Bailiffs who track down poachers are being equipped with stab vests as a rising tide of organised crime hits the country’s rivers and lakes.
Volunteers more used to netting small-fry thieves and anglers without licences are even getting martial arts training as they try to stop gangs stealing fish worth tens of thousands of pounds to sell on the black market.
The move comes after a bailiff had his car torched and a haul of explosives and weapons was found on a riverbank.
The growing threat stems largely from criminals who make a fortune smuggling live giant “trophy carp” from France into Britain – and from poaching gangs who will go to any lengths to steal the fish worth up to £25,000 once they’re in UK fishing lakes.
So the country’s 500 angling bailiffs, who support the police and the Environment Agency in cracking down on waterways crime, need more protection and training.
Dilip Sarkar, Angling Trust national enforcement officer, said: “Our volunteers are always on the lookout for signs of illegal fishing, poaching, set lines and nets – but every so often they come across more sinister activity.”
Mr Sarkar, a retired police officer, said organised crime had now moved into fishing because trophy carp were worth so much money on the black market.
“We are talking serious money.
A large trophy carp could be worth between £10,000 and £20,000 to a fishery and criminals have cottoned on to this.
“’Our partners at the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Auqaculture Science (Cefas) discovered a shipment at Dover of huge carp being brought in from France.
“A drugs gang from Essex had paid £25,000 for these fish in France and hired a lorry driver to smuggle them into England.
“They would have been worth £250,000 on the black market here.”
In France, it is common for carp to reach more than 45kg (100lb), whereas in the UK it is rare for the fish to exceed 18kg (40lb). So well-heeled anglers will pay a high price to catch one.
Mr Sarkar said: “If you’ve got a lake that has a fish that weighs 50lb in it, people will pay you £1,000 a year to come and fish for it even though all they’re going to do is catch it and put it back.
“So if you invest £20,000 in a fish on the black market, it’s not going to take you long to get your money back.”
And when poachers get word of such a prize fish in a lake, the risk to bailiffs increases.
A bag containing an Uzi submachine gun and two Magnum revolvers attached to a poacher’s line with baited hooks were found by police near Reading.
And a cache of dynamite – used by poachers to stun fish – was found on the banks of the Thames.
Last June an angling club bailiff in Chester-le-Street, Co Durham, had his car set on fire in a targeted attack.
And remote riverbanks are increasingly being used by criminals to stash their ill-gotten gains.
Last April, volunteer bailiffs found a cannabis stash hidden in bushes by the River Nene in Whittlesey, Cambs.
So bailiffs are receiving more serious training from Environment Agency enforcement officers and the Trust’s Fisheries Enforcement Support Service – a team of eight retired police officers, six of whom also manage the Voluntary Bailiff Service network in their regions.
Mr Sarkar confirmed volunteers now wear stab vests and are trained in self-defence, although he stressed none of his volunteers had been assaulted.
But he said: “The discovery of weapons confirms that potentially serious criminal activity goes on and emphasises the crucial role of the Volunteer Bailiff Service as trained eyes and ears.
“The health and safety of our volunteers is obviously paramount.”
In 2014 a fishery bailiff was kicked to the ground and stabbed after challenging poachers.
John Anderson, 53, was set upon with a Stanley knife and his jacket slashed after he challenged two men he had spotted with a dead pike in a carrier bag on a bank at Branston Water Park near Burton, Staffs.
And in 2012, bailiff Bob Stead, 69, was attacked when he caught two men trying to harpoon prized coarse fish with home-made spears.
He was punched in the stomach in the assault at Stonar Lake in Sandwich, Kent.
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Mr Sarker said: “Fishermen are legally allowed to carry knives, which can pose a threat to bailiffs.
Approaching strangers is always an uncertain and potentially dangerous enterprise
“And the Environment Agency will confirm that more of their enforcement staff are abused, threatened or assaulted undertaking this activity than any other.”
Mr Sarkar said not all the 500 volunteer bailiffs undergo martial arts training – just some volunteers selected for further training by the Environment Agency, who are empowered to demand fishing rod licences and deal with certain fisheries offences.
He added: “The vast majority, then, of our Volunteer Bailiffs are trained as ‘eyes and ears’ to report incidents and information to the Environment Agency and the police, making an essential contribution to the all-important intelligence-led process.
“Their role is not to challenge people on the bank and is non-confrontational.”