The job of an Environment Agency Fisheries Officer is an important local role that’s regularly misunderstood. So, what do EA Fisheries Officers actually do? The service they provide is directly funded by the income received from fishing licence sales and in the first of a three-part series, we discover the multitude of challenges that regularly confront them.
Ben Norrington is a Fisheries Officer with the Environment Agency, but it’s a title that doesn’t tell even half the story. At ten years old, Ben was transfixed by sharks; an interest that took him on a journey to an environmental science college in Chelmsford, university in Wales and work-experience placements in Holland and New Zealand. Now, when clubs and fisheries in the East Anglian Area call for help from an EA Fisheries Officer, the arrival of Ben Norrington means they’re getting the services of a fully qualified, globally experienced Aquatic Biologist.
“When I was ten, I had a shark book and my answer to all the careers questions was that I either wanted to be a Ranger or swim with Great Whites.” says Ben.
It’s immediately clear that from a very early age, Ben has followed his dream; albeit with a slight twist that shaped his ultimate destiny. “I was mid-way through university when an old school friend invited me to do some work with him at the Environment Agency. I did a fish survey, some crayfish trapping and also went to angling clubs to do some seine netting and thin out some of their carp. So, I sort of got this bug and thought I could work in this area to better the environment by looking at fish populations but also work directly with the public and get into the recreational angling side of things.
“Coming from a science background, I really enjoy collecting the data from summer surveys, showing angling clubs where they might be able to put platforms or doing bits of restoration on rivers to help boost populations.
So even in a small stillwater in Essex, I try and relate the wider picture of global science to the local problem.”
It’s not just about the science. When a club or venue rings into the Environment Agency with a problem or a general question, answering the call can be the beginning of a lasting relationship that can cover almost any aspect of fishery management. Officers will receive requests to investigate fish kills or water quality issues and advise on the remedial action. On the brighter side, Ben and his colleagues can also assist with practical planning and ensure that funds clubs have accrued for themselves or could apply for, such as through the Fisheries Improvement Programme (FIP) are put to good use.
These can be projects such as the provision of safe environments for anglers, or improved access swims specifically for juniors or the less abled bodied.
When you look at the bigger picture, it is work that can either be overtly distressing or generously rewarding. Either way it’s a tough gig.
Today, we’re on our way to the first of four sites where owners and clubs need help but they’re not exactly next door to each other. Ben’s area covers Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk and spans almost 5,000 square miles. Ben is one of just four Fisheries Officers across the area.
“We are increasingly receiving calls from still water fisheries who are experiencing first-hand the direct impacts of climate change” he says.
“I’ve seen very over-stocked fisheries that aren’t necessarily the fault of fishery owners but are the consequence of rising temperatures and the increased rate of spawning. Coupled with this, venues regularly have problems with siltation, leaf litter and eutrophication causing huge algal blooms because of the high levels of nutrients in the lakes. All this affects the water quality and that in turn, impacts on the resident fish stocks.
“When this happens on numerous sites and people are phoning up because fish are stressed or dying, our over-riding priority is incident response and saving fish life.
“It all points towards increasing the resilience of clubs and fisheries, we spend a lot of time giving expert advice and trying to ensure clubs and fisheries are better prepared and take action before a problem arises. We try to arm clubs with incident response equipment through things like the FIP and create more of a co-operative whereby those with kit can help other clubs and fisheries in their area. This approach is especially valuable if we’re stretched all over the place. The idea is to move away from the view that it’s ‘our’ angling club against ‘yours’ and instead, encourage collaboration between fisheries so they can all help each other if the current trend of prolonged dry weather continues.”
We’re at our first venue. Falklands Lake is one of three waters run by Rochford Angling Club.
Ben has worked with the club to help improve the water quality and to advise on improvements that will safely accommodate regular visits from junior angler groups and those of differing levels of mobility. It’s a story that shows the value of the area Fishery Officer when it comes to addressing fish welfare concerns and upgrading the angling facilities for the community.
Today is a check on water quality and the club’s ongoing management of its fish.
“The water meter I’m using costs about £4,000 and you obviously wouldn’t necessarily expect clubs to spend that amount of money, although less expensive versions are available that give a very good set of readings. We’ve got temperature, the level of dissolved oxygen as a percentage and then as milligrams per litre. Specific conductivity tells us how ‘thick’ the water is in terms of the mineral content and its productivity.
“Waters typically average around 750, but this is 1126 so this one is slightly up. But the dissolved oxygen is good and they have diffused aeration.
In general, the club have implemented sensible management actions and have got the appropriate equipment.
“They’ve thinned their stocks out and managed the amount of bait that’s put in and made people aware of what can damage their fishery.”
Rochford’s policy to take the advice and, among other things, manage their own fish stocks does, it seems, reflect well on their club but also illustrates a proactive approach that could benefit other venues.
“Like many fisheries we’ve worked with, it’s not a next-day fix,” says Ben. “You have to look a couple of years in advance. But the biggest thing that’s helped this fishery is the willingness to thin out their stocks and donate the fish.
“You see numerous fisheries buying fish left, right and centre but do they need to do that? Often the answer is ‘crop not stock’. We can advise them as can the likes of the Institute of Fisheries Management (IFM) which has done a lot of work with us to educate people who manage waters. It is becoming more important than ever as our climate gets drier and hotter.”
One thing is clear from our first visit of the day. Warm summers may be good for the soul but they’re hazardous to the health of our fisheries.
As we move on to venue number two, Ben’s day is about to change.
We’re leaving the positivity of one upwardly mobile fishery and heading towards desperation at two others as they attempt to save what’s left of fish stocks that have been ravaged, through no fault of their own, by a summer of drought.
More of that in part two.
If you see fish in distress or suspect a fish disease outbreak, please call the Environment Agency National Incident Hotline immediately on: 0800 80 70 60
If you would like advice or assistance from your local Fisheries Officer, contact them on: 03708 506 506 (Mon-Fri, 8am – 6pm)
If you purchase a licence you are helping to fund the essential work of Ben and his colleagues