Row erupts over escape of farmed fish in River Exe
A Westcountry fish farmer is facing a major compensation claim after thousands of his rainbow trout were allegedly washed into the river Exe by winter floods, where they are eating young salmon parr.
Ian Cook, director of the not-for-profit River Exe Foundation, said yesterday he was claiming £5,000 for the damage the escapees are doing to young salmon his organisation spends thousands of pounds trying to protect.
"I have become unpopular with fish-farmers because I'm going to give them a bill," he told the Western Morning News. "The Exe Foundation has been funding the rearing of baby salmon at a hatchery – and that all costs a lot of money. The escape of rainbow trout could destroy the young fish we've worked so hard to put into the river.
"People have now been fishing the river to try and catch the escapees – a colleague of mine caught one that disgorged a four-inch baby salmon. He took a photo of it and we've got it on ice as proof that the rainbows do catch the young salmon parrs. The Exe is a great salmon river and needs protecting."
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A spokesman for the Environment Agency (EA) said: "We are aware of the presence of rainbow trout in the River Exe following the significant flooding in December. This is the subject of an ongoing investigation.
"The situation is being monitored closely and we are actively working with the Riparian Owners' Association to remove them as quickly as possible," he added. "We have dis-applied byelaws to allow them (the rainbow trout) to be fished for with rod and line out of the official season.
"At this time of year young salmon and trout are emerging from the gravel and are vulnerable to disturbance, so this method represents the least intrusive means of removing rainbows whilst protecting indigenous fish stocks as much as possible."
One of the more outspoken expert anglers on the river is Nick Hart – an Exbridge fishing instructor and angling shop owner. In his popular blog on the internet, Mr Hart refutes the idea that escaped rainbow trout eat the young salmon.
"I am not going to say an emphatic 'No', because who can honestly say whether or not these fish are taking the odd salmon parr or two?" he writes.
But he accepts the escaped rainbow trout are in the river and knows people who have caught up to 60 rainbows in a day, but reported finding no young salmonids in their stomachs.
"I have never, ever, retrieved any kind of fish from the stomach of one of these fish," says Mr Hart. "Not even a minnow! Weed: yes. Sticks: yes. Stones: yes. Aquatic, natural life: not a lot…"
Speaking to the WMN, Mr Hart said the farmed rainbow trout would find conditions difficult in a natural river. "They don't possess the agility or skills to hunt in the wild. They won't be able to breed successfully in the future. And their lifespan is short, especially as the high protein diet that they were weaned upon has completely dried up."
Andrew Maund, one of the largest trout-farmers on the Exe, denied escaped rainbow trout would be eating salmon parr. "I sit on both sides of the fence – I own fishing on the Exe and I have been involved with trout-farming all my life – and as far as I know, no study has ever proved rainbow trout are harmful to the fish in the river," he said. "I know of no study in which stomach contents have been examined where anyone has ever found a salmonid in an escaped rainbow.
Mr Maund, who is not facing a compensation claim himself, said "very few" rainbow trout escaped during the December floods at his Exe Valley Fishery farm. He tried to organise an "amnesty" so fishermen could catch the escapees.
"I said I would talk to all the main players and not charge for the removal of these fish from the river – and the committee of the River Exe and Tributaries Association were happy to go along with this until a certain member went his own way and issued a fish-farmer with an order for monies for damages."