A pioneering plan to take the management of one of Britain’s major river systems out of the control of the English and Welsh Environment Agencies and put it back in the hands of stakeholders is being considered by the coalition government.

Management of the River Wye would, under the proposal, be returned to the riparian owners, angling groups and others closely involved with it from both economic and environmental perspectives.  If successful it could become a blue print for other rivers in England and Wales, following similar plans already operating in Scotland.

A paper has been put to Richard Benyon, MP, Secretary of State for Natural Environment and Fisheries, and ministers at the Welsh Assembly, by Major Patrick Darling, chairman of the Wye Salmon Fishery Owners’ Association and Dr Stephen Marsh-Smith, executive director of the Wye and Usk Foundation.

Their plan seeks to take advantage of the proposed merger of environmental bodies in both England and Wales based on the belief that it is fundamentally flawed to be both the regulator and service provider of fisheries. 

It also meets the criteria of devolving central power from government back to the local community, which is a cornerstone of the coalition government’s policy and an important element in David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.

“Our plan is to establish a board of local representatives and stakeholders, managing their own budget, forming their own strategies and raising funds to make this possible,” says Patrick Darling.   “The Wye and Usk Foundation already has a skilled workforce that is undertaking much of the work needed to restore our river.

“Incredibly, the Wye and Severn are now managed by four separate agencies: Environment Agency Wales and Countryside Council for Wales to the west and Natural England and The Environment Agency in England. The division took place in April without consultation leaving staff living in north Wales having to travel to the English Wye. In both Scotland and Ireland rivers crossing borders are managed in their entirety,” he added.

“Under our proposal the Wye River Board will be a not-for-profit organisation made up of groups of the people directly involved in it.   Adopting the scheme will save the Government very substantial sums yet allow a full service to be implemented. Over the years bailiff and monitoring services have been drastically reduced.  Many of the causes of failure of our salmon runs are directly attributable to actions taken by the Agency and their predecessors. A focussed local board would not let this happen again.”

In Scotland the management of rivers successfully operates under a system of district fishery boards, under the light touch regulation of SEPA (Scottish Environment Protection Agency).  Darling and Marsh-Smith have held discussions with several of these boards and their plan for the Wye is largely based on the successes achieved north of the border.

Marsh-Smith added: “In the 36-years since nationalisation, the Wye has declined dramatically as one of the UK’s primary salmon rivers.   Some of the causes, such as rising sea temperatures and industrial scale sea fishing, are not the Agency’s responsibility.

“But during their watch they have maintained or allowed more than 50% of Wye tributary rivers and streams – the essential spawning grounds for salmon and trout – to become barred and are now devoid of salmon.  Epidemics of sheep dip poisoning and the massive, unchecked ingression of silt have added to the problem.   

“Over the last 15-years most of these blockages have been open up, the majority by us, and they are gradually starting to support salmon.  We are about to open our 100th site that will enable salmon and other fish to reach previously in accessible stretches of valuable spawning stream.   We have undertaken this work largely though funds raised ourselves.

“Now we feel it is time to replace the remote and fragmented way the Agency manages river systems.  We wish to complete the virtuous circle and, once again, take over responsibility for river management, leaving the Agency to provide appropriate light touch fisheries and wildlife regulation while continuing to carrying out their other statutory duties.”