“If I Hadn’t Had Ben’s Help, I Wouldn’t Have A Fishery”
In Part Two of our three-part series on the work of an Environment Agency Fisheries Officer, we discover the race to save fish in the face of challenges from our ever-changing environment. The service Ben Norrington and his fellow Fisheries Officers provide is directly funded by the income received from licence sales.
“We need to call in at the fire station.”
It wasn’t a phrase I expected to hear as I joined Environment Agency Fisheries Officer Ben Norrington on a hot, late-summer day and drove to a seriously ailing local fishery. This was a crisis about fish kills not cats up trees, but when the pieces fell into place, Fire Brigade intervention was a simple, if not an obvious choice.
It was also a last resort.
Broomhills Fishery at Stambridge in Essex has a water level crisis and despite their own, very best efforts, the two lakes on the site are drying up and the fish are dying. After a summer of drought, the drought is clearly winning.
“The groundwater used to be higher,” says Ben. “Resulting in the lakes being fuller and the surrounding land wetter. That now isn’t the case and the owner needs our help.”
This is not Ben’s first visit so he knows the score and, with levels dropping ever lower, emergency assistance from the fire service is urgently required.
The two lakes sit across a field from a main road. On the near side of the main road is a fire hydrant. Ben’s plan is to connect fire hoses across the field and raise levels in the main feeder lake. To do this, Ben needs the permission of the Essex Fire Service and he’s worried he might not get it.
But he does.
So, after a phone conversation to confirm the plan with the local water company, Ben has the go ahead to offer water to a venue whose remaining fish are in danger of following the hundreds that have already succumbed.
It’s clear that Broomhills has taken all the management advice offered but even so, the water table has been so low that it’s not getting any freshwater input. Ben and the Environment Agency have previously helped move distressed fish which has benefitted other fisheries thanks to the co-operative approach Ben discussed in part one of this series. The process has provided stock to clubs in Basildon, Rochford, Billericay, Kelvedon and Chelmsford and as a usually prolific spawning water, Ben estimates that over the last five or six years, Broomhills Fishery has donated between ten to fifteen thousand fish. Now, after a period of ever-declining conditions, fishery leaseholder, Les Beagley knows it’s time for desperate measures to safeguard those that remain.
“It’s been quite bad over the last few years and it’s getting worse’” says Les. “The inlet stream is now dry all the way back to Ashingdon which is about five or six miles away. That usually fills this lake and more along the way so there’ll be others with problems too. If I hadn’t had Ben’s help, I wouldn’t have had a fishery.”
As the hoses are put into place across the field and through the brambles, Les points out the tell-tale signs of pending disaster. There’s an aerator that can no longer be used because the water level is so low, all it will do is disturb the silt and cause more harm than good.
The inlet area from the stream is dry and overgrown rather than vibrant with fresh, natural supplies and there’s a boat moored on a dry ‘beach’ at a point where it would normally be well afloat.
“I’ve been trying to top this up myself,” says Les. “I’ve got a 1,000-litre tank which I hooked up to my truck and I’ve been doing 6-a-day but all it was doing was just about keeping the levels. It’s got to the stage where I just can’t keep up.”
The hose is in, the water is flowing and hope is afoot. After a handshake and a hug of gratitude, it’s time to move on to another fish kill site where the water level is generally fine but oxygen levels have fallen rapidly.
“This one came through our Incident Hotline,” says Ben. “The Postal and Telecom Angling Club is quite an old public club in the Colchester area. They have about eight waters and the one we’re going to has suffered an oxygen crash. It had fish in distress on the surface and a lot of them dying.”
Ben’s colleague, Andy Ward is waiting for us. Andy is taking oxygen readings after a period in which values plummeted to a disastrously low level. It appears that the daytime process of photosynthesis, wasn’t keeping pace with the overnight consumption by the plant life. Lower dissolved oxygen levels meant dying and distressed fish.
Now, after necessary intervention and a long, hot summer, oxygen levels have increased to a point that’s providing perfect growing conditions for an algal bloom covering 70 to 80% of the surface. Patience is now required while nature follows human intervention to restore – they hope – a perfect balance. The wait may be long, but at least the complete devastation of a fishery that once held specimen fish in a wonderful woodland setting, has been averted.
“This venue had a massive problem,” says Andy Ward. “We have four categories for assessment purposes and straightaway we assessed it as a Category 2, but as we gathered more information it very quickly moved to a category 1.
“We put incident response equipment in place to aerate but mechanical aeration wasn’t sufficient because the biological oxygen demand was so great that the organic material was using up all the oxygen we were putting in. At that point, we had to go to our Plan ‘B’ which is a chemical approach with hydrogen peroxide.
“When we first get to a place like this, we assess whether there’s a pollutant involved from a third party. In this instance we’re satisfied there wasn’t, so then we have to create a picture of what’s happened. The sampling we do and the information we get from the club and its anglers all become critical. We’ll ask for the date of the last stocking. Have they done a weed cut? Has there been lots of bait going in?
“The answers to these questions and the readings taken, will help us determine the reasons for problems the fishery is experiencing. We will then discuss with the club solutions to give the best chance of avoiding a repeat in the future. In the years to come, the club’s future actions could well include general habitat work and the thinning of trees to provide wind corridors across the lake to provide natural aeration.”
When it gets this bad, the Environment Agency will encourage clubs and fisheries to get their own equipment where possible and to become more self-sufficient. That could mean simply taking their own oxygen meter readings day-in, day-out and pre-empt an incident before it happens. If conditions change, clubs with that information at their disposal can then make a timely call to the Environment Agency and avert a potential crisis. On this occasion, Postal and Telecom A.C. made the call when the crisis was upon them.
“We were fearful we were going to lose all the fish in the water,” says Brian Drury, Chairman, Senior Trustee and Club Secretary. “The Environment Agency’s help in saving this water has been absolutely brilliant. They provided equipment and stayed with it all night until we got some of our people involved. They’ve dealt with it admirably.”
Permission had to be sought for the Fishery Officers to stay and work through the night, but special dispensation was granted because of the severity of the situation.
“The whole surface was covered with dead fish,” says Wes Leeks Principal Bailiff. “We reckon we’ve lost about thirty-odd thousand pounds worth of fish and it’s virtually killed the whole carp population. There might be the odd one or two left but not many.”
Smaller fish have survived largely due to their lesser oxygen requirement and when conditions allow, the only way to return the lake to former glories may be a re-stocking programme. The club has plans to invest, as does a generous landowner but in support of that, Ben, Andy and the Environment Agency will manage options through the local co-operative programme. When all is put together as one environmental package, it might just ensure a club that almost lost an entire local venue can restore itself to former glories.
Coming soon in the final part of our Fisheries Officer series:
Away from fish kills and oxygen crashes, we encounter the positive side of the job and explore the work done that engages whole communities and brings smiles to the faces of countless young anglers.
If you see fish in distress or suspect a fish disease outbreak, please call the Environment Agency’s National Incident Hotline immediately on: 0800 80 70 60.
If you would like advice or assistance form your local Fisheries Officer, contact them by calling 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.
2 thoughts on “A Day in The Life Of…. A Fisheries Officer(Part 2)”
good reading, it’s easy for people who don’t know the details of someone’s job to criticize it, and they are not prepared to their money where their mouth is