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Fishermen in tide of opposition to proposed new regulations on nets

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A fishing boat
A fishing boat

A TIDE of opposition has surfaced against a plan to impose new net fishing regulations in local waters, amid claims it fails to safeguard protected species.

Commercial and recreational angling groups are against the Southern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (SIFCA) plan – but the respective camps have different reasons.

While commercial fishermen are against any more measures being introduced – they claim existing rules already hamper their industry – recreational anglers say the proposals do not go far enough and should be rewritten or dumped altogether.

Lymington River, Keyhaven, Christchurch Harbour and its associated rivers, and the Dock Head to Calshot at Southampton Water are currently subject to complex regulations and by-laws, including restrictions on the types, sizes and locations of netting.

That is because they hold valuable fish stocks; Southampton Water between Dock Head and Esso Terminal is a bass nursery area, there are “significant” levels of migratory brown trout in Lymington River and Keyhaven, and Christchurch Harbour is a supporting habitat of the Hampshire Avon River as salmon ascend there from the harbour and are tagged at Mudeford.

The proposed new SIFCA measures aim to further restrict the number of protected fish landed by fishermen, who target mullet to export to France, in their “bycatch” that have to be thrown back in the water – usually badly injured or dead.

While the plan proposes largely banning hanging a net vertically in the water to trap fish, known as set netting, it suggests continuing to allow ring netting (where a net is dropped into the water and forms a spoon-like shape) in certain areas in Lymington River, Keyhaven and Christchurch Harbour and its associated rivers all year round.

The SIFCA also proposes allowing ring nets seasonally at the entrance to Christchurch Harbour, and says that while Southampton Water should be closed to net use within three metres of the surface of the water, that should not apply to ring nets.

National recreational angling groups, such as the National Mullet Club and The Angling Trust, as well as the Environment Agency (EA) and New Forest West MP Sir Desmond Swayne, say the proposals will not improve the protection of fish.

The EA said it had “expressed serious concerns” about the impact of estuary netting on threatened and legally protected salmon and sea trout stocks.

A study of Poole and Christchurch Harbour found over 80% of nets checked by its enforcement officers contained migratory fish, which in some instances made up 30% of the total catch.

“The majority of migratory fish were already badly damaged or dead and only a few able to be released when net inspections were carried out by Environment Agency Fisheries officers, who have also observed sea trout caught as a bycatch dumped in the water off the Mudeford slipway,” the EA added.

Sir Desmond listed 12 failings in the SIFCA plan and said it was “regarded as both dangerous and irresponsible” by anglers and fishery owners.

The Tory backbencher said his constituents were “deeply unhappy” with the proposals. “They feel [they] are not consistent with SIFCA duties with regard to sustainability, balance between exploitation and marine conservation, assessing economic and social benefits, impacts on salmonids and the protections of the Itchen and Avon Special Areas of Conservation,” he added.

Martin Salter, a former Labour MP who regularly fishes in the New Forest and is the current head of campaigns for the Angling Trust, said: “These netting proposals from SIFCA fly in the face of both science and common sense and need a serious rewrite.”

Commercial fishing representative Wayne Grose, secretary of Lymington Fishermen Association, was also opposed, but he listed very different reasons.

“There are so many rules and regulations now, it’s getting beyond a joke. We do not see why they need to bring in more restrictions,” he told the A&T. “With this, they are taking more rights away.”

Mr Grose (58), who has been a commercial fisherman for 44 years and operated his own vessel for 42, complained people in his industry were portrayed as “pirates”.

“From chatting to the Environment Agency I’ve been told they haven’t had any convictions for people poaching trout over the last 10 years in Lymington, and stocks of those fish and other species are on a steady upwards trend,” Mr Grose continued.

“Another thing which doesn’t get picked up on is that there are two or three resident seals in the river and they eat more of the fish than fishermen will catch. That never really gets mentioned because people see the seals and they like them.”

Mr Grose agreed with parts of the document, including a proposal to increase the minimum size of the mullet commercial fisherman target. Currently any caught measuring less than 33cms must be returned to the water.

“It says bring the mullet size up to bass size, which is 42cms, and we would agree with that,” he said. “But the stopping of set netting is just another way to stop youngsters getting into fishing. Hardly any youngsters are doing it now and the industry is dying. It’s just making it harder and harder.

“But there’s only a handful of commercial fishermen, and we haven’t got a voice really.”

The proposed changes came out of a review by a SIFCA working group consisting of DEFRA-appointed members. It acknowledged nets have been used in local waters for generations, but said the impacts needed to be assessed again as methods and habits have evolved over time.

“It is important to take the opportunity to consider how these activities can be better managed to better support these habitats, species and human users, promoting positive economic and social benefits for coastal communities,” the document stated.

Lymington Harbour Master Ryan Willegers said he took a balanced view in his consultation response, as “in principle” the harbour supported protecting fish stocks and nursery areas.

He added: “Our concern is mainly in relation to ring netting dimensions, and that is effectively that the dimensions [proposed] are so big, long and deep that potentially in our view they do have the ability to significantly impact on migratory fish.

“We understand fishermen need to make a living but it needs to be sensible.”

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