Brazen poachers are netting our rivers on an almost commercial scale – sometimes in the heart of towns, say officials.
Police in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire last year launched Operation Traverse to stamp out freshwater fish thefts, joining forces with the Angling Trust, the Environment Agency and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science.
Thefts still happen and police had a case reported in July this year where several people were seen using a net to trawl the River Witham close to Boston’s Sluice Bridge.
Those spearheading Operation Traverse are appealing for anglers and the public to report fish thefts, particularly if they see nets used or long-lines left in the river, often with the ends of lines buried under stones.
Lincolnshire Police wildlife crime officer PC Nick Willey said: “It’s about being vigilant and it’s about ringing in – 999 if it’s a crime in progress.”
PC Willey said no one was caught for the Boston offence. There was also a case of an illegal net used at Fiskerton, near Lincoln, which was reported by a member of the public who pulled the net out of the water.
As well as poaching, Operation Traverse targets anglers fishing illegally with rod and line and PC Willey said in November a man was found ‘piking with a rod’ on a stretch of river at Pode Hole which ‘is definitely out of bounds for fishing’.
A former detective commended for tackling city centre street crime recently joined the fight against fish poachers and illegal fishing in Lincolnshire.
Paul Thomas, 50, is the Angling Trust’s regional enforcement manager for the east of England, advising anglers on the law, raising awareness that poaching and fish theft are criminal offences, and working with police and other partners on fisheries-related issues.
Mr Thomas said in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire there are particular issues surrounding migrant anglers illegally removing fish from the waterways to eat.
He said: “This may be due to the migrant angler not being aware of the law in England regarding the need to purchase an Environment Agency rod licence and obtain permission to fish the water prior to fishing.
“It is also possible that they may not be aware of the laws surrounding the removal of freshwater fish, as it is perfectly natural for them to do so in their own country.
“There are bye-laws in place that restrict the size and quantity of freshwater fish that can be legally removed – but if the controlling club for the water in question state that no fish are to be removed from their waters, then no fish can be legally removed.
“The Angling Trust is actively engaged in the Building Bridges scheme whereby Polish and Lithuanian speaking staff are seeking to educate, rather than alienate, migrant anglers and integrate them into the ‘catch and return’ policy practiced by anglers in England.”
Mr Thomas also highlighted the growing concern about those involved in the organised removal of fish from lakes and rivers ‘on an almost commercial scale’ using gill nets and baited long-lines to trap fish in readiness for removal and sale on the black market.
He said: “These gill nets and long-lines are often placed in remote locations after dark and can be very inconspicuous. These are the more serious offences that demonstrate the links between fisheries crime and the wider picture of rural and wildlife crime, business crime, hate crime and organised crime.”
Angler Martynas Pranaitis fished competitively in Lithuania, where he graduated with a masters in ecology and environmental sciences, and was a voluntary bailiff supporting the Lithuanian Aplinkos Apsauga (Environment Agency).
He said: “I came to England eight years ago, working for an aviation catering business.
“In England I first enjoyed sea fishing but soon started coarse fishing, practising catch and release, playing by the rules.
“I noticed, though, British anglers’ attitudes on the bank often changed when they heard my accent.
“This upset me because not all migrant anglers are poachers and fish thieves, and this needs to be much better appreciated.”
He joined Britain’s baliff service and says: “The only way forward is for migrants to embrace the law and culture of their adopted countries as I have.”
An Environment Agency spokesman said there were 27 prosecutions and 32 warning letters sent over illegal angling in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire between April and October.
The spokesman continued: “The Environment Agency’s role is to protect people and the environment including our waters, rivers and biodiversity.
“We are fully supporting Operation Traverse and working closely with the Angling Trust and the police to educate and inform anglers on the laws around angling.
“We are taking illegal fishing and fish theft very seriously and we are cracking down on it – our multi-agency approach has resulted in 1,970 licence checks, 113 reports for offence tickets, 27 prosecutions and 32 warning letters from April to October 2015. Our partnership work provides a valuable insight and intelligence gathering to continue tackling the issue.
“We want to encourage anglers to report sightings of any illegal activity around our waters on the incident hotline 0800 807060 quoting Operation Traverse.”
l Guidance on freshwater fishing rules is available on www.gov.uk/freshwater-rod-fishing-rules/fish-size-and-catch-limits