...The future's orange

The Institute of Fisheries Management is in its 50th year, and has just hosted its 9th Specialist Conference in York on Fish, Flows and Climate Resilience. Increased demand for water and resultant over-abstraction is all too familiar now from dusty channels formally known as rivers reliant on the chalk aquifers. An exceedingly dry 2018 immediately followed by a virtually rain free winter and equally dry spring 2019 in Yorkshire has already made for challenging conditions on the spate rivers local to me. According to my nearest river gauge at the time of the conference, the future was most definitely not bright…. the future looked decidedly orange. With climate projections pointing to warmer & drier summers and warmer and wetter winters, I fear we’ll be spending less and less time in the green zone.

So, on behalf of WTT, I was interested to hear some of the latest thoughts in sessions encompassing fish in a changing climate, extreme flows, management of flows, impacts on fish communities and migration, and protecting and restoring aquatic ecosystems.

The keynote presenter to set the scene was Harriet Orr from the EA and she did a wonderful job of highlighting the data available, and perhaps more worryingly those that are not, to inform our actions and help us focus efforts efficiently to conserve and sustain our fisheries. For example, we have no widespread, coordinated temperature monitoring network for rivers in England and Wales which might allow us to prioritise areas for targeted effort. Compare that to the excellent work by Faye Jackson in Scotland who presented later – their river temperature monitoring network is a national resource for understanding, assessing and managing the effects of climate change on salmonid rivers. Some of the objectives are to identify the warmest and most climatically sensitive rivers, and develop tools to enable river managers to prioritise tree planting for strategic mitigation of climate change. Worthy indeed.

Interestingly, there appears to be no UK synthesis of observed impacts and expected changes as a result of climate change! Perhaps someone will take on that challenge having attended the conference? I’ll be keeping my ear to the ground re a new EA project entitled Pathways to Catchment Resilience and what opportunities that may bring. Harriet also emphasised the need to work together to tackle sources of pressure and encourage action amongst those who can make a difference; the latter is something at which WTT excels and we should be mindful that people realise restoration is also future-proofing.

Dave Ottewell, the Freshwater Fish & Fisheries Specialist at Natural England introduced a new opportunity for citizen science to reduce some of the data gaps in priority habitat mapping of headwater streams in particular. The information sought could easily be captured during WTT advisory visits and I’ll certainly be contributing some of my findings from the recent round of Fishery Improvement Programme funded walkovers of the Upper Aire tributaries. 

Various folk from Hull International Fisheries Institute (Jon Bolland, Tim Stone – now at YW, et al) presented on their work in collaboration with Yorkshire Water to understand the efficacy of designing’ compensation flows from reservoirs. Water releases are governed by human demand and are often well out of sync with natural variations in flow. However, steps are being taken to rectify this where possible and simulate flows that might encourage trout to migrate for spawning or ameliorate the losses of fry but it is exceedingly challenging to determine a statistically significant response at the population level over the time period of most studies. Even with a considerable amount of data (time series, numerous rivers) and some serious statistical wizardry, it’s difficult to point the finger at any one stressor that might affect salmonid recruitment, as Stephen Gregory from the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust highlighted in an excellent presentation on the 2016 recruitment crash. That is still a work in progress, so I’ll be keeping an eye open for updates.

As some of the clear messages were significant negative impacts of extreme flow events on salmonids and a requirement for measures to slow flow and reconnect with the floodplain, giving space for the river, it was great to see positive results from large wood structures (Hamish Moir’s work for cbec ecoengineering in Scotland for example) and various Natural Flood Management approaches on the Holnicote Estate (Katie Burnham from JBA Consulting). All were keen to point out the wider ecosystem and societal benefits, not just to fish. 

And, of course, the B‑word was mentioned… but nothing new on that score, simply an update on the EA’s approach to beaver introduction. Elly Andison actually quoted from our very own Mike Blackmore’s article (in the most recent edition of Salmo): Beavers are essentially a force amplifier’.

All in all, a useful couple of days, with plenty of opportunities to network, gain some new ideas and fresh perspectives, catch up with folk, and put some faces to names or Twitter avatars. Without being too smug, I was reassured that the WTT approach is helping to make our rivers more resilient. Hat tip to Paul Coulson and Iain Turner (and the rest of the IFM crew behind the scenes) on another well organised and slickly run meeting.