Ever wondered what goes on during a fishery patrol? From boots on the bank to cameras in the sky, more methods than ever are used by the Environment Agency, police and Voluntary Bailiff Service (VBS) to cover our waterways! Dom Garnett attended a patrol on his local River Exe and Exeter Canal to find out more.
It is a fine spring morning on the edge of Exeter as I meet up for a socially distanced meeting of enforcement personnel. The weather might be cheerful, but our business here is the serious matter of tackling illegal fishing.
There’s a real diversity and quality of experience here, to put it mildly. We have several police officers in uniform, alongside EA bailiffs, while the Angling Trust is also well represented with the local know-how and multilingual skills of the VBS and Building Bridges staff, alongside Regional Enforcement Support Manager, Nevin Hunter.
More than just a patrol…
From the outset of our briefing, it’s clear that this will be a great exchange of knowledge between different groups. For the police, and especially officers newer to the force, it’s a practical way to learn more about the laws of freshwater fishing, typical offences and the way licencing works.
Meanwhile, for our VBS members and EA staff, it’s a great chance to catch up with connections in the police force and exchange ideas, whether that’s discussing current concerns or using the latest tools and technology to prevent crime.
With the sun up and the close season underway, I’m anticipating quite a few anglers on the bank. I’m just hoping for their sakes that they’re playing by the rules and have remembered to buy their fishing licences.
Of course, while it’s great that we have a joint patrol hitting multiple sites today, enforcement efforts are also hugely boosted by the eyes and ears of anglers like you (and the hotline on the back of your rod licence, 0800 807060, can be used 24/7 to report illegal or suspicious activity).
Eyes in the sky and new ideas
With different groups forming to tackle as much water as possible on the local river and canal, I opt to follow some of the patrol’s high tech efforts first. This is impressive stuff, as I watch drone pilot PC Lynch work with the EA’s Nick Maye.
While I was anticipating a hearty walk, drone technology allows us to cover a staggering amount of ground before we’ve left the car park! It’s fascinating viewing watching drone footage on the screen. With an impressive camera to add to a flight range of around 500m, we can literally see what people are doing on the far bank of the Exe Estuary, about a mile away!
Nick Maye, an angler himself and a highly-respected EA Bailiff here in the South West, is excited by what he sees. “There is so much potential, and this could be huge!” he says. For starters, drones could help he and his colleagues survey distant or tricky locations in mere seconds. Today, for example, we can view a location on the distant side of the estuary that would take at least an hour’s drive to get there and back. This could help bailiffs to get straight to the source of issues, without the need to patrol for miles on foot.
Furthemore, Nick thinks the deterrent factor could also be big. “So many people now own drones. They’re flown in so many places and anyone doing something they shouldn’t has no idea whether it’s a hobbyist or the police flying overhead!” he says.
Add features like night vision and the ability to take pictures and footage at extreme range and things get even more exciting. “I can’t think of anything but positives so far,” says Nick. “It’ been a real eye-opener seeing how the police use the gear. This could be the future of fisheries policing.”
The Voluntary Bailiff Service
Besides professionals from the police and EA, it’s also great to see bodies from the rod licence-funded VBS out today. Stuart Abbott is new to Devon and will make a welcome addition to the team down here. A qualified drone pilot himself, he is just as enthused about this technology- and all eyes and ears when it comes to seeing how the police use this equipment.
With his roots in Yorkshire, Stuart is very much looking forward to bringing his experience to the rivers and lakes of Devon. As is typical for the men and women who make up the VBS, he speaks of his love of the outdoors and a desire to “give something back”.
Stuart’s interest in bailiffing began when he lived on a property right by a village pond. “It was so close at hand you could virtually have cast out from your front door!” he says. The place was a classic English pond, with crucians, roach and other species- but whenever Stuart saw suspicious activity he had been unsure what to do about this.
“I wanted to know more about the law and how I could protect my local fishing better, so the VBS made perfect sense” he says. Besides the training gained from the service, Stuart also has a broader background in volunteering, including experience on a rescue boat, making him even more of a catch for us. If it’s any consolation to anglers in Yorkshire, we’re always training new recruits across the country each year.
Hot spots and licence checks
Hopping over to the Exeter Canal, it’s now time to catch up with some other joint patrol staff to see what’s going on a few miles away. It’s great seeing police and EA staff in uniform treading the banks, too. Regardless of how many or how few people we catch out today, the simple presence of boots on the bank is a great visual deterrent. Let’s just hope the anglers out today have got their licences!
Lime Kilns is always a hotspot for fishing, especially with carp anglers. Working alongside police, Regional Enforcement Support Manager Nevin Hunter is on the scene to assist.
As you can imagine, our patrol is not only checking licences, but is particularly hot on anglers fishing by the rules. Already we have encountered an angler trying to use three rods on a two-rod licence, and leaving at least one of these unattended at several metres down the bank!
If he’s lucky, it will be a lengthy conversation and a warning shot across the bows; but he now also risks finding himself in court. As tempting as it is for me to go and film or take images, however, this isn’t a Channel 5 documentary, so I’m content to keep my distance and let the experts take charge.
Besides those falling foul of the rules, however, it’s also fair to say that these days are also a good exercise in public engagement. There’s often lively discussion about how local fishing might be improved. In the case of two avid angling ladies we meet, this includes the need for better toilet facilities on the banks of the canal! Indeed, this is a recurring comment- and a common barrier for women who want to access natural fisheries rather than the usual commercial lakes.
From local knowledge to bilingual approaches
Also on hand today, it’s great to see local VBS man Phil Hoult alongside Janusz Kansik of the Building Bridges team. As both of these guys explain, fisheries enforcement is not all about challenges and arrests. A lot of the time, it’s about being out there as a presence, gathering intelligence and educating the public.
Of course, terms like education and compliance are not quite as sexy as crime and arrests to the angling public, but the fact we’re not seeing swathes of poachers or licence dodgers is a good thing. “The fact that the vast majority of anglers are fully compliant is a very encouraging sign” says Phil. “It means most people are getting the message and playing by the rules.”
That said, the role of the VBS cannot be understated- and Phil has been a huge part of that. He certainly puts in the miles and where fishing is concerned, you get the feeling he knows virtually every saint and sinner in the area!
Exeter and District Angling Association are also benefitting from his experience when it comes to checking club tickets and liaising with the police and EA. In fact, new technology is already boosting compliance and ticket sales on a local level. Today alone, Phil has been able to get two new anglers for the club, who have been chatting to us on the bank and asking about the fishing around here. Within seconds, a simple QR code allows them to buy tickets directly from their mobile phones!
Another welcome presence today, meanwhile, is Janusz Kansik, who heads the Building Bridges Project, another rod licence funded initiative that is playing a key role in compliance and education when it comes to anglers from other countries and cultures. To put it another way, he and his team are rather like the Heineken Beer of fisheries enforcement: they get to the parts others can’t reach!
It’s a huge, obvious advantage having those who speak more than one language on joint patrols and other initiatives. In this way, Janusz and his team can communicate directly speakers of Polish, Romanian, Latvian and other languages. From the multi-lingual signage we see today, to direct initiatives like coaching sessions, patrols, competitions and even school visits, they do a lot of great work every season.
“We’re busier than ever,” says Janusz. “The team has grown a lot and we now have five professional officers and twelve volunteers. On patrols like this, we can help by speaking different languages- but it’s also very much about making connections. For the EA, police and enforcement staff, we can offer a gateway into other communities.”
Again, talk of progress and bringing communities together is not quite as sexy as arrests and fines, but the message is steadily getting through. This is also reflected in the statistics. These days, the vast majority of EU anglers are compliant and have been a boost to clubs and tackle shops. Furthermore, illegal fishing prosecutions from the migrant angling community make up a far smaller percentage of fisheries crime than many British anglers would imagine.
Janusz and his team are not resting on their laurels, however. For one thing, he’s eagerly awaiting the further lifting of restrictions so he can get back into schools and events to reach more people. In the case of youngsters, this has been especially impressive- as I’ve seen for myself in the past from their hands-on coaching sessions. At these events, families of different nationalities mix and learn catch and release fishing in the best way possible, with speakers of various languages and qualified Angling Trust coaches.
“In this way, we make fishing fun and get people learning the rules from a young age” says Janusz. “In the school sessions, we can get groups of over 200 kids!” In this way, they are turning a perceived threat to UK fishing into a big positive.
It’s all part of the bigger picture that all the professionals here today are working towards. So, while boots and eyes on the bank continue to be important, there is a great deal more going on behind the scenes, from technology to education. This is why a joined-up approach is a must, and why days like this are so important.
It only remains for me to give a big hand to everyone involved and to remind all of my fellow anglers to make sure you are all licenced (and if you’re in any doubt which licence you need, our previous blog post on the topic explains all). After all, there will be many more patrols this year, right across the country. Furthermore, every licence helps angling as a whole, and annual sales help to fund an awful lot of good work to protect and improve your fishing.
Don’t forget, if you see any illegal or suspicious activity on the bank, please report it immediately using the emergency hotline number on the back of your licence (0800 807060)