2018: A year in review

What have we achieved this year?

2018 has been our biggest year yet! So where has your support got us, and what have we done for wild fish protection and conservation? Our CEO's Year In Review summaries our influence, accomplishments and campaigns over the past 12 months. 

With the help of our many donors, members and grant-making Trusts, S&TC has had a successful year in influencing a number of wins for wild salmon and trout. The below is a quick summary; however you can download the full review here.

Accomplishments:

  • Salmon farming - we were the major catalyst in achieving TWO game-changing Scottish inquiries into salmon farming impacts on wild fish and environment:
    • ECCLR – they conducted the first Inquiry and their Report included the one-liner: the status quo is no longer an option.
    • REC - their Autumn Report was highly critical of the way salmon farming is operated and regulated and presented 65 recommendations for improvement, including most of our main asks.
  • NASCO - we work internationally on wild salmon issues through NASCO, our CEO being co-chair of the accredited NGOs which gives us unprecedented influence. Amongst other issues, we have used NASCO to influence netting closures and pressurise Scottish salmon farming.
  • Riverfly Census - 3 years and 20 rivers later, we have professional and actionable evidence of various pollutants impacting river health, nationally and locally.
    • Census results have shown up the alarmingly poor condition of some of our most high-profile rivers, particularly from sediment and phosphate, and we co-authored a peer-reviewed paper showing the lethal impact of those two stressors on mayflies.
    • The full Riverfly Census report is currently being compiled but has already influenced new invertebrate species and abundance targets for chalkstreams. The Test and Itchen report is now available.
  • Living Rivers - we've been sampling daily phosphate and chemical levels on local chalkstreams, highlighting and challenging some appalling ecological conditions, specifically:
    • Using a case study on the Upper Itchen at Alresford Salad’s washing plant to fight for the elimination of toxic chemical discharges into SAC rivers.
  • Other S&TC policy work - There has been plenty of other work this year, including but definitely not limited to:
    • Water abstraction reform.
    • Agricultural post-Brexit policy.
    • Our seat on the EA’s Water Leaders’ Group, which covers all environmental water issues.
    • Our seat on the National Drought Group, where we have represented wild fisheries since 2011.

Next Steps:

  • Salmon farming - drive the REC Committee’s recommendations through Government so that they are acted upon rather than ignored.  In particular:
    • Scottish Government to adopt legal responsibility to protect wild salmon and sea trout from the impacts of salmon farming.
    • An independent agency to regulate salmon farming against sea lice trigger levels that protect wild fish, with the sanction of forced harvest on persistent offenders.
    • A moratorium on establishing/expanding farms in sensitive locations and movement of existing farms away from migration routes.
    • Incentives for companies to move into closed containment production.
  • Netting - we are concerned that sea trout will still be exploited in some of the north east coastal nets and we will be seeking more action in 2019 to protect sea trout.
  • SMARTrivers - Our new project, based on training and utilising high resolution citizen science to understand and improve wild fish water quality.
  • Living Rivers - We will continue to fight for the protection of the Upper Itchen and have major chemical sampling plans for other rivers in 2019.
  • Much more - stay tuned for our 2019 plans, in January.

Latest data on River Test and River Itchen reveals concerning issues

Test and Itchen are no exception to national decline in water quality and flylife

The S&TC Riverfly Census continues to reveal worrying declines in flylife and water quality in rivers across England and Wales, as confirmed by our latest report on the River Test and the River Itchen (the king and queen of our precious chalkstreams).

In our comprehensive Test and Itchen report published today, the results from three years of independent species-level invertebrate data reveal:

  • Significant loss of mayfly species.
  • Low gammarus counts.
  • Worrying impacts from sediment, phosphate and, occasionally, pesticides.

Mayfly and gammarus declines

Comparing historic data with our findings has revealed that both the Test and Itchen have four less mayfly species, on average, than their historical averages. This decline in mayfly species richness, and the worrying low numbers of gammarus, are powerful indicators of an ecosystem in distress.

The flylife in both rivers is far poorer than we would expect for chalkstreams in good condition  - let alone these SSSI (Sites of special scientific Interest) and SAC (Special Area of Conservation) rivers.

Mayfly species have declined from an average of 12 to 8 (33.3%) on the Itchen and 11 to 7 (36.36%) on the Test, over the period from the late 1970s/early 1980s to today.

The current levels are also well below local targets of 10 mayfly species - targets agreed with the Environment Agency for what would be expected in a healthy river.

Gammarus, a key staple of the aquatic food chain, is also well below our 500-target level at most sites (historically, gammarus counts went into the thousands).

Excess sediment and phosphorus

Our report reveals the extent that chemical, phosphorus and sediment pollution are impacting the invertebrate community in both the Test & Itchen.

It is clear that a reduction of sediment and phosphate inputs (from point and diffuse sources, including septic tanks, agriculture, sewage treatment works, industry, etc) are essential to conserve these rivers.

Importance of the S&TC Riverfly Census

Lauren Mattingley, S&TC’s Science Officer, explains why data like this is so important:

“We frequently hear stories and concerns about missing flylife and lack of fish compared to the 'good old days', but anecdotal evidence has little weight in environmental decision making.

The Riverfly Census was launched as a ‘myth-busting’ tool to collect much needed high-resolution, scientifically robust data about the real state of water quality in our rivers.

Switching from opinion to fact-based evidence gives us real power to drive national and local improvements to our waterways.

“The Test & Itchen report is a fantastic example of why we need to break away from data ‘silos’.

The Riverfly Census data tells a story on its own, but when linked up with additional local invertebrate and phosphorus monitoring data, we can really start to grasp the pressures on these rivers.

The environment is complex, and stressors rarely work in isolation, so why would we conduct monitoring this way?”

Turning science into action

The Census is no mere academic exercise. We are using this powerful data to inform and build effective strategies which improve wild fish habitat:

  • We are acting on the Census results to improve water quality in these rivers, working with stakeholders in the area.
  • We are tackling known sources of pollution; such as the Bakkavor salad washing plant on the Itchen headwaters, and intensive watercress farming on both the Test and the Itchen.
  • Our findings on the Itchen impelled us to challenge the EA under the Environmental Damage Regulations. We are awaiting the EA’s response.
  • To share the Riverfly Census results from the Test and Itchen and drive further improvements to these rivers, we will be holding a workshop on 12th February 2019. A key aim of the workshop will be to highlight knowledge gaps and develop next steps with a range of stakeholders, regulators and scientists. Please contact Lauren (lauren@salmon-trout.org) if you or your organisation would like to book a place at the workshop.

Suffering salmon: A temperature-gauge for our worryingly low water-flow

By our Head of Science and Policy, Dr Janina Gray. The original article was written for Countryside and Wildlife Link.

What would a third dry winter mean for wildlife and habitats?

Worryingly low water flows are of major concern to much wildlife, particularly salmon which rely on flowing rivers to travel to estuaries to spawn.

As our minds start focusing in on Christmas after a warm summer and mild autumn, the elephant in the room not receiving much attention at the moment, is the continued dry weather which could drive us into a 3rd dry winter. Whilst we are all enjoying a November that doesn’t involve the typical 3 inches of mud to contend with, what does this mean for the environment?

Environment Agency (EA) data shows river flows, as of 30 October, are below normal or notably low for most of the south and west of England and all but 4 EA areas are classified as in prolonged dry weather. Reservoirs in the Pennines and south west are still at risk from lower than normal levels going into winter. And the continuing dry autumn and consequent high soil moisture deficits, look set to result in a continued delay of winter groundwater recharge in southern and eastern counties.

Figure 1a) river flow (relative to time of year) 30 October 2018

1b) EA areas in relation to dry weather

For fish and our chalk streams the impacts of low flow will start being felt now. Reduced groundwater will severely impact the resilience of our chalk streams, and the low flows will increase siltation and die off of water crowfoot, which is a crucial part of the ecosystem.

Reports around the country suggest this year is looking catastrophic for salmon. Salmon spawning should be occurring between now and end of January, but low flows in the summer and up to now, have meant salmon arriving in our estuaries are delayed or just never entering freshwater. They need sufficient flow to encourage them to run, and many in-river obstacles (even fish passes) only allow access above certain water heights.

If the fish do manage to make it upstream, past all the predators (from which they have less cover to hide), the loss of wetted area will severely impact the whole year classes of juveniles, forcing them to lay eggs in sub-optimal locations.

If the low flows continue to May 2019, this will also impact downstream salmon and sea trouts molt migration, as well as coarse fish and lamprey spawning for the same reasons.

These are of course not the only impacts of low flows; others include:

  • Salinity incursions to rivers will kill freshwater organisms.
  • Pollution incidents in rivers will have a greater impact due to lack of dilution
  • Dried heathlands, grasslands, peat lands and forestry will have increased risk of fires.
  • Decreased wetted areas in ponds, lakes and in rivers combined with low flows will adversely impact on aquatic insects and amphibians.
  • Decreased wetted areas will impact breeding bird populations.

Low flows and, indeed, droughts are natural events and healthy habitats and species populations tend to be resilient to them. However, with only 14% of our rivers currently classified as healthy and salmon populations in a dire state, the potential impact of these weather events this winter is very worrying. We can do little about changing weather patterns, except to address man-made impacts, but we can collectively lobby government to take excessive water abstraction – and its solutions – more seriously, especially the need for water companies to find new sources of water that have less impact on the environment.

That means solutions which will include increasing demand management, improved natural and man-made water retention in catchments and, where necessary, reservoirs or desalination plants. Above all, we have to make sure that government departments, Ofwat etc fully appreciate that ground waters and many of our rivers just cannot take existing levels of abstraction, let alone the increases expected in areas of massive new housing and infrastructure construction. We must continue to press ever harder for government commitment to protecting the water environment, and a new, enlightened approach to abstraction policy seems a great place to start.

Follow @drjaninagray and @SalmonTroutCons

S&TC Cymru welcomes new agricultural pollution regulations

Welcome news from Wales: New regulatory measures to tackle agricultural pollution

Following an extensive lobbying exercise, S&TC Cymru are greatly encouraged by the recent announcement by Lesley Griffiths, Welsh Government Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs, to introduce regulatory measures to combat the growing threat to the freshwater environment from agricultural pollution.

The regulations will come into force in January 2020 with transitional periods for some elements to allow farmers time to adapt and ensure compliance. The regulations, to be confirmed next spring, will include the following measures:

  • Nutrient management planning
  • Sustainable fertiliser applications linked to the requirement of the crop
  • Protection of water from pollution related to when, where and how fertilisers are spread
  • Manure storage standards

A statement by Lesley Griffiths explained the the need for stricter regulations:

"...poor practice is leaving many stretches of rivers devoid of fish.

...In the long-term, we will develop a regulatory baseline, informed by responses to the Brexit and our Land consultation.  But in the short term, we must take action now to deal with these unacceptable levels of agricultural pollution.

...The regulations will replicate good practice which many farms are already implementing routinely - this must become the norm.

...The regulations will enable firm and consistent enforcement to be taken. The regulations will also ensure there are no barriers to trade of agricultural produce with the European Union following Brexit and help us meet national and international obligations on water quality.

This is the right thing to do – for the environment, for the economy and for the reputation of farming in Wales.”

View: Agricultural Incidents to Water in Wales (from 1st Jan 2010 to 28th Feb 2018 ) [Source: NRW]

S&TC Cymru's observations

S&TC Cymru welcome this news; indeed our rivers and fish have told us for some time that stricter rules, and more stringent enforcement of such rules, is urgently needed to protect against bad agricultural practice.

Our National Officer for Wales, Richard Garner Williams, summarises our thoughts on the announcement below; following consultations with our environmental lawyer, who provides the legal analysis which supports our demands for revision of the law; and based upon professionally-analysed scientific evidence of direct impact on invertebrates and the freshwater ecosystem.

agricultural pollution regulations

Above: Slurry spreading in wet weather, violating voluntary CoGAP.

Voluntary code is not enough

Unlike in Scotland and England, where basic measures or general binding rules place statutory constraints on the dispersal of, among other materials, farmyard slurry, the only guidance currently relating to such practices in Wales is the voluntary Code of Good Agricultural Practice (CoGAP).

A review by S&TC Cymru of this, and earlier codes, showed that little has changed since 1991 and, in some cases, since 1985, in the advice given to Welsh farmers on methods of practice that would avoid polluting our streams and rivers.

Read More: Our response to EFRA regarding the Agriculture Bill in England

welsh agricultural pollution regulations

Above: Dead fish following a pollution incident in the Clywedog in September.

A minority of farmers

Regrettably, a minority of farmers have consistently chosen to disregard these codes, resulting in increased incidents of acute pollution and a rise in the pervasive effects of widespread diffuse pollution.

S&TC Cymru appreciates that the majority of farmers operate to commendable levels of stewardship, but there exists a minority who have ignored voluntary codes of practice and will probably ignore new basic measures as well. This results in reputational damage; not only to the Welsh agricultural sector, but also the wider rural economy and the international standing of Welsh produce.

welsh agricultural pollution regulations

Above:River water polluted with slurry following spreading on nearby fields.

Rigorous enforcement needed

The success or otherwise of new basic measures in addressing the persistent and pernicious effects of agricultural pollution will require more rigorous and regular inspection of farmed premises than at present, if we wish to see a change in the behaviour of this recidivist minority.

It is therefore essential that an undertaking is given to provide the necessary financial provision for Natural Resources Wales to fully exercise their authority as statutory environmental regulator from the outset, in order that the new measures can be enforced without delay.

Welsh agricultural pollution regulations

Above: Highly poluuted water from the Cywyn in September, following a slurry pollution incident.

S&TC & agricultural pollution: next steps

Over recent years S&TC Cymru has committed a large proportion of its limited resources towards highlighting the impact of agricultural pollution on the wild fish of Wales, and we are relieved that Government has finally chosen to act.

We look forward to hearing the details of the Cabinet Secretary’s intentions in due course, and trust that they will fulfil our hopes for a reversal in the current troubling decline in numbers of our precious salmon and sewin.

In the meantime, you can learn more and help us tackle agricultural pollution by visiting our campaign page and following the instruction to report any incidents to us.


Related Articles:

Our View: is a Green Brexit possible?

S&TC response to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee consultation over the Agriculture Bill 2018

S&TC joins 100 NGOs in Europe-wide #ProtectWater campaign

S&TC is one of 100 NGOs[1 ] joining forces across Europe to tackle proposed weakening of EU freshwater protection laws

As part of #ProtectWater, we are uniting to launch a campaign calling on the European Commission to defend the law that protects all sources of water, such as rivers, lakes, wetlands and groundwater, during its current review.

Such laws are integral to the future health and abundance of wild fish, especially salmon and trout who urgently need their waters better protected from over-abstraction, barriers to migration and all forms of pollution. To weaken these laws further would certainly speed up salmon and trout's disappearance from our waterways, primarily through a loss of important habitat and a degradation of their water quality.

It is essential to support this law in the UK, as any weakening of this EU legislation will be transposed into UK law post-Brexit and will mean weaker protections for our waters.

Working together to protect water

The #ProtectWater campaign encourages people across the UK and Europe to participate in the European Commission’s public consultation on the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), which is running until 4 March 2019.

This is the only opportunity for the general public to express their support to keep water protections strong and effective. To get involved people can simply and quickly sign-up here.

 

Andreas Baumüller, Head of Natural Resources at WWF’s European Policy Office, said:

‘Member States’ half-hearted implementation of the EU water law is a crime in itself, but their desperate attempts to weaken it - and before the Commission’s fitness check has even concluded - is a step too far.

We urge citizens across Europe and beyond to join forces through the #ProtectWater campaign and make their voices heard.

We all need clean water, and without the Water Framework Directive, this will be under serious threat. Act now to defend the EU water law!’

 

Dr Janina Gray, S&TC’s Head of Science & Environmental Policy, said,

“The Water Framework Directive gives a basic protection for our rivers and waterlife, and has resulted over the years in millions of pounds of investment, mainly from water companies.

Any weakening of the WFD standards would have catastrophic implications for our waterways.

We are looking for Government commitment for greater protection for rivers, streams and wild fish following Brexit, and so ensuring that WFD’ standards remain as they are is of paramount importance to drive this.”

 

Hannah Freeman, Senior Government Affairs Officer at Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) and Chair of the Blueprint for Water group in the UK, said: 

The Water Framework Directive has had a massive impact in the UK, including getting water companies to invest billions in cleaning up our rivers and restoring our aquatic habitats.

Protecting this law is essential to defend our basic human right to clean water and for all nature to thrive.’

 

Why are such laws important?

Freshwater ecosystems are the most threatened on the planet [2].

Sixty percent of EU waters are not healthy today because Member States have allowed them to be exploited and damaged for example by unsustainable agriculture, and destructive infrastructure, such as dams.

Shockingly, only 14% of rivers in England are classed as healthy. [3].

Through the WFD, Member States agreed to achieve “good status” for their waters by 2027 at the very latest. 2027 is also the year which the #ProtectWater campaign playfully poses as the fictional ‘expiration date’ for good beer.

Where political will exists, the WFD provides an effective framework for addressing the main pressures facing our waters [4], but Member States need to significantly step up their efforts and funding if the 2027 deadlines are to be achieved.

Results to improve the health of their waters have been few and far between, and Member States are now discussing how the law can be weakened to introduce greater flexibility for themselves.

More information about the #ProtectWater campaign is available at: www.livingrivers.eu or on the S&TC website:

Notes to editors: 

1. The #ProtectWater campaign is led by WWF EU, the European Environmental Bureau, European Anglers Alliance, European Rivers Network and Wetlands International, who together form the Living Rivers Europe coalition and have more than 40 million supporters between them. More than 100 organisations are backing the campaign.

In the UK a coalition of 11 organisations coordinated by Wildlife and Countryside Link are supporting the campaign including: Angling Trust and Fish Legal, British Canoeing, Freshwater Habitats Trust, Institute of Fisheries Management, Marine Conservation Society, The Rivers Trust, RSPB, Salmon and Trout Conservation, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), WWF-UK and ZSL Zoological Society of London.

2. Living Planet Report, WWF, 2016
3. European waters: Assessment of status and pressures 2018, EEA, 2018
4. Bringing life back to Europe’s waters: The EU water law in action, 2018

 

About the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and Living Rivers Europe

  • The WFD is one of the EU’s most progressive pieces of environmental legislation. It requires the protection, enhancement and restoration of our rivers, wetlands, lakes and coastal waters, but Member States are currently failing make it work on the ground.
  • Under the WFD, EU governments have committed to ensure no deterioration and achieve good status for the vast majority of all water bodies by 2015, and at the very latest by 2027.
  • Where implemented, the WFD has proved to be effective in achieving its goals of good water status and non-deterioration, successfully balancing environmental, social and economic requirements.
  • The WFD is currently undergoing its standard review in the form of a ‘fitness check’. Every piece of EU legislation goes through this process. The fitness check will look at the relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, coherence and EU added value of the WFD (and its 'daughter’ directives) and the Floods Directive. It includes the ongoing stakeholder consultation and public consultation.
  • As the Living Rivers Europe coalition, we are working on safeguarding the EU WFD and strengthening its implementation and enforcement. Click here to read the full Living Rivers Europe vision statement.

Hardy partners with S&TC to help conserve wild fish

Hardy partners with S&TC

Salmon & Trout Conservation are proud to announce an exciting new partnership with leading tackle manufacturer, Hardy.

The collaboration will see the two organisations work together on various projects to conserve wild fish and their waters, including the production and auction of two truly bespoke Hardy outfits for S&TC’s glittering Annual Auction this November.

The flagship lot at this year’s auction is an extremely generous contribution from Hardy, with whom S&TC are proud to announce an exciting long-term partnership. Defined by their 1800's heritage and English-made, top quality tackle, such a collaboration combines not just Hardy’s and S&TC’s expertise and heritage, but their mutual passion for protecting wild fish and their habitats.

Conserving wild fish together

As the UK's leading wild fish charity, S&TC has been protecting and preserving our wild fish and freshwaters for over 115 years. Originally tackling the environmental pressures of the Industrial Revolution, S&TC today continue to achieve important successes for wild salmon and trout driven by three highly actionable conservation focuses: water quality, water quantity and protection from salmon farming.

This vision is defined and delivered through S&TC’s independent, science-led and action-driven campaigns. The charity receives no government money, their important work funded entirely by private donations, memberships and fundraising initiatives, such as their Annual Dinner and Auction at Fishmonger’s Hall in London, now in its 10th year.

As prominent wild fish conservationists, Hardy are proudly committed to protecting salmon, trout and the UK's waterways, which their partnership with S&TC is integral to achieving.

 

Exclusive auction lots

In an act of support for the cause, Hardy have generously donated two exceptional lots to the S&TC Annual Auction this year, which are expected to achieve handsome sums for S&TC’s important work:


Unique S&TC Hardy Complete Angler Outfit

  • One of a kind, 001 of 001
  • 1 x Hardy Salmon Smuggler 14'6"#10 rod with limited edition Hardy 'Perfect' reel
  • 1 x Hardy Trout Smuggler 9'0"#5 rod with limited edition Hardy 'Perfect' reel
  • Both to include matching fitted fly lines
  • 1 x Richard Wheatley handmade fly box with assortment of trout flies
  • 1 x Richard Wheatley handmade fly box with assortment of salmon flies
  • Presented in a custom-built leather case by Casecraft UK (case valued at £3k)

Bespoke S&TC Hardy Trout Smuggler Set

  • 1 of 115 S&TC units, to celebrate our 115th year
  • 1 x Hardy Trout Smuggler 9'0"#5 rod with limited edition Hardy 'Perfect' reel
  • 1 x matching fitted fly line
  • 1 x Handmade Richard Wheatley fly box with an assortment of trout flies
  • Presented in an aluminium flight case with laser cut foam liner

Bespoke collector's items

The Hardy Complete Angler Outfit is an entirely unique, never to be repeated, bespoke item, which is currently being handcrafted for S&TC at Hardy’s headquarters at Alnwick, England.

The Hardy Trout Smuggler is equally special; 1 of 115 to celebrate the 115 years that S&TC has been actively conserving wild fish in the UK.

Official photographs of the exclusive lots, which are expected to appeal to collectors and keen anglers alike, are expected soon. In the meantime, you can find out more  on our Hardy page.

 

Find out more and make a sealed bid

The lots are part of S&TC’s exclusive live auction on the 14th November 2018, which is now sold out. However, S&TC are accepting private sealed bids.

Please follow the link below, or contact S&TC’s fundraising manager, Guy Edwards, to find out more and/or submit bids: Guy@salmon-trout.org | 01425 652 461.

Agricultural Bill: Is a ‘Green Brexit’ possible?

The first major Agriculture Bill for over 70 years has now been published, promising a cleaner, greener and healthier environment post Brexit

Currently farmers receive €4 billion in subsides each year, which is divided up related to the total amount of land farmed. For current subsidies farmers do not need to ‘do’ anything.

The new Bill proposes farmers are paid for delivering public goods; things we cannot buy in a shop, like clean water, flood attenuation, thriving wildlife and healthy soils.

 

Funding a 'Green Brexit'

The headlines are good. But as with everything, the devil will be in the detail.

This new approach will need substantial investment and coordination to ensure the right public goods happen in the right places for people and wildlife.

And the big elephant in the room is the funding. How do the Government plan to fund their ‘Green Brexit’? No details have been given on this so far.

 

Carrot vs Stick

The Government reiterated at the launch that they were committed to:

“maintaining a strong regulatory baseline, with enforcement mechanisms that are proportionate and effective”.

This is where we at S&TC have the greatest concern.

Current enforcement is just not fit for purpose. It is totally under-resourced.

We are all for having a big juicy carrot for farmers, but it must be accompanied by an equally proportionate stick where required.

The data from our own Riverfly Census indicates that many rivers in England and Wales are suffering from the impacts of excess phosphates and fine sediments from poor agricultural practices. This impacts wild fish populations, from smothering their spawning redds, to reducing the invertebrates they feed on.

For the small minority of farmers which do pollute, sometimes repetitively, strong action must be taken.

 

What happens next

The Bill proposes a long timetable, where the current system of payments under the Common Agricultural Policy will continue until 2021, then a seven-year transition period to the new system, where the old payments will gradually taper off.

Like most environmental charities, we have lobbied for years for this vision where farmers are rewarded for delivering for the environment- creating a sustainable future for farming and the environment alike.

We will see over the next few months, as the Agriculture Bill makes its way through Parliament, if that vision can survive.

However, in order to achieve a truly cleaner, greener and healthier environment post Brexit, enforcement, or the current lack of it, must be addressed too.

To help us take action against agricultural pollution visit our ‘see it, photograph it, report it’ campaign.

-

By Dr Janina Gray, Head of Science & Policy at S&TC

Plastic Rivers

Plastic Rivers: An overlooked but essential element of the global plastic problem

We are all familiar with the shocking plastic-related headlines and imagery that has filled our media channels over the past year: sea turtles with straws up their noses, the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ and fears about plastics in our seafood.

But our plastic problem begins upstream.

Plastic pollution is frequently described as an ‘ocean epidemic’. Although this is the truth, microplastics are much more than an ocean specific issue. Microplastics are everywhere; soil, air and our rivers - but for the most part these are overlooked.

 

80% of marine plastic comes from freshwater

Around 80% of marine microplastics come from freshwater run-off, meaning there is a whole period where microplastics persist in rivers before they are flushed into the ocean.

It is essential we stop seeing rivers simply as plastic ‘couriers’ and answer the big question: what impact are these plastic particles having on life in freshwater?

 

What impact is plastic having on freshwater life?

Evidence from the marine environment suggests microplastics may be considered contaminants of emerging concern in freshwater.

It is already known that there is an energetic cost associated with ingestion of microplastics by organisms. That is, plastic consumption effects the very survival of our freshwater wildlife because it changes their inate behaviour.

For example, when plastic particles are consumed, they mimic fullness, so animals stop eating and suffer from poor nutrition.

There is also potential for ecotoxicological harm, as plastics act like sponges, absorbing chemicals in the water. Once eaten, these chemicals can be released from the plastic into whatever has eaten it. And so forth, up the food chain.

 

How does river plastic affect wild fish?

For salmon and sea trout, we know chemicals in water have a directly negative effect on completion of their life cycles, particularly the phase where they transform to become ready for life at sea.

So it is logical to ask an important question: are these damaging chemicals becoming more available to these fish - and in higher doses - through the ingestion of plastic particles?

New research is being commissioned and investigations are being made into understanding and controlling the freshwater element of plastic pollution.

Wastewater treatment plants (a large input of microplastics that come from domestic and industrial sources) are currently not designed to remove microplastics effectively, but new filtration options are being discussed.

 

How can we plastic-proof our rivers?

There is huge scope for positive change, with people and businesses being more aware of their plastic footprints than ever before.

From paper straws to reusable cups, every change we make is a win for the water environment. We urge people to remember that this impact extends way beyond marine; in fact, most plastic pollution begins life in our rivers, where it will also be having an impact - one that often seems overlooked.

At S&TC HQ we have gone single-use-plastic free, and would urge others to do the same.

Moving forward, we would like to see action in the form of a monitoring protocol and standard for river microplastics, so watch this space!

Until we fully grasp and measure the problem, we will not be able to effectively control it.

Additionally, only by understanding the dynamics of microplastics in freshwater, will we be able to effectively measure and manage the contribution to our oceans, in turn protecting marine and freshwater life.

---> By Lauren Mattingley, S&TC's Science Office

S&TC Cymru partners with other conservation groups to help restore endangered eels

Conservation groups give hope for endangered eels by providing them a new home at Cyfarthfa Park Lake, Merthyr Tydfil, Wales

S&TC Cymru and South East Wales Rivers Trust, as joint lead partners for the European eel in the Wales Environment Link (WEL) species champion initiative, have come together with National Resources Wales to help protect critically endangered eels in Merthyr.

As part of the initiative - which also involves removing barriers to migration - an abundance of young eels (known as elvers) are being released into Cyfarthfa Park Lake. Witnessing the release of the first 15 on Thursday 26th July were Dawn Bowden (Welsh Labour Assembly Member), Gerald Lewis (of Merthyr Borough Council) and the Trustees of Cyfarthfa Park.

Richard Garner Willams of S&TC Cymru says:

"Initiatives such as this play a crucial part in conveying the concept of protecting the welfare of future generations, and leaving the natural world in a better state than we currently find it."

 

Why is the European eel important?

Historically the European eel constituted 50% of the total freshwater fish biomass in Europe, though recently their numbers have declined by 90 - 95%.

Small eels, such as those released at Cyfarthfa Park, feed mainly on insect larvae, molluscs, worms, and crustaceans, but as they grow larger they will also predate other fishes and scavenge on fish carcasses, helping to recycle nutrients.

They are also important food for otters and birds such as herons, egrets and bitterns, and the consequences of their decline will be felt at all levels of the freshwater food chain. The loss of this key species will undoubtedly have a direct impact on the ecological integrity of entire rivers and the survival of many of our precious wild fish.

Aside from their role in the ecology of freshwater, European eels are a fascinating species with an extraordinary life cycle. They start as eggs in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda and spend 18 months floating on ocean currents towards the coasts of Europe and North Africa. They enter rivers and lakes and spend anything from 5 to 20 years feeding and growing into adult eels. They then return to sea and swim 3000 miles for over a year, back to spawn in the Sargasso Sea.

Just like our beloved salmon and trout, they undertake an immense journey and depend heavily on having a clear route to make their migration. Sadly, their routes have been blocked; the implications of which are also suffered by many other freshwater creatures.

 

Barriers to migration = critically endangered

The lake, and other waters off the upper Taff, have had no eel population for over a hundred years, since multiple weirs were constructed along the length of the river during the industrial revolution, blocking their upstream migration from the sea.

1.3 million similar barriers across rivers in Europe mean that the eel can only access 10% of the habitats it used to. Numbers of the once common eel have been reduced by 90 – 95%, meaning the species is now classified as ‘critically endangered’.

Barriers to migration have severe consequences for all migratory species, and those that rely on them as a food source.

 

New eels in a new home

As part of this new initiative eels were sourced by the South East Wales Rivers Trust. They were part of a programme of placing batches of 50 baby eels in fish tanks in 8 schools and 2 education centres – the Welsh Water Education Centre, Cilfynydd and the Millennium Centre, Taf Bargoed, where the eels for Cyfarthfa Park were raised.

At the schools and centres, the pupils fed and looked after the eels for 3 months and learnt about the eel’s fascinating life cycle. Now bigger and stronger, the eels are ready to be stocked into their new home.

eels

This is part of a huge programme of work which is underway across Europe to help restore eel populations by restoring wetlands and removing barriers to the eels’ traditional migration routes.

Cyfarthfa Park is ideal habitat for eels. They will grow there, become part of the ecosystem and will migrate in 5 – 20 years to sea to spawn and continue the species.

eels

 

Dawn Bowden, Labour AM for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, said:

“The eel is a fascinating fish that needs our help. I am delighted to see how local conservation groups have worked together to educate our children and give eels a new home in Merthyr.”

Dawn Bowden AM, was made European Eel Champion this year, as part of the Species Champion project run by Wales Environment Link (WEL).

eels

WEL members – including Salmon & Trout Conservation Cymru – pair AMs up with endangered species in Wales so they can help recover and safeguard them. Dawn is part of a group of 37 other AMs in the project.

eels

Above, from left to right: Tony Rees (South East Wales Rivers Trust); Dawn Bowden (AM, species champion for European eel, Wales Assembly Member); Richard Garner Williams (Salmon & Trout Cymru); David Bunt (Sustainable Eel Group).

Richard of S&TC Cymru says:

"We are facing the very real prospect of our rivers and lakes becoming totally devoid of European eels and it is therefore incumbent upon us to act with urgency if we are to reverse their catastrophic decline.

One means of achieving this is to highlight their plight via the Wales Environment Link Species Champions initiative, which takes the cause of our many threatened species to the very heart of government.

I am delighted that Dawn has agreed to act as Species Champion for this fascinating yet little understood creature and am grateful for her enthusiasm and support."

 

We rely on your support to protect wild fish

and the places they live

By donating or joining as a member you will be making a huge contribution to the fight to protect the UK's waters and ensure a sustainable future for wild fish.

Stay up to date with our latest news & press releases

Afon Myddyfi – Photo Story

What is happening on the Myddfyi?

The Myddyfi rises from a network of ditches and drains to the north of Salem, in the heart of rural Carmarthenshire, and flows first to the southwest, and then southwards towards Pentrefelin, before joining the Tywi at Cilsan.

It appears to enjoy good health along much of its 8km length, as witnessed at Birdshill Bridge, only a little over a kilometre from its confluence with the Tywi:

Just a short distance downstream of a confluence with a small stream which passes close to a stock feeding station, evidence of siltation is clearly visible:

Half a kilometre downstream and now on the valley floor, the Myddyfi shows increasing signs of nutrient enrichment with extensive algal growth covering the whole of the riverbed:

Finally, at its confluence with the Tywi, the combined nutrient load of both rivers results in extraordinary amounts of filamentous algae clinging to every available surface:

Richard Garner Williams, of S&TC Cymru, said,

“A certain amount of algal growth is to be expected at this time of year, particularly under the exceptional weather conditions we are currently experiencing, but this is far in excess of what would be expected with a natural bloom.

That the Myddyfi shows such a dramatic change in nutrient levels over such a short distance strongly suggests that external agents are having a profound impact along its lower reaches.”