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A sea trout comeback

The recovery of the herring and whitebait fishery off the north-west coast of England is helping revive sea trout stocks


Irish Sea herring are making comeback after being almost wiped out by over-fishing in the 1970's.
Irish Sea herring are making comeback after being almost wiped out by over-fishing in the 1970's.

First, the good news.
Those of you old enough will remember dear old Hugh Falkus’ two BBC wildlife programmes in the “World About Us” series, Self Portrait of a Happy Man and Salmo the Leaper, made in the 1970s. In those Hugh showed us pools on the Cumberland Esk that held great shoals of sea trout, and through the 1960s and 1970s rivers like the Esk, Lune and Dovey were famed for their vast numbers of sea trout. Then, from about 1980, the number of sea trout declined; I fished the Falkus Esk from 1987-98 and, though I did catch a few sea trout each year there, never saw such big shoals in the pools. This decline was down to a collapse of the Irish Sea herring due to gross over-fishing, which was down to the usual EU sea fisheries maladministration. This not only affected the sea trout, but also other fish and sea birds that relied heavily on juvenile herrings (ie, whitebait) for their food. The Irish Sea cod stocks collapsed (no longer could I go out off the Lancashire coast and catch lots of cod up to the teens and more in weight). And the common tern colonies that I had studied in the late 1960s and 1970s and which then generated well in excess of one young to fledging per pair per summer, a production that resulted in the colonies increasing, collapsed.
In 1981, commercial fishing for herring was banned in the Irish Sea, another case of closing the door after the horse has bolted. That was 36 years ago, and in the many years since the herring population very, very slowly increased so that in the last two or three years it has come close to its 1970s level. Cod stocks are recovering and from cursory observations of one Ribble ternery this spring it seems that their productivity is on the ‘up’.
Likewise the sea trout. The often torrential rains of June 5-10 resulted in some good runs of sea trout and the rains that came on the 27th and have only just cleared up (it is 5.30pm on June 30, and it has just stopped raining) have brought up the rivers again and sea trout will be heading upstream.
Get out there, for July promises to be a belter for sea trout!

Now for the bad news.
I am now not only a believer in global climate change, but I am 90% sure that Homo sapiens is probably responsible for the change that has occurred since at least the middle of the 20th century.
During the Industrial Revolution we did alter the climate here in the north of England through the use of coal fires in the Dark Satanic cotton and woollen mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire and in homes and other factories. The effects of the soot-laden smoke, with its high acidic nature, resulted in dense smogs in the lowlands and in highly acidic rainfall in the moorland through to the control of air pollution by Act of Parliament in the 1950s. I once remember cycling home in smog and not being able to see where I was on the road where we lived. I had to get off my bike and walk down the pavement until I recognised our stone gate posts. Visibility was barely five yards. On another occasion I guessed at where I had to turn right in the car and found myself driving up someone’s drive about 30 yards from the avenue into which I wanted to turn right! And in 1969-70, when I was working on the wildlife of the Pennine moorlands that separate Lancashire and Yorkshire, I learned from work done by earlier naturalists in the 19th century that large tracts of Sphagnum bog and its associated special flora, including species like sundew, had been exterminated by the extreme acidity. This loss had resulted in bare peat that had eroded on the flat moorland summits, leading to more violent spates in the rivers fed by these moorland bogs.
Today this sort of pollution is greatly declined and here in northern England conservation organisations are working hard to get the natural moorland flora and its associated bogs back in place. It’s just that the form of pollution has changed and is less visible. And its effects are a general warming-up of the world climates and more extreme weather.
In my book The Ribble, written a decade ago in 2007-2008 and published in 2009, I wrote, of the upper Ribble valley, “In 1969 I was out on the moors on 77 days scattered throughout the year... I experienced snowfall in every month from November to April, and lying snow from November to mid-May... in 1999, I spent 40 days in the upper dale and saw no sleet or snow falling.” This last winter (2016-7) I recorded snow falling in the head of the Ribble very early morning on January 2, the night of January 12-13, on February 9 (flurries), February 28 but it quickly turned to rain, and on the morning of my 71st birthday, April 25. But in every case it melted within a very few hours. Lying snow is now quite a rare event here in north-west England, causing panic amongst commuters for whom driving in snow is outside their experience.
For extreme weather, take this June: we had a heat-wave from the 17th-21st with perhaps the hottest June day on record, and very heavy rainfall on 5th-7th (with damaging gales), on the 10th and continuously or almost continuously from the 27th to the 30th (it is still raining as I write this on the 30th at 4.53pm). Outside the heat-wave, my diary records most days having a very cold wind from the NE to NW. Go back to Junes in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, these extremes were rarely encountered then.
The consequence is that, throughout the British Isles judging from correspondents, we have had the worst first four months of the trout fishing season since recording began.

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