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Home / Sporting Events / Fishing / Conwy net anglers fear planned salmon bylaws will end 200-year tradition

Conwy net anglers fear planned salmon bylaws will end 200-year tradition

With the summer tide ebbing on the Conwy , a rowing boat takes up a central position on the river, a 100-yard nylon net strung across the water to the shoreline.

When Thomas Jones starts rowing, he follows a semi-circular path so that the boat makes land some 70 or 80 yards upriver.

Still holding the other end of the net, his father, Trevor, moves up the shoreline and draws it towards the boat, hoping to sweep up fish in its path.

It’s a technique honed over two centuries. Trevor, 73, is a fourth generation netsman who can recall the halcyon days when draw netting on a good tide at Caerhun, Talycafn, would yield five or six salmon and sea trout.

These days it’s usually a thankless task: on the 30 tides the pair fished last year, they caught two small salmon and one sea trout. For this they paid an annual licence fee of £375.

They do catch other, lower value fish such, as flounder, but the returns barely cover the fee. At best it’s now a hobby, a duty to maintain tradition.

Seine netting in the Dyfi Estuary, west Wales

Seine netting in the Dyfi Estuary, west Wales

Both now worry they may be the last of Conwy’s netsmen. A consultation by Natural Resources Wales, which closed on Tuesday, is proposing bylaws that will ban all salmon catches. All sea trout more than 60cm will also have to be returned to the river.

“The technique we use, draft netting, is inefficient, as it’s a form of blind fishing ,” said Trevor.

“It was successful when there were plenty of fish in the river. Now this is no longer the case, catches are very low and we believe the licence fee should be lowered to reflect this.”

Until the 1970s there were seven licenced netsmen on the Conwy – including two at Caerhun. Others operated off Caernarfon , often catching dozens of fish in heavy nets, while the Dee was a thriving net fishery until the licences were bought out by rod anglers.

The Conwy now has just three licenced netsmen, who claim their impact on salmon and sea trout numbers is negligible.

“Years ago we’d fish both daily tides throughout the season, except weekends,” said Trevor.

“Both the rod and net anglers were never short of fish but it wasn’t to the detriment of fish stocks. Then things started to go wrong.”

Thomas Jones and father Trevor fear NRW's proposed bylaws will severely curtail net angling where it still clings on in Wales

Thomas Jones and father Trevor fear NRW’s proposed bylaws will severely curtail net angling where it still clings on in Wales
(Image: Ian Cooper)

If anglers and the NRW agree on one thing, it is the extent of the crisis facing Welsh rivers and the need for radical action.

The cause, and thus the solution, is a different matter. Diffuse pollution from farmland finds some commonality, but rod anglers also point to poaching, the demise of hacheries and predation by fish-guzzzling birds.

Traditional enmity towards netsmen has also resurfaced, but both parties will be affected by NRW’s proposed bylaws: game anglers fear an exodus from Wales, while netsmen can see the end of a centuries-old tradition.

In reality, poaching – and cutbacks in bailiff numbers – is less of an issue than it used to be, as there are fewer fish to take.

Others point to the amount of drift netting that occurs in Conwy Bay. “NRW should be looking outwards from the estuary, not inwards,” said one fisherman.

Trevor agrees: “On any given day we might have up to 100 yards of netting in the river which is made of nylon, and so is visible to the fish,” he said.

“At the same time there will be 3,000 yards of mono-filament nets – ghost nets – in the bay. And while they are not fishing for salmon, some are bound to get caught up. Are they returned?”

Sewin (sea trout) are much harder to net on the Conwy than in past years, Trevor says

Sewin (sea trout) are much harder to net on the Conwy than in past years, Trevor says

The new mandatory catch-and-release bylaws, if passed, will result in many fish being returned to the water dead: such is the nature of net fishing, said Trefor.

But he accepts there is no simple solution. “Conwy is not really a sea trout river and there have been few salmon caught there in the past 15-20 years.

“A combination of factors are probably to blame but I personally believe water quality is the biggest.

“We used to catch thousands of sparlings and shads until they disappeared in the late 1970s. Now we see mainly eels and flounder, which are less sensitive to dirty water.”

As well as a substantial cut in the licence fee, Trefor would like to see greater flexibility in the proposed bylaws.

Ten years is too long, he believes. “I’d like to see a review every few years, just in case fish stocks recover. We can only live in hope.”

Trevor and Thomas Jones, who also run Conwy Mussels, are alarmed by new plans that would force shellfish fishermen to use licensed boats

Trevor and Thomas Jones, who also run Conwy Mussels, are alarmed by new plans that would force shellfish fishermen to use licensed boats
(Image: Ian Cooper)

Mussel collectors face boat licensing threat

Trevor and Thomas are also facing a threat to the family’s mussel harvesting business.

The Welsh Government is requiring Conwy’s mussel gatherers to licence their boats – a process likely to cost thousands of pounds.

This dates back to a lapsed piece of legislation in 2008 – The Conwy Mussel Fishery Order 1948.

Since then, Conwy Council has been responsible for issuing permits to gather mussels.

Fearing the potential loss of its age-old mussels sector, on Tuesday the authority’s cabinet agreed to intervene to see if it could permanently take over regulatory control from Cardiff.

Mussel gatherers claim the regulation shouldn’t apply to them anyway, as they’re not fishing out at sea.

Janet Finch-Saunders visits Trevor and Thomas Jones at Conwy Mussels on the quayside

Janet Finch-Saunders visits Trevor and Thomas Jones at Conwy Mussels on the quayside

Aberconwy AM Janet Finch-Saunders called the situation “absurd”.

“It needs to be addressed as it’s affecting the livelihoods of almost everyone involved in this tiny industry.

“Obtaining licenses for boats that they shouldn’t need will cost thousands of pounds and potentially jobs too.”

Mussel men use a shallow-draft boat known as a “dory” and hand-rake the mussels using pine wood rakes up to 49ft in length.

This was one of the special features that enabled the mussels to be awarded Protected Designation of Origin status by the European Commission.

It means Conwy Mussels is protected like some of the best food and wine, such as Champagne or Italian prosciutto ham.

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