A tale of two rivers


I have little time for The Guardian these days, but when it comes to reporting on the state of the environment it ain’t so bad. Several articles in recent years – such as “How clean are our rivers?”, “Migratory fish populations plunge 76% in past 50 years” and “Pet flea treatments poisoning rivers across England” – have drawn attention to the sad state of our rivers.

As a lifelong angler I have a particular interest in the state of our rivers, but I shouldn’t think that anyone who cares for the environment will feel any comfort about what’s happening to our – and the world’s – watercourses, and the life that should be teeming in them. The two rivers I refer to are those I’ve spent many years fishing: the upper reaches of the Bristol Avon in England, and the middle stretches of the River Garonne in south-west France; very different in nature, both with big problems.

The Bristol Avon is a middle sized river by UK standards, rising in the Cotswolds and making a wide loop to where it enters the Severn Estuary close to… Bristol. The upper reaches, the part I’m most familiar with, are enchanting. Where it runs through Malmesbury and the Somerfords in Wiltshire, it’s much more a stream than a fully-fledged river – an ideal setting for Hammy the Hamster, Ratty and company. In places it rushes over gravel-beds, in others it meanders through rushes and under willows, it’s a very intimate little river.

Decent barbel from a tiny river.

The fishing is – or rather used to be – a pure joy. No need for mountains of equipment, just a rod, reel, bait, landing net and an extremely stealthy approach. It’s very mobile fishing, you cover a lot of ground. First, a handful of bait into a number of likely spots over a mile or more of stream, then go back and fish them one by one, spending no more than a quarter of an hour in each if there isn’t a bite. A quiet approach is the key, in order not to spook fish in the tiny watercourse. There’s a variety of fish there: roach, dace, perch, chub, trout, grayling, pike, eels, bream… and barbel. Big barbel from small rivers are the great prize for many of us. Bites that wrench your arm off and a fight that leaves your knees trembling.

There are barbel in the Garonne too. It’s one of the major rivers of France, rising in the Pyrenees and flowing north east to Toulouse, before swinging north west to where it eventually joins the Lot and the Dordogne to become the Gironde and flow into the Bay of Biscay. The stretch I know is the mid part of the river, one third of the way from Toulouse to Bordeaux, which lies at the head of its estuary. There’s a wide range of species in the Garonne, or at least there used to be: barbel, roach, carp, crucian carp, perch, zander, pike, bream, grey mullet, allis shad (an endangered migratory species that’s like a cross between a herring and a sea-trout), salmon, sturgeon and… European catfish.

Here an atomic power station enters the story. The Centrale at Golfech is important to the narrative not because it’s dastardly atomic power, but it has a part to play in the study of fish in the river. (As an aside, the power station has already entered local meteorological folklore. You can forecast the weather by looking at the behaviour of the steam plumes from the station’s twin cooling towers. Flatlining means prepare for rain. Better than a mushroom cloud I guess.)

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The Centrale at Golfech.

Of importance fish-wise is the large volume of water taken from the river via the Canal de la Centrale to cool the reactors. Many migrating fish tend to ascend the canal outflow, perhaps due to the warmer or high volume of water, so, in order to ensure their progress upriver, a fish lift, or elevator, in the form of a wire trap into which the fish swim, takes them up a level and then safely past the power station installation and back into the upstream section of the canal. This ingenious scheme allows fisheries scientists to monitor all the fish passing through it, so fish populations and migrations can be charted. It doesn’t give a complete picture, because many fish still use the existing fish ladders to ascend the main river via a series of weirs, but its shows trends. An observation point in the power station allows one to observe the fish passing through lift system, but being in France it’s closed to the public precisely at the time of year when the largest volume of fish is passing through. The findings of the fisheries scientists don’t tell a happy story.

Moving house eight or so years ago a meant what had been a fifteen minute drive to the upper Bristol Avon fishery increased to forty. That’s not why I stopped fishing there. Over the decade or so that I fished there the fishing had declined dramatically. Barbel came out far less frequently and smaller. Chub, which I also love catching, were smaller and scrawnier. It wasn’t just a case of me losing my angling mojo, all the other fishers reported the same thing. Something was going wrong. A detailed fish population survey report in 2016 by the Environment Agency, taking samples from a number of stretches in the river, corroborated what anglers had been finding. Not only were barbel in serious decline, the river’s biomass was reducing as well. It wasn’t just that there were more smaller fish and fewer large ones, the river was supporting less fish-life. The Environment Agency gave a few possible reasons for this, omitting some others, and went on to report that a restocking programme of introducing several thousand immature barbel had failed to make any impact.

I had a long conversation with a fisheries scientist at the Golfech Centrale. She didn’t mention if the Garonne’s biomass had changed to any degree, but she did recount how populations of migratory fish had plummeted in recent years. Salmon, down to a trickle; shad, critically endangered; eels, endangered; sturgeon, borderline extinct. I’ll mention another. Grey mullet, an estuary-loving sea fish, ascended the Garonne in their hundreds of thousands, making their way as far up the river as Golfech, at least 100km above the tidal stretch of the river. Four years ago they simply disappeared. From one year to the next they simply stopped coming. The fisheries scientist couldn’t offer an explanation.

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European catfish. Voracious predators.

One major factor affecting the Garonne, and many similar rivers, is the spread of the European catfish, Siluris glanis. Introduced into many western European river systems during the 1970s by some congenital idiots, the non-native species has spread like wildfire, chomping up everything in its path. They grow big – in the Garonne they reach above 200 lbs, and bigger still in some of the other major rivers – and they’re not fussy about their diet.

A couple of years ago the Depeche du Midi newspaper reported that a couple’s dog, swimming in the river at Lamagistere (a kilometre downstream from Golfech), was engulfed by a large silure.

A ‘Kitten’

You never see ducks or swans on the Garonne any more. The reason is catfish. I used to catch a lot of big carp at Lamagistere, great powerful, torpedo-like things, but they’re now a memory. The reason is catfish. For those equipped for it, the catfish fishing on the Garonne is great. I’ve caught a few smaller ones (of about half a hundredweight) on carp gear, but it’s exhausting. Like twenty minutes with Mike Tyson.

Are catfish the reason for the catastrophic decline in migratory fish in the Garonne? The fisheries scientist couldn’t give a definitive answer, but her feeling was that no, that couldn’t be the entire story. After all, there are still barbel, chub and zander present, but certainly their numbers have dropped.

Thankfully there are no catfish in the Bristol Avon. That’s not to say that predation isn’t at least a part of the problem facing the river’s fish stocks. Leaving aside the creatures that feed on immature fish, the beasties gobbling up mature fish are pike, cormorants, mink and otters. Mink are a pest nowadays, cormorants have come farther and farther inland in recent years, maybe due to overfishing at sea, and eat their own weight in fish every couple of days. Recently re-introduced to many river systems, otters have a definite cuteness factor, but their effect on under-pressure fish populations can be dramatic. When the fish become scarce they feed on other water mammals and birds (a quiet concern of the RSPB). But again, predation only forms part of a far bigger, gloomy picture.

The Guardian, bless its cotton socks, has drawn attention to many of the problems that face these two rivers, and the same applies to countless others across the developed world. These problems include agricultural slurry, human sewage, industrial effluent, invasion by non-native species, heavy metals, sundry chemical waste, growth hormones, antibiotics, even cocaine – there really are accounts of fish getting high from nose-candy in sewage effluent! But perhaps the most intractable problem facing our rivers isn’t what we put into them – that should in theory be controllable – but what we take out of them: water.

Catching Barbel in the Gironne

Our need for water grows and grows. Domestic, agricultural and industrial demand is on an ever upwards trajectory, and climate change is only exacerbating the problem. In the UK the Environment Agency is very coy about the subject. There’s an awful lot of monitoring of water abstraction from our watercourses and aquifers, but precious little action to mitigate the damage done to the environment during times of drought – which no one appears to have any answer to.

In dry summers the upper Bristol Avon is a sad trickle, and even the mighty Garonne becomes very shallow, clogged and sluggish. The Garonne valley below Toulouse is one of the great fruit, vegetable and wine growing areas of France, and all that produce needs a lot of irrigation. Farmers are meant to adhere to quotas… but no one even pretends they stick to them. Those water pumps chug by night. Humans need water, but if our rivers and the rich biodiversity they support are going to survive we’re going to need to find some dramatic and ingenious answers to satisfy our ever increasing thirst.

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The future of our rivers?

As for us anglers, it seems we’re some of the only people fighting a rearguard action for our rivers. Where the Environment Agency should be pitching in, it’s the Angling Trust and similar organisations that are taking legal actions against polluters up and down this country. The (privately owned) water companies are some of the chief culprits for poor water quality, and the Environment Agency frequently appears toothless. Hardly surprising when their chief honcho has just taken off to head one of the major water companies. His insider knowledge should be most valuable.

For most anglers without deep pockets, such as me, most fishing now takes places in lakes and canals, with so many rivers no longer offering the kind of sport we seek. Or being the kind of environment the greater public is entitled to expect. I still love my fishing as much as I did when I first wet a line in the 1950s, despite aches and pains and an inability to withstand the cold, but I miss my small river fishing like crazy. If my grandson ever becomes a fisherman, how I’d love for him to experience the sudden pandemonium of hooking a whopping great barbel in a pristine, tiny river.

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Will he still have healthy rivers to fish in when he grows up?

Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

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