Friday, 2 April 2010

Walking the Precipice

The River Thurne system in Norfolk is renowned for producing truly huge Pike such as John Goble's monster 45.08 caught in 2009. This reputation goes back decades and the Thurne is arguably the most historic Pike fishery in Great Britain. The Thurne system is unique in many ways, most notably the water quality. Despite being freshwater the Thurne is very slightly saline, enough for Brine shrimps to live thus giving the food chain a boost.

The Thurne system is also an area of outstanding natural beauty, home to many rare species and an internationally renowned haven for migrating birds. As part of the Norfolk Broads the Thurne is also a much loved tourist destination and with wide expanses of water popular with windsurfers and sailors. All of these activities provide a much needed boost for the local economy.

The Broads Authority is the quango charged with managing this unique natural resource and has to balance the interests of all the interested parties. Financially anglers are, and always have been the poor relations compared to the well healed yachting fraternity and the nature facists.
Prymnesium Parva is an algae and like all photo plankton it blooms when conditions are right. However when it dies it releases a toxin that is deadly to fish. Prymnesium needs saline water and a disturbance of the sediment on the river bed also “helps” the algae bloom. The Thurne system has a sad history of Prymnesium blooms and fish kills going back many years.

John Goble   45.08   2009
Turn the clock back to the late 1960's. The Thurne system was clear and rich in weed, a fabulous fishery which held vast shoals of large Bream, big Rudd and Tench. It was also an unbelievable Pike fishery producing big Pike in numbers that have never been equalled. The largest was Peter Hancock's fish of 40lbs 1oz caught in 1967, the first fully authenticated forty pounder ever caught in Great Britain. Shortly afterwards the river authority at the time dredged ditches in the north of the system, “coincidently” Prymnesium Parva reared its head. In 1969 the Thurne system was virtually wiped out as a fishery, people who were around at the time talk of the stench of rotting fish. Although fish of all species were killed in great numbers, Pike in particular were very badly affected and it took more than a decade for the system to recover. Since 1969 Prymnesium has reoccurred sporadically causing more fish kills, often these blooms have“coincided” with dredging taking place around the system. In between the blooms the Thurne has continued to produce huge Pike like no other natural fishery.

Now jump back to the present day, a few people racing yachts in the Heigham Sounds area of the system run aground. Anyone who knows the area conclude they must have strayed from the boat channel (which is clearly marked) because there is plenty of depth here for any sensible craft. Immediately the yachting fraternity call for the channel to be dredged, the tail wags the dog and the Broads Authority, with a bit of spare cash starts making plans to do just that. Not only are the BA intent on dredging, they plan to use the old fashioned crane and clam style bucket which will drop as much sediment as it removes. If dredging must go ahead then the suction method would be less risky but that would cost more money!

At this point the local anglers start to get worried and voice their concern to the Broads Authority. Much credit has to go to the John Currie, regional organiser for the Pike anglers club of Great Britain who has led the campaign to get the Broads Authority to stop and think about what they propose to do. John has contacted universities and biologists around the world from Texas to Australia and the overwhelming opinion is “we don't know enough about Prymnesium, don't touch it”
At a meeting in January 2010 the BA's representative Dan Hoare gave an informative presentation outlining the dredging plans and fielded difficult questions very well but had to admit that he didn't know anything about the risks caused by Prymnesium. The BA doesn't know what will happen and state they will proceed with caution but once a bloom is triggered there is no way of stopping it. They claim they can't use suction dredging as there is nowhere local to dispose of the sediment and moving it elsewhere will cost money.

A month later Natural England's representative Chris was equally articulate but left the people attending the meeting open mouthed. “NE's remit is to protect the bird life NOT the fish.” Even when it was pointed out that some of the protected birds, the Bittern for example, lived on a diet of fish, NE is still not interested in protecting the Bittern will have to starve. The dredging is set to take place in the early summer, warm water temperatures increase the risk of a Prymnesium bloom so if it has to be done why not the winter months? NE say they do not want over wintering wildfowl to be disturbed. Anyone who knows the Heigham Sounds area will tell you there are very few birds in the area during the winter.

At a planning meeting the following week the Broads Authorities plans were put before the Broads Authorities own planning committee and guess what? Yes they were unanimously passed. JC was given three whole minutes to speak and his protests were waved away, those sitting on the committee don't even know what prymnesium is! In short, the top people at the BA, the people making decisions and spending toll payers money do not know as much about Prymnesium as a humble builder from Norwich!

So to summarise we have a government funded body made up of unelected officials who made an application to dredge Heigham Sounds to appease the yachting bods. This application was approved by their own in-house planning committee. Corruption??? They ignore scientific opinion from around the world that is screaming “don't touch it!!!”. They ignore the more environmentally friendly (therefore expensive) methods of doing the work. They ignore the fact that this dredging is likely to trigger an algal bloom that could cause the deaths of millions of fish, and worst case scenario, wipe out an ecosystem and devastate the local economy.

The Broads Authority is a well intentioned organisation gone wrong. Too much bureaucracy, too many people making unsound decisions and trying to justify their salaries. They have a history of not listening to other opinions and just blundering on regardless. If the dredging goes ahead and goes wrong those opposed to it will not keep quiet, those responsible will be called to account.

The fight to stop this madness will not cease and the next opportunity for interested parties to voice their concerns is at the Broads Authority public meeting at Dragonfly House, 2 Gilders Way Norwich. NR3 1UB on Friday 21st May 2010. Should be a lively meeting.

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