Let's start with the sums. While fishing plays a very minor part of the EA's overall responsibilities, the amounts involved still look staggering. During the 99/2000 financial year, the Agency's accounts show it spent £23 million on fisheries management. You could be forgiven for wondering where it all went.
Two-thirds of this - we're talking nearly £15million - came from rod licence sales. The rest came from Government grants totalling just under £8million. Coarse anglers make up the bulk of licence buyers. Add up the sales from the EA's eight regions and you'll find it sold 1,101,095 coarse and trout licences, compared to just 29,132 salmon licences last year. The figures are rough. Yet they clearly show that coarse and trout anglers outnumber those who pursue the so-called king of fish by around 40 to one. Looking at it another way, while coarse and trout licences raked in £13,266,702 last year, the EA earned just £944,309 from salmon rods. You might expect the figures to have some bearing on the EA's stocking priorities, one of the more tangible returns on your rod £20 licence, but they don't.
While the EA stocked 377,735 coarse fish during the 99/2000 financial year, it introduced 2,149,165 salmon during the same period. So while salmon anglers accounted for around a fortieth of licence sales and a fourteenth of its licence income, the EA stocked six times as many salmon as coarse fish last year.
It is easy to jump to conclusions here. It's easy to assume that coarse anglers' licence fees are subsidising efforts to safeguard salmon stocks. The truth is, they aren't. But the facts of the matter make for even more disturbing reading, at a time when the angling press is full of claims that government funding cuts will mean yet more price hikes and even less for our licence fees.
"There isn't a cross-subsidy" said the EA's Anglian regional fisheries manager John Adams. "This is a charge which has been raised in the past, but the way it's accounted for is separate." He added that the money spent on coarse and salmon fisheries came from different sources, with licence buyers funding coarse and trout fishery projects, and government grants paying the bulk of the EA's salmon conservation work.
One or two recent reports have linked the £1 a year increase in rod licence duties to a £1 million cut in what officials call GIA - government grant-in-aid to the EA, but Mr Adams said this was another red herring. "The reason for the £1 increase was to protect our core funding, which pays for a range of work we do" he said. "What we need is a block of cash for getting habitats right so the fish can look after themselves." So instead of throwing fish at the problem - in layman's terms - they're going to attack the root causes of our declining rivers and put things right.(!??)
The reverse appears to be true when it comes to salmon. Salar's decline has now passed the point where slinging a few thousand in a river is going to make any difference. Only concerted international action, netting bans and tighter control over the salmon farming industry are going to save the fish in the wild. The EA's own statistics paint a depressing picture of the success of its stocking programmes in the Thames and its tributaries.
Fisheries workers stocked nearly 240,000 fish into the river system during 99/2000. In the same year, returns show one returning fish was caught. The only money the government ploughs into freshwater fisheries is being spent on a salmon stocking policy which has done nothing to reverse the decline in returning salmon numbers.
More truth and lies
And what about these spending cuts, from a government that pledged to support fishing and even drew up an angler's charter? While they're out to abolish hunting, they told us fishing was safe under New Labour. Believe that one and you're more than a few maggots short of a full pint.
You might have heard of something called the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Review Group. Its comments on issues like livebaiting and the abolition of the close season on rivers have received a wide airing. Certain other points have not been quite as publicised. Back in 1998, when the Government set up the review group, it made a promise. It said it would not consider the question of fisheries funding until after the review group had completed its research. Cabinet Minister Jack Cunningham made the pledge in a letter to the review group's chair Prof Lynda Warren.
A few weeks later, in a TV interview with Jeremy Paxman, Agriculture Minister Elliot Morley promised grant aid to fisheries would be maintained for the next three years. Shortly afterwards, Mr Morley wrote to Prof Warren, informing her that fisheries spending was going to be cut after all. Prof Warren wasn't happy. She let Mr Morley know it in no uncertain terms. In a strongly-worded letter dated June 8, 1999, she told him:
"The cuts imposed are likely to have a drastic effect on fisheries management across the board and will impact on most areas of our review. The Environment Agency will clearly have to make changes to accommodate such a cut. These might involve fisheries staff and dismantling infrastructure currently dedicated to the maintenance of fisheries.
"You seek to assure me that cuts do not indicate any lessening of the Government's commitment to these fisheries but I think it will be difficult to convince the public of this. Instead salmon and freshwater fisheries seem to have been treated in a cavalier fashion"
Morale in the group was low, Prof Warren's letter went on. The funding U-turn had even made them doubt the government would take any notice of what they said.
"We were led to believe the Government would await our report before making any further decisions on GIA" (fisheries grant-in-aid). She concluded "The commitment has not been honoured and we feel let down."
If professor Warren feels let down spare a thought for how the average guy on the bank feels.
The Government, which acknowledged anglings importance and promised to protect it, won't put its money where its mouth is when it comes to bread and butter coarse fisheries, which are the backbone of the sport. The EA spends every penny it gets from the government on salmon and sea trout fisheries. It stocked around 300,000 salmon into the Thames last year, how many dace did they put in?
"We can find no logical justification for expecting spending on coarse and trout fisheries to be wholly funded by anglers through rod licence duties," the fisheries review says. "A significant proportion of this spending benefits the general public, not only anglers, and should in our view be publicly funded."
The EA reckons any cuts in its activities caused by a reduction in grant aid will be seen in salmon and sea trout fisheries protection. In view of the fact that's where the government's money goes at present, it seems logical enough.
The review says any further cuts will seriously curtail the EA's law enforcement work - i.e. its anti-poaching activities on rivers which still hold enough salmon to make poaching viable. "For coarse and trout fisheries we have identified a number of areas where more needs to be done, in particular control of fish movements, law enforcement and combating fish theft, research, remedying historic damage to habitats". The review goes on "Given the disproportionate contribution coarse and trout anglers already make, we believe that this additional work should be publicly funded."
There are those who argue that the rod licence should be abolished altogether and the money raised by levies on those who apply to the agency to either abstract water or discharge sewage and other substances into our waterways. The review favours keeping it, but without the annual round of price rises - because it gives us a stake in fisheries. It remains to be seen whether the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Review will finally stir the government into supporting the country's biggest participant sport with more than weasel words. Anglers are a notoriously apathetic bunch in any case.
When the EA announced consultation over the rise in rod licence charges, just eight of us wrote in.