News story

Fish free to roam our rivers could boost biodiversity

Rivers across England could benefit from new Government plans to help address declining freshwater fish stocks so native species can thrive

Minister Eustice with representatives of the Rivers Trust at the River Fowey

Migration within rivers and between rivers and the sea is an important part of the lifecycles of many species of fish native to England. But these journeys can be impeded by structures like weirs or water intakes, hampering fishes’ efforts to reproduce or feed.

This month the Government is setting out proposed new legislation to remove obstructions or build fish passes to provide a route around or through these hurdles.

These passes already exist on some rivers across the country, as do protective screens to stop fish getting trapped in water intakes—but more action is needed.

New legislation to facilitate fish passage could help recover stocks of species like salmon, which are born in our rivers and swim to the Atlantic to mature for up to three years before returning to the same river to spawn.

Speaking as he visited the River Fowey in Cornwall with The Rivers Trust to see first-hand work that had improved fish passage, Fisheries Minister George Eustice said:

Improving and restoring our rivers is key to the Government’s vision for a cleaner, healthier environment—but we can’t do this alone. That’s why the work of organisations like The Rivers Trust is so important, and we are increasingly working in partnership to take action to protect iconic species like salmon, including by ensuring them safe passage in our rivers.

Addressing the decline in fish stocks not only benefits the environment, but boosts the economy too, improving angling opportunities and benefitting commercial freshwater fisheries, helping the rural economy to thrive.

Increasing freshwater fish will mean anglers can enjoy catching all kinds of different species, both in tranquil riverside surroundings or surprising fishing hotspots in our towns and cities. Four million anglers in England and Wales spend £3 billion on angling every year, supporting around 37,000 full-time jobs. Better angling opportunities can lead to higher revenues from tourism, helping to build a thriving rural economy.

Arlin Rickard, Chief Executive of The Rivers Trust, said:

We welcome the introduction of new legislation by the Government to promote the free passage of fish and other benefiting species.

Our national network of Rivers Trusts will be working closely with water companies, drainage authorities, river owners and farmers to seek cost effective solutions to enable fish to migrate freely throughout our rivers. These environmental measures will provide long term community, social and economic benefits.

Fish passes have been used for decades to help ensure fish can make their long journeys through England’s rivers. The Environment Agency works with organisations like the Rivers Trusts and others to get fish passes installed, and remove some obstructions entirely. Proposed new legislation will make taking action to improve fish passage a legal requirement for some critical obstructions, aiming to address obstacles that still prevent or delay fish on their journeys.

The Government works closely with partner organisations like The Rivers Trust to enhance the biodiversity of our watercourses and manage fish stocks. At the River Fowey in Cornwall, the Westcountry Rivers Trust is working with the Environment Agency and the Angling Trust to engage and empower anglers and riverside-dwellers to manage and improve fisheries.

These kinds of locally-led partnerships are vital to the future of our environment, and will form an essential strand of future plans to protect and enhance our natural surroundings through Defra’s new 25 Year Environment Plan, to be published later this year.

Further information

The new five-point approach to salmon conservation developed by the Environment Agency and partners including The Rivers Trust sets out measures to benefit salmon including reducing exploitation by nets and rods, removing barriers to migration and enhancing habitats, improving water quality, safeguarding sufficient flows and improving marine survival to increase stocks.

Since 2009 the Environment Agency and partners have installed 82 fish passes on England’s main salmon rivers, which combined with removing or altering other barriers have opened up 5,767 kilometres of river and reduced or removed 44 unsustainable water abstractions on salmon rivers.

Published 14 March 2016