Wednesday, 13 May 2020 20:00

Fish distress is of the scales during lockdown as waterway charity welcomes back anglers



Today, anglers across England will be able to fish once again on their local canal, reservoir or other stillwater, following changes to government guidance during the current coronavirus pandemic.

As the guardians of 2,000 miles of waterways in England and Wales, the largest owner of fishing rights in the UK, Canal & River Trust is welcoming back anglers to its waterways for the first time in seven weeks.  It is also calling upon their help, following an unusually high level of callouts to help fish in distress during the last seven weeks.

Anglers are only permitted to visit the waterway if they are either alone, with members of their household, or with one other non-household member and importantly they can only fish where strict social distancing can be maintained.  This applies in England but not yet in Wales.  

The announcement of changes to government advice is welcomed by the waterway and wellbeing charity as it reports a staggering 300% increase in the number of fish distress callouts compared to this time last year due to decreased levels of oxygen in the water.

Fish in the canals, rivers and reservoirs looked after by the Trust are estimated to be worth around £40 million.  They are protected under law and some species are critically endangered . Thanks to calls from alert members of the public, Canal & River Trust have helped to save at least 100,000 fish in the past seven weeks.

Peter Birch, national environment policy advisor at Canal & River Trust explained: “Fish are sometimes overlooked by visitors to our canals, but they are integral to the ecosystem and a vital part of the wider food chain on our waterways. The joy of spotting a kingfisher, otter or heron is very much down to what’s going on below the water level.  Fish are a great indicator of good water quality – if the fish are thriving, so will other waterway wildlife.  The canals are generally healthier than ever and we’re keeping a close eye on the particular circumstances that are causing problems right now and taking action to support the fish.”

Instances of fish distress and fatalities (known as fish kills) occur when oxygen levels in the water decrease.  The Trust is aware of two key factors causing this in the waterways at present.

  1. High levels of sunlight during April helped algae blooms to flourish much earlier in the year than usual. These naturally occurring organisms grow in nutrient rich waters and are encouraged by warm weather and increased sunlight. Algae can cause water quality issues by reducing the amount of oxygen in the water during the night which, if left to its own devices, can impact on fish and other aquatic creatures.
  1. A rise in pollutants in the waterways, from accidental spills or even deliberate illegal disposal of pollutants.

As these conditions could persist throughout lockdown as we move into the summer, the Trust is asking anglers returning to enjoy fishing on their local waterways as well as members of the public who are already visiting their local canal to enjoy their daily exercise, to help support the Trust’s frontline operational teams and report any instances of fish in distress or any other unsociable behaviour on their towpaths or waterways.

John Ellis, national fisheries and angling manager at Canal & River Trust said: “Thanks to the public getting in touch we’ve been able to prevent two major incidents from escalating any further.  With oxygen levels in the water on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal and the Lancaster Canal close to zero before we intervened, around 50,000 fish were estimated to be at risk of dying on each waterway.  Thankfully we lost only 200 fish in total because we were able to intervene in time and increase oxygen levels in the water with aerators and pumps. 

“Our fisheries and angling experts, ecologists and environmental scientists are all working closely with operational teams to look after our precious canals and rivers during this difficult time. With reduced staffing on the canals at present, the Trust’s operational teams are helping to monitor oxygen levels in some locations as a precaution, but we need the public and the angling community to help. 

“We know how much people enjoy spending time by water, it helps us to relax, unwind and boost our happiness levels.  If you are taking a short walk to your local waterway as part of your daily exercise, please keep an eye out and, if you see something unusual, then please contact our customer service team on 0303 040 4040.

“Fish gulping for air at the surface and not moving away with great haste when you approach them is a classic sign of serious distress.  This is occasionally confused with fish gasping at the surface or basking close to the surface on warm sunny days but scattering when you approach.”

The charity is also asking people to limit their use of canal towpaths and stay local.  Everyone should abide by the government guidelines, share the space along the narrow towpaths, respect social distancing and reduce speed if cycling.

Source: Canal and River Trust

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