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UNION CANAL BREACH -UPDATE

Since early yesterday morning we have been inundated with phone call, texts, emails and messages concerning the significant and devastating breach of the Union Canal at Muiravonside, near Linlithgow in West Lothian. The actual breach occurred approximately 500 mtrs east of the A801 and despite Scottish Canals engineers being on site extremely quickly, due to the fact that the Union Canal is a contour canal with very few lock gates, has resulted in the emptying of a significant stretch of the canal between Linlithgow and Falkirk,. 

 

Updates from Scottish Canals can be found on their Website and Social Media platforms at the following links:

https://www.scottishcanals.co.uk/news/union-canal-closure-breach-at-muiravonside/

https://www.facebook.com/ourscottishcanals

https://twitter.com/scottishcanals

What are the SFCA doing.

The SFCA contacted the main Scottish Canals office at Applecross Street in Glasgow as soon as we were informed of the incident, in order to discuss what could be done to conduct an emergency fish rescue once the engineers have stabilized the situation, and whether we could assist with the mobilization of volunteers to assist with this activity.  Understandably, for safety reasons and in such a fast moving situation Scottish Canals could not allow unqualified volunteers onto the towpath in the area.  Clearly, the main focus of Scottish Canals during such a major incident needs to be on safeguarding life and property and, given that the breach contributed to major flooding in the local area and caused significant damage to the main Glasgow to Edinburgh rail link, their staff will have been under significant pressure and I would ask members and the wider angling public to take this into consideration.

Throughout the day yesterday, and in the face of mounting concerns from anglers and other members of the Scottish Public about fish and other wildlife populations in the affected stretch, we continued to monitor updates from Scottish Canals and to relay specific concerns.

The current situation is that Scottish Canals engineers have installed stop planks at Manse Road Basin in Linlithgow to the east, and sandbags on the A801 canal bridge and at Vellore Road bridge to the west, to stem the flow of water and this is having the required effect.  The result of the breach is that when I visited the site on Wednesday evening a 7km stretch of the canal between the two points has been almost completely emptied.  Sadly we are therefore anticipating that, with no fish rescue possible under the emergency circumstances, the vast majority of the fish in this stretch will have been lost.

We are acutely aware of the extreme disappointment being expressed to us about the fact that no mention has been made by Scottish Canals’ website or social media platforms of the environmental impact of this incident on the flora and fauna, or about any plans or consideration to conducting any form of fish rescue/relocation. We are also aware of the distress that this is causing and of ongoing concerns about any fish not lost through the breach now being highly vulnerable to low water levels, and where there is sufficient water remaining to support them, to predation by a range of avian predators (cormorants, goosanders and seagulls).  We have been liaising today with Scottish Canals to relay these concerns and to try to at least ensure that any pockets of fish in low lying areas containing water are caught and moved either side to the barriers that have been erected to stem the flow.  In the meantime, we ask members of the public to report any sighting of fish in distress to both Scottish Canals and ourselves but NOT to enter the canal themselves to try to effect fish rescues.  There are large amounts of deep silt and hidden obstructions in the main track and on the slopes of the canal bed and to do so could be extremely dangerous.

The SFCA is fully aware that the fish biomass on this stretch of the Union Canal was already perilously low (bordering on unsustainable according the last report from APEM) and are cognizant of the fact that this incident will undoubtedly have had a catastrophic effect.  We are aware that there has been wild speculation about the numbers and sizes of fish that will have been lost but the last fish rescue and survey conducted in the area simply doesn’t support these theories.  There is a huge difference in the carrying capacity of canals in England and those in Scotland for a wide variety of environmental reasons.  The natural fish biomass of a UK canal should be approximately 200kg per Hectare according to the Canal & Rivers Trust.  Due to the climatic differences between Scotland and England it is generally accepted that 100-150kg per Hectare is more normal up in Scotland due to the shorter cooler summers and longer colder winters.  Furthermore, due to the fact that the Union Canal is so shallow, has a large amount of lying sediment and is not heavily used by boat traffic, its natural fish biomass has always been towards the bottom end of that range.  A 7km length of the Union canal would therefore normally expect to hold approximately 900kg of mixed species to be a healthy sustainable population.  To buy that quantity of fish with a mix of species (roach, perch, pike etc) and sizes with sufficient breeding size stock to sustain the population could cost anything between £30k and £40k.  There is little that can be done until the engineering works have been completed and the canal is fully restored, but we will be engaging with Scottish Canals and working with them to include re-establishment of sustainable fish populations as part the environmental restoration plan following this incident.

In summary, we have all seen the news last night and the devastating impact that Tuesday night’s thunder and lightning storms and accompanying deluge, which saw a month and a half’s rainfall fall in just 6 hours, have had across the eastern half of the country.  The breach of the canal, damage to property and infrastructure, and from our perspective the decimation of already fragile fish stocks along this length of the canal will take many months to recover from – especially with complications from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  Please rest assured that the SFCA will do whatever we can to ensure that anglers and flora and fauna in this area is fully considered as Scottish Canals embark on what will be a challenging restoration project.  We will keep you up to date with progress over the coming months.


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