Working Lives

Preserving the fish stock (1980s-2019)

Location: Horning

Steven spent many years visiting the Norfolk Broads to pursue his love of pike fishing. He moved there permanently six years ago and runs a tackle shop. He is very involved with preserving the fishing stock, in particular pike, for future generations.

I was born in Luton in 1960, my parents both worked in the car industry. When I first left school I joined the army, went all round the world and saw active service in a few different places. I left the army after 12 years in 1988 and took a job as a fisheries manager for a group of lakes in Dungeness in Kent.

Angling has been a lifetime interest for me and Norfolk has always been renowned as a great area for pike fishing, so I have been coming up here most winters for 30 years. Even when I lived in France I would still comeback and live on my boat for the winter period.

Six years ago we decided to move up here, settling in Horning. The business has been running for some time, initially it was primarily a mail order business but so many people asked if they could come and buy from us direct, so we opened up what was meant to be the store room as a shop.

For most businesses around here their trade revolves round the summer tourist trade. We are lucky that we have two seasons. The casual anglers and general coarse fisherman come in the summer and then when things get quiet in the winter for everybody else this is our busiest time because we specialise in predator fishing, pike fishing.

Prymnesium parva

The Broads has always had a troubled history. Back in the’ 60s fishing on the Broads was almost wiped out by a Prymnesium outbreak. Prymnesium parva is an algae and the biggest problem with it is that when it starts to decay it becomes toxic and wipes out entire systems of their fish.

When we had the big outbreaks in the 1960s it killed the fish on the Broads, but we have been quite lucky, it’s been a gradual process but they have come back. The Prymnesium hasn’t been too bad, and thanks to the work of people like John Curry from the Pike Anglers Club working with organisations including John Innes Centre they have found a way of combating the problem.

Prymnesium parva thrives on higher saline water, but they have found that using hydrogen peroxide actually counteracts the effects, and are liaising with other organisations including the Broads Authority. The Broads Authority’s involvement is primarily because when they dredge it can stir up the spores and cause another outbreak, so they carry the necessary antidote, so to speak, namely the hydrogen peroxide.

As we know over the years Norfolk has gradually been sinking and has become more susceptible to salt incursions in the rivers. The reason for this is that the three main rivers on the northern Broads, the Thurne, the Bure and the Ant are semi tidal and in recent years there has been an increase in the regularity and extremes of the phenomenon known as salt surges. These surges are caused by weather and tide conditions out at sea, which results in salt water being pushed up the rivers.

The fish and invertebrates living in freshwater obviously do not tolerate massive increases in saline, and the past five or six years has seen a rapid increase in the regularity of these surges

A lot of people will say that we have always had these sorts of surges, and that is true, but it is important to remember that this is a tidal system not an estuarine system, it’s not meant to be salt water. The normal extent of the surges is around Acle where we regularly experience a large amount of fish deaths. But unfortunately in recent years we have seen the salt levels reach lethal limits as far as up here in Horning.

Initially it was thought to be a freak occurrence but now it’s become a regular freak occurrence. The Environment Agency and other various people do have a monitoring system for it and they’ve got automatic monitoring equipment in the river. There is also a team of volunteers who go out and check the water levels for saline. This increase results in fish deaths but only if the fish are actually trapped and they can’t escape it. They tend to run ahead of it so as the salt surges the fish will move ahead of it.

This is changing the behaviour and location of the fish and can affect the actual fishing. They’ve looked into it and have acknowledged that it is changing the Broads. I attended a meeting where we were told that something like 60 different types of small invertebrates and crustaceans have been lost because the levels of saline are too high for them to live in.

That being the bottom of the food chain has a knock on effect as we go up the chain, so it’s changing the whole of the Broads’ eco system. The sea levels are rising and Norfolk is sinking, but the concern comes because the process has actually been speeded up. Research is still being done but there is some thought that bio restructuring , the engineering and landscaping on the Norfolk coast is affecting the tides.

They now believe that the way to combat it is by installing  a device known as a slipper dam, and it is basically just a barrier down at Great Yarmouth to stop the tide surges pushing up the Bure. There were concerns that this could impede navigation but they are like an inflatable tube and the boats can just go over them, so it won’t be a problem at all.

A misty dawn on the River Bure

Another ecological problem – reintroduction of the European otter

A couple of decades ago it was decided to try to reintroduce the European otter, it hadn’t become extinct but the population had been greatly decimated, mostly due to ecological changes and then not helped by them being hunted by man.

It seemed a great idea at first and this is only my opinion but to get instant success which is needed in a way to secure betting funding for the future, the process was rushed. It has been acknowledged by the Otter Trust that perhaps they didn’t get it right. There were areas which would never have seen an otter suddenly having 30 or 40 pairs and that had an impact on the system.

It is not just the fish that it had an impact on. Otters are a voracious predator and there are documented occasions, filmed, especially in the Wroxham area of them taking swans, ducklings, all sorts.

But this is nature, as long as there is a balance, it shouldn’t be a problem as long as it’s done properly, as it’s not just the prey that suffer the predator does as well. I am sometimes taken to task in the angling community because I don’t scream about killing otters all the time. Because I don’t think that’s ever going to be a viable answer, and there’s no need for it. But I do scream that we need to establish a proper balance and try and redress again where man has interfered and not got it right.

Otters have this terrible reputation that they kill for fun, they don’t. They undoubtedly do eat pike, I have seen them with pike between eight and twelve pounds, which is obviously far more than they need but it’s believed that they take them at that size because it’s easy for them to catch.

It is established that otters do have an impact on prey be it fish or small animals.

The good thing is that they are quite prone to killing off the real villain of the Broads, the mink. Mink were released by animal activists and promptly went and destroyed most of the small water based animals such as vole and shrew. Again a balance was interfered with.

A change in fishing ways

Coarse fish has never been part of the UK diet. It is a tradition amongst English anglers that even though we are allowed to kill fish we don’t, it’s a sport and we return them to the water.

Over the last few years there have been changes to fishing as East European anglers have migrated here for work and the like. It is their tradition to have coarse fish as part of their diet so now we have many more people wanting to fish for the table whereas previously this has not been a problem.

It causes friction amongst the communities which is a shame. There are three elements really, those who fish for sport, those who fish more for the pot and the third element which is the real problem, the criminal element. This element wants to take as much as they can to sell for financial profit. Again this is having an effect on the stocks as pike is the preferred fish. The Environment Agency is underfunded so unfortunately they are unable to police this.

For me though, as an angler, the most frustrating problem as to why the Broads, predator wise, are in decline, is quite simply the angling pressure. No matter how careful we are to look after the pike when we catch them. No matter how responsible we are with the way we handle them, the way we catch them and the fact we return them, it’s still pressure. And like a lot of creatures they don’t like pressure they thrive on neglect, they want to be left alone.

Pike have this reputation because partly of how they look of being fearsome, but they are very delicate and are affected by ecological changes. I suppose in a way anglers could be considered to be selfish wanting to protect the pike because of our desire to catch it.

But what you have to remember as I mentioned before, is the need for balance. Pike is the apex predator serving a very important role, for example removing sick and weak fish.

Breeding levels are very much dictated by the apex predator. Put simply if you did not have the predator then all the prey fish would get out of balance, there would be thousands and thousands of non predators such as bream, roach and rudd. And indeed we are seeing this on the Broads, people catch nets, full of them and thinking that that is great and how healthy the Broads must be.

People are also saying that as they see pike all the time what’s the problem? But I am afraid that what they are forgetting is that they are seeing and catching is small pike because there is a shortage of bigger breeding fish. Now whether this is due to otters, salt surges or what no one really knows at this stage. The sign of an unhealthy unbalanced system is when you get lots of small pike.

Monitoring and fish surveys have been done over the years and we are seeing a big decline especially over the last five or six years. A lot of my mates take the mickey saying, ‘It’s a bit worrying that ever since you’ve lived here permanently Budgie that’s when it’s gone downhill’.

My background in fisheries management does tell me one worrying thing, normally by the time the problem is so great that people notice it it is sometimes too late to do anything about it.

But I have listened to a lot of true experts and read a lot of research and now that a problem has been established and when that problem has been identified then hopefully a solution can be found.

Pike fishing on the Broads

Changing views, educating, trying to find a solution

When I first started campaigning a lot of the old boys wouldn’t have it that there was a problem, ‘Oh there’s plenty of big pike out there’. ‘We always get little blips’. But now they are turning round and saying, ‘Jeez you know, you were right boy there is a problem’. The only reason I saw this first is because I’m out in the river most days whereas they are fishing once every couple of weeks.

Now, even the most diehard are saying that if we have to stop pike fishing, full stop, for three or four years to let stocks recover then so be it.

There have been worries from the commercial side who are concerned that people won’t want to come if they can’t fish for pike.

In the summer the Broads being so shallow and tidal the water warms up very quickly from the sun. The higher the temperature the less dissolved oxygen there is in the water. Fish breathe this through their gills and when they are out there, staying inactive, feeding when needed, there is not a problem they are just doing their thing.

When an angler catches a fish it could be on the end of the line for 20 minutes, exerting itself, taking it to a different level of exhaustion. When the fish is unhooked and returned it is put back into the margins where there is not normally enough oxygen for them to recover properly. Anglers don’t realise this, they will hold them, nurse them and think that they are recovered but they are not. Unfortunately some 12 to 15 hours later some of these fishes are dying.

If you go to an average 100 metre stretch of the River Bure there will be thousands and thousands of roach but only one or two pike. So it only takes one or two pike to be caught and die and you see the effect.

It is very difficult to persuade holiday makers that what they are doing is detrimental. There is no law in place the Broads, it is not controlled by fishing clubs and there are no restrictions other than the normal close season. Practically everywhere else in the country that is run by fishing clubs summer pike fishing is not allowed. This ban is something that people have been trying to bring in here for some time and now that all the research has been done and understood we are nearly on the verge of it being accepted.

Convincing local business owners that it won’t affect their businesses is something that I have been involved with. Having a business based on pike fishing has helped people relate to me. I turn around to them and say, ‘Guys, all you’re doing is you’re killing the golden goose, let them pike fish in the summer for the next couple of years but you won’t be doing any pike fishing here for the next twenty years’.

You’ve got to look to the long term future. What will basically happen is that people will take a chalet in the summer and go bream and roach fishing. The guy that won’t be able to book as he won’t be able to fish will say, ‘Well when can I fish?’ ‘Well come down in November, December’.

So by actually accepting and supporting the summer ban they will be giving themselves an extra season. That’s what happens here at the tackle shop. All summer long I have customers who come in to buy half a pint of maggots for catching roach. Then as soon as October comes I am selling to guys coming down for pike fishing, hiring out boats, coming out with us for a day’s instruction, so I get two seasons and they could all do the same. But it is something new and it frightens people.

There has been panic over the reduction of water birds on the Broads, otters have had an effect but I don’t think that that is the total reason. There are quite a few reasons, for example, all the new flood relief channelling that’s been completed in recent years has coincided with this disappearance.

I certainly don’t want to see the end of fishing, boating or sailing. The Broads Authority are much maligned, often by people who object to paying to use their boat, or told that they can’t do something. In my view they are there to do one thing, look after the Broads and the way they fund that is by such things like boat tolls, so I have no issue with that.

All in all it’s not a very good picture for the Broads. Be it the water birds, be it the pike, be it the fish, be it the crustaceans or the invertebrates, be it the change in the salinity it’s all a bit of a downward spiral at the moment.

But, the good thing is people are now on it. Again like I said before my only concern’s are by the time they’ve sorted it out it’ll be too late. This time of year every year we have massive salt surges and we get away with it, one day we won’t. And then it’ll all be over.

Regarding the angling shop here, we will carry on doing our thing. Rather ridiculously we put the environment, the health of the fishing and the Broads out there over our own profits in the shop. We look long term, in the summer I turn away considerable income as I refuse to sell pike tackle. It does cause friction but we explain to people why we’re not selling it, we try to educate people on the problems with the higher water temperatures.

This year we were really lucky as the Environment Agency backed us and gave us a load of informative posters, so now it’s not just some silly bloke from London’s opinion, it’s a fact that there is a problem.

My future here will carry on regardless, there will always be some form of fishing, we’re settled here and not looking to move again. As we’re looking long term we do lots of teaching, all for free, we really should charge but I’d rather get the message over. So yeah, we’ll be here forever banging away and trying to educate people and trying to support where we can.

And if it means that we have to have certain bans brought in to restrict the fishing then so be it. If I can only go fishing once a month but it means my great great grand children can go once a month as well I’ll have that rather than me going every day and them not.

Steve Burgess 2019

Steve “Budgie” Burgess (b. 1960)  talking to WISEArchive on 22nd October 2019 at Horning.

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