Travels with my rod II

Phill Williams

It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since I was previously invited to say a few words as an ‘outsider’ on the state of the fishing both in Scotland, and with sharks and rays in UK waters generally. Not so much in terms of where has all that time gone. More a case of the difference such a short amount of time, given favourable circumstances, can have on cartilaginous fishes generally with their so called Achilles heel of being lumbered with one of three reproductive variations on the low numbers high survival rate breeding strategy of well developed offspring, as opposed to broadcast spawner’s with their huge numerical potential and equally huge losses in the process.

The big fear has and always will be with sharks and rays that when some set back, be it man made or natural befalls them, it will be a long and painful road back to even partial recovery, which as we all know is potentially the case. But when the pressures at the nub of the problem are relaxed, such as when SSACN and other pressure groups get some rewards for their labours, the results, in my opinion anyway, can for some species be spectacular to say the least. Not everywhere I hasten to add. The big question this then raises for me is, if it can be shown to work, however localised, then why not everywhere and for all species.

While I appreciate that SSACN primarily has a Scottish focus, as fish recognise no barriers other that the ones that their specific life-style dictates, and as successes are to be applauded wherever they come from, I’d like to do a quick compare and contrast run through from the two extremities of that five year period, much if not all of which would not have come about were it not for SSACN in particular, and its supporters throughout the length and breadth of the British Isles, plus no doubt parts of mainland Europe too.

Undulate ray Raja undulata rI caught my first ever Undulate Ray at Fenit in Ireland back in 1986, after which, even over there, the species, along with most other ray species, spiralled into almost terminal decline. Some ten years or more before that I would quite regularly take Spotted Rays from Loch Ryan and around the corner in Luce Bay, one of which held the British and Scottish record for some years. Then they too disappeared. Small Eyed Rays could also once be relied upon as a bread and butter fish in parts of Wales and around the west country, then they too were a distant memory. Even the humble Thornback Ray, which on my patch of Lancashire as well as in Luce Bay was the northern bread and butter equivalent to the Small Eyed Ray was driven to the brink.

No doubt some of the other ray species were similarly decimated, but being much more infrequently seen, particularly in northern waters, that impact would be to some extent masked. Yet today all these species appear to have exceeded all expectations at some, though sadly not all locations, though it has to be said that they haven’t always returned to the areas they were previously abundant in. Why that should be is a difficult question to answer. Certainly on my home patch, the once famous Morecambe Bay sees very few rays these days while the nearby River Mersey is stuffed to bursting with the things, with quite a few showing along the Fylde Coast where we rarely ever saw them at all.

I started with the Undulate Ray, and with the rays that’s where I’d like to finish. So numerous are they now along the south coast that they can virtually be caught to order from both the boat and the shore. A friend of mine regularly goes out in his own dinghy and catches five different species of ray in a sitting, including Undulates and Spotted Rays, which have themselves risen phoenix like from the ashes left behind by the tangle netters and long-liners, including for the Spotted Ray in and around Luce Bay.

Smooth houndsThe other startling yet pleasing observation I would like to draw attention to has been the spectacular rise of the Smoothhound. I don’t want to get drawn into arguments relating to the one species or two species debate stirred up by Dr. Ed Farrell, other than to say that my money is very firmly on Ed. Of far greater importance is the recent numerical boom and northerly spread of the species, and long may that continue, though after recent visits to fish markets around the Mediterranean, a protective eye still needs to be kept on that potential situation.

I caught my first Smoothhound in the Thames estuary back in the 1970’s, and outside of that corner of the world, quite literally didn’t expect ever to see one again. Then a few years on, an odd one started putting in a show around Blackpool, though nowhere else seemingly to the immediate north or to the south. Some years later I got a call to go fishing out from Rhyl when it was discovered by Salmon netters that they had suddenly appeared there too, followed a couple of seasons later in the nearby Mersey estuary as part of what looked like a back filling exercise. Next thing I knew I had SSACN projects director Ian Burrett telling me to get up to Luce Bay Smoothhound fishing.

Now it seems they are everywhere and progressing northwards almost as we speak. To all intents and purposes, rising sea temperatures are playing their part in a positive way for once, though no doubt there could also be species losers there too. But for the moment, based on the past five years, for most though not all cartilaginous species, the future is looking tentatively more rosy, and certainly would not have done so had it not been for a lot of behind the scenes hard graft by a small number of unsung hero’s, many of whom ply their trade north of the border, and anglers everywhere should both recognise and be grateful for that.

Whether the next five years follows the same trend depends on a number of un-foreseeable variables, including political changes at both Scottish and UK ministerial level, plus changes within the EU. Who knows, we might even no longer be in the EU by that stage, which at face value might sound like a good result for angling, but still needs very careful consideration before marking the voting slip with an ‘X’. Maybe SSACN should be offering fishery based opinion on that aspect of on-going conservation too.

Phill Williams is a long time angler and angling journalist whose website ‘Fishing Films and Facts’ provides an archive of previously nationally published and site specific angling and subject related articles, plus a wide selection of purpose made instructional short videos.

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