Opinion: It’s still the habitat, stupid

BACK in the day when men were men and political slogans still used verbs, the soon to be a two-term American president, Bill Clinton, put the words “It’s the Economy Stupid” on large banners that were displayed in all his campaign offices across the USA.

This was not so much a message to the American people but a reminder to his election workers and advisors of the importance of remaining focused on the key issue which would bring them success.

A few years later when I was asked to write the Keep Australia Fishing report for your boating and fishing tackle industry I shamelessly stole the Clinton words in order to emphasise the importance of protecting and improving habitat for recreational fisheries.

One of the key recommendations in my report sought to encourage angler involvement in habitat restoration:

“Most anglers recognise and support genuine environmental action to reverse habitat destruction, protect threatened species and change unsustainable fisheries and land use practices. We need to have recreational fishers fully engaged in promoting policies and programmes that benefit the aquatic environment on which our sport depends.”

Its funny how, on occasions, simply penning a few well chosen words can lead to good things happening and lasting friendships. I can’t quite remember the sequence of events but at some point during the compiling of Keep Australia Fishing I was contacted by Craig Copeland, a Conservation Manager working for the New South Wales state government. We had lunch with Jim Harnwell in Sydney and so began my involvement with the Fishers for Habitat project.

This was an excellent example of angling groups engaging positively with habitat restoration and fisheries protection and is a licence funded programme that had been operating successfully in NSW for a number of years. Here recreational fishers were rolling up their sleeves and helping to replace damaged and degraded habitats, removing barriers to fish migration and replanting the river edges to protect against erosion. Whilst this was pretty groundbreaking stuff in Australia, similar initiatives had been underway in the USA and Europe for some time.

Nonetheless Fishers for Habitat has attracted international recognition and praise from leading US angler and conservationist Tom Sadler. Following his visit in 2009 he said:

“It is incumbent upon people involved in hunting and fishing to be good stewards of the land. It is in fact the true measure of what makes a good sportsman. Not just going out for a fish, but making the fishing better for future generations.

“To be good stewards takes a lot of effort. It means giving time, money and energy to help restore the habitat that is vitally important. It means giving up something today so future generations can enjoy it, even if those who come later and enjoy the benefits of your sacrifice will never know it is you who deserves the thanks.”

Tom’s words still resonate as strongly today and directly led me to making common cause with Trout Unlimited and some of the other US based conservation groups of which he has been a part. Now back in the UK and working for our own national representative body, the Angling Trust, the links with Craig Copeland and the wider international fish habitat movement have grown ever stronger.

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Craig Copeland (left) with Martin Salter during his visit to the UK last year to look at habitat restoration.

Last year it was my pleasure to help host Craig on the UK part of his Churchill Scholarship tour to discover best practice and to find out what motivates anglers in the USA, Ireland and Britain to get involved with habitat restoration. As well as learning about the work of the Angling Trust and our partners, Fish Legal, in taking action against those who degrade habitat and pollute fisheries, Craig was able to visit the beautiful River Wye catchment in Wales and learn about some of their groundbreaking work which has seen salmon returning to the headwaters in ever increasing numbers. He had some particularly kind things to say about the efforts of our own Wild Trout Trust (WTT), who, although not an organisation as large as their American cousins, have done some superb work in getting volunteers into rivers on projects to reverse poor farming practices and improve in stream habitat for fish and other wildlife.

Here’s what he said of his UK visit:

“Probably the most interesting and useful thing that I saw was the role that recreational fishing based organisations and the Government agencies played to support recreational fishers that become energetic on the habitat front. The WTT and various Rivers Trusts are in place across the UK on behalf of fish, delivering outcomes on the ground to improve fisheries. By their presence and organisation they allow recreational fishers to become engaged on complex habitat issues that might if looked at by an individual seem insurmountable.”

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Working for the habitat – Photo taken at last year’s Rivers Week in the Thames catchment.

For myself, having watched my own local river decline beyond recognition, I remain determined to try and engage my fellow fishers in fighting back. The Angling Trust has been working with WTT on a new Rivers and Wetlands Community Days programme to lever additional funding into habitat improvement work that gets angling and wildlife groups out in the countryside, installing woody debris and flow deflectors and helping to create productive spawning sites and fish passages to aid recruitment and migration.

I’m encouraged that across the planet recreation fishing groups are starting to learn from each other as we bang the drum ever louder for fish habitat. Craig Copeland, of course, wants us to go further.

He is working on setting up an International Fish Habitat Network – to connect people and organisations carrying out fish habitat work and hopefully make the task a little easier by sharing knowledge and best practice. Craig is about to launch an international survey with partner organisations in the UK, USA, Ireland and Australia. It should take no more than 5 minutes of your time and is available at

The problems facing fish and fishing are no respecter of international boundaries. We can only applaud the efforts of people like Sadler and Copeland who urge us on to put something back into the habitat on which our fishy world depends.

Martin Salter is Fishing World’s foreign editor.

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