A River Runs Polluted

I’m probably speaking for many anglers out there when I say that a river is one of my favourite types of environment to be around. Not just for the obvious fishing benefits, but for what they do for my soul. There’s something enthralling and humbling about the constant flow of a healthy river, carving its way through the earth on its way down to some distant ocean. Unfortunately, though, a healthy river is becoming a rather rare thing to find in my home country of the United Kingdom, specifically England.

Results of a study by the Environment Agency (who we pay our fishing licence fees to) back in September 2020 revealed that just 14% of English rivers are of good ecological standard (in simple terms, as close to their natural state as possible). You read that right, 14%. Even more staggering is that for the first time since such measurements were taken, zero rivers in England achieved a good chemical status. Zero. Nada. Not one.

For context, back in 2016, the same survey showed that about 97 per cent of English rivers had a good chemical status. Apparently the new measurements are a little stricter than they once were, but I was still shocked. Like any good journalist (and angler), I couldn’t just absorb these figures and not ask myself, “what the hell is going on?”

As soon as I started looking into this more, I wished that I hadn’t. The first thing I ran across was an exclusive investigation by UK newspaper, The Guardian. The Guardian revealed that during 2019, water companies in England discharged raw sewage into rivers on more than 200,000 separate occasions. In total that meant than untreated human waste was released into streams and rivers for a combined total of 1.5 million hours in that year.

You can stop at this point to barf, if you like. I’m certainly eyeing my expensive Simms waders with the corner of my eye right now…Apart from the really gross stuff, other key sources of pollution in English rivers include chemical discharge from industry and agricultural run-off (actually, that’s equally as disgusting as the human waste).

Impact of untreated waste on fisheries

A wild brown trout from the River Tees, an 85-mile fishery coursing its way through the north of England.

It goes without saying, that this much pollution going into English rivers is having an adverse effect on both fish and other wildlife and plant life that call them home. Left unchecked, there will no doubt be irreversible effects for the fishing industry, aquatic life and one of the most beautiful natural environments we have on this planet. I had to sit back from my computer after researching this and take a few deep breaths. Surely, something was fighting back in the other direction?

Thankfully, the problem has not gone unnoticed by one of the UK’s main angling organisations, the Angling Trust. Back in October, they started a campaign called Anglers Against Pollution, which aims to unite anglers in the fight against this pollution crisis via petitions, writing to their local Members of Parliament, wearing merchandise with the logo, and by joining and supporting the Angling Trust itself. In its own words on the matter: “The Angling Trust has been campaigning for cleaner waterways since 1948 and through our new campaign, Anglers Against Pollution, seeks to give anglers a voice in the fight for a better future for our environment by holding the Government to account for its promises, its actions and its responsibilities.

“Our waterways are suffocating from all forms of pollution – from agricultural runoff to plastics, chemical pesticides to raw sewage – time is no longer a luxury we can afford in the fight for a cleaner tomorrow for our environment, our fish and our sport.”

This campaign has been relatively well picked up by the UK fishing public – frankly, anyone who sees the result of the Environment Agency survey would feel compelled to do something. It has also been supported by another UK body, Salmon and Trout Conservation, which purports to look after the interests of wild fish. Its Head of Science and Policy, Dr Janina Gray, described the overall situation as ‘depressing’. 

The River Dove runs through central England home to grayling and wild Brown trout.

Gray is not wrong. We all know what’s happening is wrong, which is why it’s utterly crazy that it’s even happening. Like most things in a similar vein (hello, climate change), we are very good as a species at joining ‘team ostrich’ and burying our heads in the sand because it won’t change the world we wake up to tomorrow. But that short-termism has to end. Ignore a problem for enough tomorrows, and it becomes a permanent problem of today. As an industry that thrives on the health of waterways and fisheries, we simply have to support these kinds of initiatives. Even if that is just sharing the cause and raising awareness – that’s the very least we can do. We have a problem here that the Environment Agency is underfunded by the Government, and many of these pollution sources are out of our control, but we have to take some kind of a stand. Whether that’s by lobbying Government, putting money into campaigns or raising awareness.

The American comparison

Imagine the Cuyahoga River in Ohio – a river that has been so plagued with pollution problems, its condition led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. In 1969, the Cuyahoga famously burst into flame due to extraordinarily high levels of pollution. Now, imagine a level of pollution not too far away from this (if things carry on unchecked), throughout an entire country.

It doesn’t even bear thinking about. Movements are beginning to try and reverse this potential pollution nightmare, but are they enough? I don’t know. All I can say is that we—as an industry—have a huge responsibility to stay aware of issues of like this and throw as much of our money, weight, and power at them as we can. It is our responsibility as businesses that make money from a hobby in the outdoors.

If we do not, the rivers I have etched in my fond memory bank could become a thing that exist only in the past.