Distribution and Status of Freshwater Fish Populations in the UK

By Graeme Peirson (Project scientist in the National Coarse Fish Centre, Environment Agency, Kidderminster

Traditionally, most amateur naturalists and conservation and wildlife bodies have focused upon birds, plants, the more charismatic insect groups such as dragonflies and moths, and mammals, and have overlooked one of our most important and ubiquitous species groups fish. This tendency is high-lighted by the fact that fish are the only species group for which there is no modern UK distribution atlas of the kind familiar to amateur specialists in birds, plants and invertebrates.

Freshwater fish are of considerable importance to society as a whole. Fisheries are of considerable economic value: commercial salmon and eel/elver fisheries in inland waters in England and Wales are thought to be worth up to 4 million annually; however this figure is dwarfed by the total value of recreational fishing which is estimated at 2.7 billion per annum. In addition, the market value of fishing rights is estimated at over 3 billion.

Fish are also of considerable social and cultural importance. Whilst commercial inland fisheries exploiting salmon, eels, and formerly other species for food are in decline in the UK, in historical times they supported distinctive communities in much the same way as marine fisheries have done. Currently, there are approximately three million freshwater recreational anglers in England and Wales, comprising people of all ages and from all walks of life.

Fish species and communities are arguably the best indicators of the well-being of aquatic ecosystems, not just in terms of water quality but water quantity and the physical environment. Fish are relatively long-lived and are mobile, choosing not to occupy waters which might not be lethal to them, but which are nevertheless environmentally degraded.

So why do mainstream conservation interests generally overlook fish? The answer is probably one of perception: normally, fish cannot be seen. Only under clear-water conditions in the height of summer are fish generally apparent and even then not in any detail: the casual observer gains only a tiny insight into complex and exiting world beneath the water surface. Even in the dark icy waters of winter floods the daily battles for survival and supremacy continue unabated. Only the angler has any appreciation of this drama as he uses skill, understanding and experience to present the bait naturally to the feeding fish.

Fish do have considerable conservation value in their own right. 64 species of fish have been recorded in UK fresh and brackish waters. A number of these have been introduced, such as the grass carp (for weed control), rainbow trout (for aquaculture and sport), goldfish (for aquaria and ornamental ponds) and sunbleak (accidentally). 13 species of fish are considered rare or threatened and some, notably the burbot and the common sturgeon, are believed to be extinct in British waters. Fish species and fish communities are under threat from the continuing impacts of pollution, land-use changes, global warming, alien species and over-fishing.

The Environment Agency, in conjunction with CEH (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology) and JNCC (Joint Council for Nature Conservation) are compiling the first fully comprehensive and up-to-date freshwater fish atlas for the UK., utilising datasets from a variety of sources notably the Environment Agency and equivalent bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The database currently has over 150 000 records. It will be available to the general public via the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) and will also be produced as an attractive hard copy publication during 2002.

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