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Environment Agency ignores its own experts trying to protect vital fish spawning grounds in Norfolk Broads

09 September 2020

Angling, fishery and wildlife interests in the Norfolk Broads campaigning against the serious threat to fish stocks posed by Natural England’s planned fish barriers to block off vital spawning grounds at Hoveton Great Broad received a boost this week with the news that Fish Legal are considering a legal challenge.

This follows an extraordinary response from Environment Agency (EA) seeking to justify their decision to grant a permit for the barriers despite vehement internal objections from the EA’s own fishery experts which they kept hidden from public view.

Top fisheries scientists at the Institute of Fisheries Management (IFM) have reviewed the Natural England Project along with the studies and evidence upon which the case against the barriers was built and concluded that it was potentially harmful and should not proceed saying:

“The IFM consequently strongly recommends that this project should not proceed with the existing plans for fish removal and exclusion which could have irreversible and damaging impacts on the fish populations and ecosystem as a whole.”

The Angling Trust had to use Freedom of Information legislation to force the EA to make public the views of their own Fisheries, Biodiversity and Geomorphology team (FBG) in East Anglia who had spent seven years on fish surveys, studies and tagging at a cost of more than £250,000 of rod licence and taxpayers’ money. Their evidence showed that the proposed barriers would be harmful to the recruitment of bream stocks in the Northern Broads. Bream are one of the iconic species upon which the £100 million angling economy of the Norfolk Broads depends.

The EA Fisheries Team objection states:

“It follows that the proposed biomanipulation methodology, involving the installation of fish proof barriers to prevent fish accessing the habitats currently found within HGB carries a high risk of detrimental impacts to the fish populations of both HGB and the Northern Broads system.”

They also warn that in granting a permit, the EA would be in breach of its statutory obligations under the Water Framework Directive (WFD) and that the precedent set would by highly damaging both to the reputation of the Agency and its ability to function in future as a credible environmental regulator.

“The impacts on fish cannot be mitigated at a waterbody level within HGB. Deteriorations in Fish Element Status are not permissible under WFD and the impacts and potential risks to fish arising from the proposed activity are incompatible with the exercise of our statutory fisheries obligations in respect of the Broads fishery resource.”

Environment Agency Response

Once the powerful and evidenced based objections from their own staff became public it was hoped that the Environment Agency would call in the decision to grant the project a permit but instead they have doubled down and issued an astonishing response disregarding their own experts because their work was not ‘peer reviewed’. The recently disclosed “Decision Document” from the Agency said that:

“. . . we are of the view that large parts of the evidence from our FBG team and the public, where peer reviewed evidence was not available, carries a lower confidence in predicting the perceived outcome in comparison to the Applicant’s evidence on impacts to bream.”

Notwithstanding the fact that the evidence for the objections was thoroughly reviewed by the IFM, the concept that UK regulators will in future be expected to ‘peer review’ every submission made by their own experts to every permit application or planning decision is already being viewed as a monumental blunder by EA managers setting a precedent that would leave the organisation powerless and ineffectual.

Justin Neal of Fish Legal said:

“We wrote to the Agency in the belief that they had ignored the views of their own fisheries scientists. Their decision document (written after their decision and not revealed until almost six weeks later) makes clear that they simply weighed the views of the applicants against the research and the specialist surveys of their own experienced EA staff and chose the former. If they do this for every application, and apply tests of peer review, there is little hope that they can operate as an effective regulator. The impression we have from the whole process is that the Agency was desperate to push the permit through, whatever the fisheries staff thought.”

Duncan Holmes of the Broads Angling Services Group (BASG) said:

“It’s unbelievable that the EA management appear to ignore the science and its own fisheries specialists. The angling community has entrusted its fisheries to the EA for the last 26 years, and provided hundreds of millions of pounds directly into EA funds. Anglers have a right to expect the EA to follow the science, protect valuable fish stocks and deliver the service they are expected to. The trust between anglers and the EA will be damaged forever at local level.”

Martin Salter from the Angling Trust added:

“We now have it in black and white that the decision by the EA to grant a permit for these environmentally disastrous fish barriers was fundamentally flawed. In attempting to justify hiding information from public view and disregarding the expert opinions of their own fisheries staff they’ve now come up with the quite extraordinary excuse of demanding the ‘peer review’ of every piece of technical advice that they offer in the future. If this precedent is established the Environment Agency will have committed a monumental act of self harm.”

Paul Coulson, Director of Operations at the Institute of Fisheries Management said:

“The decision by the EA to overlook the expert opinion of their own fisheries scientists, many of which have worked on the Broads all of their professional lives, and using the lack of peer review of their findings as an excuse, sets a very dangerous precedent for future regulation and shows a complete disregard for a proper evidenced based decision making process ”

Additional information:

1) Environment Agency Decision Notice

2) Hoveton Wetlands Restoration Project: Flood Risk Activity permit application comments by Environment Agency FBG Team (East Anglia):

We continue to support the high level objectives (e.g. WFD, Habitats Directive) to restore the ecology of Hoveton Great Broad & Hudson’s Bay (herein after referred to as HGB). However, our assessment of the available evidence concludes that HGB provides uniquely important habitat for fish within the context of the complex inter-connected lowland tidal river environment of the Northern Broads System, of which HGB is an integral part. Activities that may affect HGB cannot therefore be considered in isolation. Moreover, there are a number of non-fisheries objections that require addressing before the permit can be determined. It follows that the proposed biomanipulation methodology, involving the installation of fish proof barriers to prevent fish accessing the habitats currently found within HGB carries a high risk of detrimental impacts to the fish populations of both HGB and the Northern Broads system. The impacts on fish cannot be mitigated at a waterbody level within HGB. Deteriorations in Fish element Status are not permissible under WFD and the impacts and potential risks to fish arising from the proposed activity are incompatible with the exercise of our statutory fisheries obligations in respect of the Broads fishery resource. Furthermore, there remain key evidence gaps, in particular with respect to the presence or absence of protected species and the completeness of the submitted WFD assessment. In any permitting situation we would therefore advise the applicant that the proposals were unacceptable for the stipulated reasons and advise them to review and change their proposed methodology accordingly or withdraw their application. In this case we would advise the applicant that the permitted activity (proposed methodology) is not appropriate and seek to work with the applicant on alternative ways of achieving restoration objectives for HGB that do not carry significant detrimental risks for fish, WFD and fisheries interests in the Broads.

3) The BASG campaigns page on Hoveton Great Broad

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