To NRW re FEB's

Rich/Joel,

Further to yesterdays LFAG meeting debate on FEB’s (note my title – other than Pike I don’t know of any fish eating birds!).  As you will have noted there is overwhelming frustration due to the procrastination on this subject.  NRW were quick enough to impose restrictions on anglers in order to conserve fish stocks and yet shy away from one of the root causes for the decline. 

In the presentation by Pat Lindley at the fisheries forum he raised the conservation conflict between salmonids and FEB’s.  The difference is salmonids are all declared as ‘at risk’ whereas FEB’s are increasing, I refer here to the attached the BTO Wetland Bird Survey 2018 -19 and would direct you to page 12 which shows the trend for all wetland birds – goosanders don’t seem to be in decline.  Neither are cormorants in decline which have their own section on page 28.  The problem with the BTO survey it does not declare numbers instead it refers to trends and indexes I have attached my notes from the Fisheries Forum sent to CPWF supporters re FEB’s which shows the upward trend of goosander in Wales.  The graphs are scaled as an index without a reference datum to numbers.  Without knowing the numbers it is difficult to determine the damage to a fisheries biomass assuming each bird consumes at least 400gm of fish per day.  Is there anyway you can put numbers to the graphs shown in my meeting notes as these graphs are Wales specific, having said this I suspect that counts are for wetland i.e. coastal observations and maybe some main river stems in Wales. 

I can’t remember if it was Chris Porteous or Ian Macdonald who raised the issue of angler participation in bird counts the response did nothing to build confidence in NRW going forward with respect to avian predation. 

During my time as Secretary of Conwy Valley Fisheries & Conservation Association in 2012 I organised an FEB survey using BTO methodology, we sectioned the Conwy system from Llanrwst up to Betws but stopped at Tyn-y-Cae i.e. excluded the Lledr and upper Conwy system although we did include the Llugwy as far as Miners Bridge.  I was unable to take part in the survey due to work commitments and this was carried out by volunteers under the guidance of the late Bob Wilson who was at that time living in Betws as fisheries manager for the Gwydyr Fishery.  From the counts that Bob gave me, based upon a goosander eating 400gm of fish per day and a cormorant 500gm per day I estimated we lost upwards of 20,000 smolt equivalents per year. 

Unfortunately Bob kept the count records and since his death these are no longer available.  However this demonstrates our ability to conduct FEB surveys and provide results.  Once CVF&CA could no longer operate our stocking programme it was dissolved and surplus funds transferred to the Clwyd, Conwy & Gwynedd Rivers Trust (now NWRT) ring fenced for use on Conwy restoration projects. 

I have attached a copy of the FEB survey conducted on the River Eden (this mirrors what we did on the Conwy) which clearly demonstrates the ability of anglers and riparian owners to gather information on FEB’s.  There may have been some double counting in this survey due to birds in flight but the numbers counted are enough to demonstrate damage that can be done due to FEB’s.  Between November 2019 and March 2020 the average count is 463 for goosander and 231 for cormorants allowing for 50% error there could have been 400 FEB’s feeding on the Eden over this period.  Assuming each bird consumes 400gm of fish per day then 160Kg of fish per day could be eaten; over the 18 week period (November to March) this equates to 20 Tonne.  Whilst the numbers may be inaccurate the point is well made in terms of the effect that these birds can have on fish stocks.  For the Eden the diet will not be exclusively salmonids – this is not the case for North Wales rivers (other than the Dee) which only have salmonids (excluding minnows and loach).

For NRW to say that you need to study FEB’s to provide evidence of harm beggars belief, these birds eat fish or as one of our supporters put it ‘they don’t eat salads’.  There seems to be more concern about a legal challenge than in doing something to reduce the level of salmonid predation, action is needed now.

There is perhaps a simple and cost effective way of gathering data on FEB numbers across Wales and that is by engaging with riparian owners and anglers in order to assess numbers as has been done on the Eden.  It may be possible for some of this to be carried out using drones to overfly rivers and film birds for counting later particularly in upland spawning areas where access is limited.  Perhaps it would also be prudent to install camera traps (which are relatively inexpensive) at electro fishing sites any sightings of FEB’s at these sites could  perhaps explain the variability of counts, this could go some way to verify the accuracy of the data used to estimate the conservation limits.

We are not the enemy but we are treated with contempt when we suggest anything which goes against the NRW policy of treating bird populations as sacrosanct not to be touch for fear of the RSPB or Wild Justice raising a legal challenge.  If our salmonid fish stocks are to be restored then action needs to be taken now – not in two years time.  It is time for NRW to fully engage with its stakeholders and commit to carrying out some positive action, we are willing to help but NRW needs to take the lead sooner rather than later.

Chris White

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