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PIKE CONSERVATION – PROPOSED LEGAL MEASURES

Background

Our sport can only prosper if healthy populations of Scottish coarse fish are maintained. Ideally we want to see all coarse fish thriving throughout the country. However in the short term our focus has been on pike, because the threat to them is by far the most acute.

Historically, fishery proprietors in Scotland have not valued pike. Today it’s less common to see them being arbitrarily culled or thrown up the bank when caught by accident, but there are still locations where these practices persist. And some riparian owners – though happy enough to collect our permit fees – are indifferent to the wellbeing of pike and confine their concerns to ensuring that salmonids are not pursued under the pretence of coarse fishing.

We had hoped these attitudes would disappear in time, leaving pike populations free to settle at their natural level. But in recent years indiscriminate pot hunting has become a new and serious threat. Some pike are taken for personal consumption and many more are sold on to others. Irresponsible exploitation like this affects all coarse species, but pike are particularly sought after and especially vulnerable.

Little scientific work has been done on the size and reproductive strength of pike stocks anywhere in Scotland, but anglers widely report that catches on once-prolific waters across the country have declined dramatically in tandem with the growth in pot hunting. There is a clear and urgent need for steps to be taken to protect pike populations throughout Scotland.

Some progress is possible through voluntary action, both by outreach to promote catch & release among the communities from which the pot hunters typically emanate, and by trying to persuade proprietors to be more active in preserving stocks. However the voluntary avenue is slow and its impact is fragmented; and even where riparian owners do want to protect stocks the law presently gives them few tools to achieve that.

It’s long been obvious to everyone in the coarse angling sector that pike (and ultimately other coarse fish) need to be protected by law. Introducing statutory conservation measures to protect pike would strengthen the hands of responsible proprietors and improve the potential to prosecute pot hunters who use illegal methods. Perhaps most important, it would send out a tangible message that Scotland values its pike.

Discussions with Scottish Government officials

We have tried over many years to get pike conservation on the agenda of Marine Scotland (which, despite its name, is the department responsible for freshwater fisheries), most recently in the course of the Wild Fisheries Review which commenced in 2014 and promised radical positive reforms to Scottish fisheries legislation and management structures. Sadly, in February 2017 the Scottish Government abandoned the key elements of the WFR in the face of determined opposition from salmon proprietors and parts of the game angling sector.

Once it had become clear that the WFR route was no longer available, we approached Marine Scotland officials to explore the potential for statutory pike conservation measures within the scope of the law as it stands. We identified a relevant provision – Section 51A of the 2003 Act (see Appendix), which empowers Scottish Ministers to: “make regulations … if they consider that it is necessary or expedient to do so for the conservation of freshwater fish”. S51A measures can be framed to apply to particular species and/or water bodies.

It’s important to stress that the term “conservation” in this context does not necessarily mean that absolutely no fish of the species concerned can be taken. Rather it looks at the need to keep exploitation to a level that ensures a healthy self-sustaining population of that species is maintained on a local and/or national basis. If the evidence as to how much exploitation would be sustainable is inconclusive a precautionary approach is appropriate, restricting removals sufficiently to ensure the situation doesn’t become irretrievably worse.

Given the huge number of venues that contain pike and the lack of data on stocks in individual waters we were extremely reluctant for this problem to be considered on a location-by-location basis, though with the benefit of future research it is possible that some particularly sensitive sites may be identified where special treatment might be merited.

Our starting point was that pike fishing throughout Scotland should be restricted to rod and line angling, and conducted exclusively on a catch & release basis. This is a straightforward, readily understood solution which addresses the problem head-on, and we were confident that it had the full support of the responsible pike angling community.

However, in discussion it emerged that Ministers would feel obliged to consider the wishes and interests of all residents of Scotland, including the small minority who favour taking pike for the table. It soon became apparent that the only approach that stood any chance of gaining Ministerial support was a combination of size and bag limits that would substantially restrict exploitation without entirely depriving “responsible” pot hunters of their rights.

With considerable hesitation we had to concede the possibility that in some waters pike stocks might be resilient enough to cope with a low level of exploitation, although we were concerned (as we still are) that there is not enough scientific data available to judge what that level should be, either overall or in particular locations. We also felt that introducing bag and size limits would be seen as a signal from the Scottish Government that “it’s OK to kill (some) pike”, whereas the more progressive message we wanted to be sent out was that pike angling (like all coarse fishing) is purely a catch & release sport.

While, therefore, we still favour universal C&R, we reached the view that at this time the only way to achieve any statutory protection for pike was to support the introduction of bag and size limits and seek to have them set at the minimum possible levels.

In the case of size limits, we argued that it is the larger breeding females rather than smaller juveniles which most require protection, and therefore that what is needed is a maximum size limit on individual fish taken as opposed to the kind of minimum size limits applicable to trout and salmon. We pointed out that this approach is adopted in the EA byelaws in England & Wales, generally with a maximum of 65cm for pike (equating to a weight of around 5lbs). We said we would prefer to see a smaller limit – perhaps 50cm or 55cm – but were willing to take the EA model as a starting point for discussion.

With regard to bag limits, we referred once more to the EA byelaws in England and Wales, which allow only one pike to be retained by each angler per day. As we pointed out, it is hard to see – assuming they are being taken purely for personal consumption – why any higher number would be justifiable.   

We also put forward the idea of trying to choke off the market for killing pike for commercial purposes by making the sale of rod-caught pike illegal. We pointed out that there is a direct parallel in the Conservation of Salmon (Prohibition of Sale) (Scotland) Regulations 2002, which state that: “No person shall sell, offer or expose for sale any salmon that has been taken by rod and line.” and proposed that similar restrictions be introduced to debar the sale, or attempted sale, of rod-caught pike in Scotland. 

In addition, we brought up the question of whether Section 51A could be used to mandate the use of appropriate tackle and rigs – wire traces, minimum strength mainlines, proper unhooking gear etc – to help protect pike against damage and/or mortalities at the hands of ill-equipped but otherwise legitimate anglers. However it quickly became clear that drafting Regulations to address matters like these would be prohibitively complex, and that they would be more susceptible to a combination of angler education and local fishery rules.

 

Pike conservation regulations – statutory consultation

Development of the detailed proposals proceeded steadily from the summer of 2017 on, but it was only in June 2018 that the Scottish Government was in a position to commence a public consultation on the subject. This can be found at https://consult.gov.scot/marine-scotland/pike-conservation/ and contained three specific elements:

  • A maximum size limit for taking pike of 60cm; and
  • A universal bag limit of one pike per angler per day; and
  • A complete ban on the sale of rod-caught pike

It’s hard to overstate the significance of this: it was the first ever move by the Scottish or UK Government to give specific legal protection to any type of coarse fish in Scotland.

Needless to say we actively encouraged clubs and individuals to send in submissions supporting the proposals, and when the consultation closed at the end of August 2018 there were  900+ responses of which over 90% either supported the proposals as they stood or indicated that the Scottish Gov’t should go further and make C&R compulsory for pike.

Among those who opposed the proposals were some who simply didn’t want a limit on the size or number of pike they could take for the pot, plus a number of out-and-out pike haters who resisted any restriction on their freedom to slaughter the species. More challenging, however, was the opposition from a few influential game angling clubs and proprietors, along with organisations such as FMS (Fisheries Management Scotland – formerly the Association of Salmon Fishery Boards) and, disappointingly, some of the Fisheries Trusts. Three themes emerged from these sources:

  • How and by whom would this legislation be policed?
  • Would giving protection to pike jeopardise valuable fisheries for native salmonids?
  • Could the new provisions be limited to known or “designated” pike fisheries so that they don’t encourage illegal introductions elsewhere?

During the remainder of 2018 we had further discussions on these matters with Scottish Government officials. We pointed out that the enforcement issue applies equally to all legislation related to non-migratory fisheries and, while not without practical problems, the answer lies ultimately with local police and Wildlife Crime Officers.

In addition we drew attention to the lack of scientific evidence that the presence of pike actually harms wild salmonid stocks in any water in Scotland, and gave several counter-examples of fisheries like Awe, Ken, Lomond and the Clyde where healthy populations of pike and salmonids not only coexist but thrive. We also pointed out that the conservation proposals aim to address a significant proven threat to a native fish species (ie pike), and asked why the conservation needs of that species should be subordinate to the perceived interests of others (ie salmonids). Furthermore, we stressed that even if there was some need to control pike stocks in a particular fishery, indiscriminate rod and line pot hunting is not an appropriate method of fishery management.

The idea that the proposed conservation measures might encourage people to introduce pike to new locations is frankly nonsense, and we made this clear to our Scottish Government contacts. We also pointed out that many riparian owners would be likely to resist having their waters formally designated as pike fisheries, and that the process of trying to make such designations would not only be very costly but would act as a source of tension and conflict rather than drawing the fisheries community closer together.

By spring 2019, after further conversations and correspondence, we were given to understand that Marine Scotland no longer saw the policing issue as a barrier and, much to our relief, that they recognised the inherent flaws of the “designated pike fisheries” model. The senior responsible official acknowledged that the consultation outcome created a strong mandate to proceed and that he should therefore recommend to Ministers that the three proposals should be implemented across all of Scotland, provided he can convince them that the measures in question wouldn’t jeopardise local salmon stocks.

In order to inform Ministerial thinking on pike/salmonid interactions, and to give more assurance to stakeholders on all sides, Marine Scotland told us that they were about to fund a pike-related research project centred on the Bladnoch system, which would be carried out by Galloway Fisheries Trust. While having every confidence that any work undertaken by GFT would be thorough, objective and unbiased, we flagged up two concerns about this exercise. Firstly, we asked whether the Bladnoch system can be taken as typical, either in terms of the characteristics of the water body itself or the prey species available to the pike. Secondly, we challenged the focus on the role of pike in isolation as a predator of juvenile salmonids, rather than the true question as to whether the presence of pike actually makes a difference to overall survival rates of parr or smolts. In other words, does removing some or all pike have a significant impact on salmon productivity or merely lead to other predators (mergansers, cormorants, otters etc) becoming more numerous or better-fed?

By early summer 2019, however, progress had come to a halt. Our key contact in Marine Scotland was retiring at the end of August and spent his last few weeks tying up loose ends related to the designation of particular rivers under the Salmon Conservation Regulations. His department was to be reorganised and reduced in size, and it took some months for a successor to emerge. At the same time, the attention of Ministers and Scottish Government legal specialists were being diverted to Brexit-related matters, which also made it impossible for Marine Scotland – even if they had been ready – to find a Parliamentary time-slot to pass an Order to implement the pike conservation measures.

Following correspondence towards the end of 2019 we identified the new official in Marine Scotland responsible for freshwater fisheries, and we met with her and her team in January. The meeting was cordial and constructive, but it quickly emerged that none of those now involved on the Scottish Government side had been involved in the previous activities relating to the pike conservation proposals, nor were they closely familiar with the relevant issues. We explained the situation at length, forwarded them key items from the copious documentation that had been produced in the course of earlier dialogue, and agreed to meet again once they had absorbed this information. We asked about the potential timescale for progress, and were told that the same issues related to departmental resources and Brexit-related activities still applied, and that it was unlikely that anything tangible would happen in 2020.

And that, disappointingly, is where things stand at the time of writing (March 2020). Needless to say the current Coronavirus emergency has thrown another spanner in the works by reducing the scope for face-to-face meetings with the officials in the short to medium term. All the while, however, pike remain without any form of statutory protection in Scotland. We will not abandon the issue, but it’s impossible to say when things are going to change.

Appendix – Salmon & Freshwater Fisheries Act 2003 S 51A (added by Aquaculture and Fisheries Act 2007)

51A Freshwater fish conservation regulations

(1) The Scottish Ministers may make regulations under this section if they consider that it is necessary or expedient to do so for the conservation of freshwater fish.

 

(2) Regulations under this section shall not be taken to be for something other than the conservation of freshwater fish by reason only that they also have effect in relation to the management of freshwater fisheries for exploitation.

 

(3) In considering whether or not it is necessary or expedient to make regulations under this section the Scottish Ministers shall have regard to any representations made to them by any person having an interest in fishing for or taking freshwater fish, or in the environment.

 

(4) Regulations under this section—

(a) may be made in relation only to freshwater fisheries;

(b) may make different provision for different species of freshwater fish.

 

(5) Without prejudice to the generality of the power conferred by this section, regulations under this section may prohibit the use of specified baits and lures for the purposes of the definition of “rod and line” in section 4(1) of this Act in the case of fishing for freshwater fish.

 

(6) Regulations under this section which prohibit the use of specified baits and lures for the purposes mentioned in subsection (5) shall specify, subject to such exceptions as may be so specified—

(a) baits and lures or classes of baits or lures, the use of which is prohibited;

(b) times when the regulations apply;

(c) areas to which the regulations apply.

 

(7) Regulations under this section may—

(a) confer upon constables and water bailiffs such powers of enforcement, additional to those otherwise available under this Act, as the Scottish Ministers consider necessary or expedient for the purposes of the regulations;

(b) make provision generally in relation to any river, or in relation to any time or season;

(c) make different provision for different parts of a river, or for different cases or classes of case.

 

(8) Any person who—

(a) acts in contravention of; or

(b) fails to take any action required of that person by, or to comply with any requirement imposed on that person by,

 

Regulations made under this section shall be guilty of an offence, and liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 4 on the standard scale.

 

(9) A person who commits an offence under this section may be convicted on the evidence of one witness.

 

(10) Paragraphs 9A and 11 to 15 of schedule 1 to this Act shall have effect in relation to the making of regulations under this section.

 


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