch and release habits, sport fishers are in a perfect position to tag fish at the same time. American scientists have fulsomely acknowledged the role of the sports in accumulating data for vital stock assessments.

For reasons like these, plus the one that salt water angling can be challenging, thrilling, dramatic and as soul refreshing as any other activity, its popularity is growing. Furthermore, salt water angling has had a major affect on fish stock conservation. Several species have been saved by the angling lobby. All in all, armed with these points, it is possible to face the fact without incredulity, that in America the value of the salt water fishery taken as a whole hugely exceeds that of the entire American commercial fishing industry. Excluding indirect spending, travel and hotels, sport fishing is worth $72 billion a year and provides 1.3 million people with jobs. By numbers the most popular sport in which people actually participate (an alleged sixty-two million practitioners), sport fishing has also been called the salvation of American fishery resources.

Let us come back to the United Kingdom and let us first of all examine the West Country and look at some of the history of the West Country. We need to first understand that the West Country has an incredibly rich history for recreational sea angling. I have in my possession a small Wardlock Guide to St Ives, Carbis Bay and West Cornwall, I trust you will forgive me for the geographic impropriety. Unfortunately it is not dated, but at the time it was being sold it was six shillings and the London to Penzance train fare started at four pounds, two shillings and sixpence, whilst full board at the Tregenna Castle Hotel in St.Ives (which some of you may know) was 241 shillings and sixpence per week. This tourist guide contains full pages describing in detail, the high quality sea angling found in Mounts Bay, off Landsend, and the Isles of Scilly.

During the sixties, the annual sea angling record lists showed that the West Country really did dominate the UK saltwater angling scene in those days. In the seventies and early eighties there was major growth in the charter angling boat industry out of ports like Plymouth, Mevagissey and Falmouth, and record catches were regularly being reported.

What of today’s situation? Well one thing is for sure – the demise of fish stocks has reduced sea angling activities and yet activity based holidays are a major growth element of global tourism and the West Country is no exception. The potential benefits of this trend in activity related tourism are under recognised. It leads to the extending of the tourist season, it uses natural resources, generally sustainably, requires relatively minimal development, so the bottom line is good. Water based activities – especially marine ones – are ideally suited for the West Country with its immense and varied coastline. The sort of activities which quickly come to my mind would include canoeing, sailing, sub-aqua, surfing, ornithology – ornithologists are obviously attracted to the coastal bird life, walking – again the coast is a major attraction for those who wish to have a walking experience, and recreational sea angling – both from shore and boats.

The angling market can be divided into two groups of customers – those who take a specialist angling holiday, and those will be in groups of two, three, four, or even more. This sector are specifically taking a holiday, based on angling. But there is a much more difficult to quantify element where the decision to visit a particular destination is based upon a multiplicity of elements and for a typical family, angling can be just one of those elements that leads to a decision to visit a specific location.

The angling sector that has been at the forefront for trying to draw attention to the immense economic benefits of angling over conventional commercial fishing is the game angling sector for sea trout and salmon.

Numerous economic assessments have been made of the value of a salmon caught on a rod and line, and that caught in a net, and without exception the salmon caught with a rod and line is worth vastly more to the economy than one caught by conventional commercial fishing. Scotland, of course, has historically been regarded as a premier destination for salmon anglers. Wild salmon however, are getting very scarce. Last year, a study showed that the growth in foreign angling holidays, to places like Russia, Reykjavik in Iceland and Alaska where salmon stocks are still plentiful, is exponential. One of the more conservative figures being quoted in terms of lost economic value to Scotland is £17 million from just UK anglers forgoing Scotland for other destinations. To evaluate the total loss to Scotland, one would also need to add the value of foreign fishermen forgoing Scotland in favour of these other destinations where fish are still available. Ireland is unique within the European context.

Tourism is a hugely significant part of the Irish economy, and let me give you some figures from a recently published socio-economic study of sea angling in the South West of Ireland – sea angling accounts for £27 million in tourism spending, 1,250 full-time jobs, and £6 million in tax revenue. According to the most recent report, tourism spending on sea angling is estimated to rise to £40 million, jobs to 1,300, and tax revenue to £8.5 million.

So what of the UK, and in particular the West Country, and even more particularly of Devon? Well clearly sea angling is an important element of tourism in Devon, but it could be so much more. The potential for growth is huge. What is the single biggest factor that is preventing the potential being realised? Quite simply it is fish stocks – lack of fish. We all know about overfishing of course, for the last decade or so it has been routinely reported through the media. We have all heard about quota cuts and decommissioning. The politics of overfishing are immensely complex. Today’s modern fishing fleet with increasing technology is subjecting fish to an entirely unsustainable level of mortality. Species such as turbot, plaice, pollack, bass and cod to name just a few are all in decline.

It is not just the abundance of these species, it is the stock structure (by that I mean the abundance of sizeable adult fish) that has been hugely eroded. Just ask any of the older fishermen or those who work in our fish markets and they will confirm that landings consist of much smaller fish than use to be the case. I’d like to quote from a recent article in a magazine called Nature. This article has been jointly written by four scientists from the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science at Lowestoft who work for MAFF on cod stocks.

As soon as cod reach this size (35 cms), which they do at less than two years old, they are intensely targeted because this is the legal minimum landing size. If only they were left for a further three years they would become this size! and would be mature and have had a chance to contribute to replenishing stocks.

I am further frustrated by the fact that whilst overfishing is recognised as a huge problem for the commercial fishing industry (Brixham, Newlyn), the damage that this overfishing has inflicted on the recreational sector has very largely been completely overlooked.

Can we be sure that if the fish are restored, the market for tourism really does exist? In Cornwall and Devon up until the mid seventies there was only sea angling and game fishing. Coarse angling was something that was done up in Birmingham or Sheffield, but of course those who had ponds, farmers perhaps looking for diversification, saw the market for angling and met this demand with coarse fishing venues, stocking their man made ponds with species such as carp and rudd.

In the latest edition of the Get Hooked Guide to Angling in the South West, which is published in co-operation with the Environment Agency, there are over one hundred such waters, many of which are attached to camp sites or farmhouse bed and breakfast accommodation. This surely demonstrates that the demand for angling exists here in the Westcountry.

Let us now jump across the big pond to the eastern seaboard of the United States. They have a fish called the striped bass, which is similar to ours but grows a lot bigger. Stocks were overfished and in the late seventies urgent action was called for and the authorities imposed a moratorium for four years, largely brought about by pressure from the recreational anglers.

As stocks rebuilt, and of course, left alone, they did, some states kept the resource and exploited it purely by recreational angling and other states allowed some commercial fishing. It is a long and complex story and one which I have enjoyed researching.

Time today does not allow me to enlarge upon this, but the nett result is that the whole management regime of these resources now recognises that the socio-economic benefits from recreational angling on striped bass dwarf, absolutely dwarf, the benefits from conventional fishing and such states that do allow conventional commercial fishing have the most stringent controls.

I hasten to add that anglers are also controlled with bag limits and fairly extreme size limits. Catch and release has been the key to success. So valuable is this fishery that every year Congress insists that a socio-economic benefits assessment be provided by the US Department of Commerce, the US Department of the Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Allow me to read just one paragraph.

The recovery of bass populations improved the quality of striped bass recreational fishing, which in turn attracted more anglers to this fishery along the Atlantic coast. The number of directed striped bass trips increased from about one million in 1981 to over seven million by 1996. This represents an average increase in participation of 38% per year. From 1981 to 1996, the adjusted angler expenditures on striped bass trips increased from $85 million to over $560 million.

This translates into a 35% annual growth in revenue. For the industry dependant upon marine recreational fishing, benefits from increased striped bass recreational activity somewhat alleviated financial losses due to the decline of other important salt water game fish species. An analysis of all this expenditure reveals that 53.6% is tourism related on food, lodging, transportation etc.

The successes of the striped bass story have set the wheels in motion to do the same for other species. Unfortunately, in the European context, there hasn’t even been the recognition of the potential, let alone action to realise that potential.

I hasten to add that the recreational sector does not seek to see an end to commercial fishing. Allow me to quote from the Florida Coast Conservation Association after they successfully got all entanglement netting prohibited from State waters. They went to great lengths to point out that they did not seek to take a resource from one user group (commercial fisherman) and give it to another (sport fisherman). They fought to protect and restore the depleted resource because it was the right thing to do for the people of Florida.

Here in the UK and Europe, we want to see an end to the overfishing, the constant overkill, the degradation of these resources. We now need to see them restored and managed sustainably with the recreational potential taken fully into account and to be part of the management process.

At the end of last year I attended a meeting on sea bass accompanying representatives of the Cornish Sea fisheries Committee with Elliot Morley and he assured me that he was considering the setting up of a management regime for sea bass and that if this came to fruition, the recreational sector would be fully and equitably represented. The Bass Anglers’ Sportfishing Society have certainly raised the profile of the problem with a number of MEPs representing Fisheries in the EU. As a consequence, in January this year, I secured a meeting with DG XIV (the European Commission for Fisheries), and met David Armstrong who heads the conservation side of DG XIV, only to be told that within the European context, the recreational sector is completely ignored and a non-entity.

Finally, just to show you how ridiculous and indeed bizarre this situation is, in 1992 the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food employed the Centre for Economic Management of Aquatic Resources (CEMARE), which is part of the University of Portsmouth which specialises in these issues, to do a socio-economic assessment of the bass fishery within the UK. In 1992, according to the government’s figures, the firsthand sale value of bass in England and Wales was about £2.9 million.

The expenditure by anglers recreationally fishing for bass in the same period was £18.9 million, and yet, despite these figures and all that is happening around the world, we do not appear to have the vision to recognise the obvious.”