Incomplete evidence and misunderstandings on key issues have led Scotland to the brink of a livebaiting ban, the Scottish Federation for Coarse Angling said today.
In a letter to Deputy Environment Minister Sarah Boyack, who has played a leading role in steering the proposed Aquaculture and Fisheries Bill through the Scottish Parliament, the SFCA has requested an urgent meeting with Ms Boyack before the bill becomes law.
The letter and proposed meeting have the full backing of the Pike Anglers Alliance for Scotland and Pike Anglers Club of Great Britain. Both groups have put up a united front in support of the SFCA.
The bill as orginally laid down before Scottish MPs contained powers for livebaiting to be banned in so-called sensitive areas, whose ecology could be threatened by the introduction of alien species.
But just before Christmas, this was ammended to a blanket ban on live baiting north of the Border. The move was backed by MPs during the second reading of the bill.
In the SFCA's letter to Minister, its policy officer Ron Woods said coarse and predator anglers had not been given the chance to make reprsentations on this major change.
"When the Bill was presented to Parliament there was no proposal for a ban to be part of primary legislation," he said.
"Stakeholders were explicitly given to believe that any measure of that kind would come by way of secondary legislation, on which we therefore expected a separate debate that would provide the opportunity to make representations as to our point of view.
"There was no invitation to give written evidence to the Committee on this subject - though we took it upon ourselves to refer to it briefly in our submission - and the Committee did not take oral evidence on the matter when speaking to representatives of angling organisations."
Mr Woods said coarse anglers deeply questioned the argument that livebaiting led to the translocation of fish.
He added: "To support this you mention the presence of ruffe in Loch Lomond. This example is often quoted, but in fact it is misleading and ambiguous.
"It is most unlikely that ruffe would ever have been brought to Loch Lomond as live bait - for the very good reason that they are almost never used for bait at all, being too small for the purpose and comparatively difficult to obtain as they are uncommon in other parts of GB.
"This species has spread elsewhere by other means - for instance, to the Great Lakes in North America through ship’s ballast water - and could have reached Loch Lomond by any of a number of routes unrelated to angling.
"In any event, ruffe are not a new introduction to Loch Lomond. They were first detected in sampling exercises in the early eighties and are likely to have been present for some years prior to that.
"All that a ban will achieve is to penalise today’s responsible anglers for the irresponsibility of unknown individuals more than a generation ago."
Mr Woods added the risks translocation paused to native species in Scotland had been "overstated".
"In reality, there is no firm evidence that ruffe or any other species allegedly introduced as live baits have actually caused harm to populations of any native species in Loch Lomond, or indeed anywhere else in Scotland," he said.
The SFCA and other groups have argued all along the line that the use of livebaits should be restricted to fish taken during the same fishing session, from the water in which they are being used.
Officials claim the code of conduct endorsed by groups such as the PAAS, PAC and Specialist Anglers Alliance was not raised during the debate.
Mr Woods said the code was first raised in 2001. "Our position on this matter has also been reiterated in oral discussions with officials over the years," he said.
"In several meetings of the Steering Group and Fisheries Forum in 2004 and 2005. We have consistently expressed willingness to work closely with the Executive on restricting the use of live baits to those caught from the water being fished, underpinned by a combination of statutory controls over fish movements and a strong voluntary Code of Practice supported by all the bodies representing pike anglers in GB."
In response to Ms Boyack's observation that the ban was "not a big issue", Mr Woods concluded: "I have to point out that you are mistaken. This one measure has overshadowed the whole Bill for coarse anglers.
"Instead of justifiably being welcomed as the first step ever towards legislative recognition for our sport in Scotland, it has simply become known by most coarse anglers as the “Livebaiting Bill”.
"This is all the more unfortunate as we have played an active part in the very comprehensive Forum and Steering Group process that led to the Bill and believe the great majority of the proposals in it are positive.
"You were kind enough to suggest that you and your officials would be happy to talk about the issue with the pike angling community. We welcome that offer and would like to take it up. We would ask that such discussion takes place before the Stage 3 debate."
Anglers on both sides of the border now hope to be given the chance to plead their case direct to the Minister, in a way they have not previously been permitted the opportunity to do so - before the face of pike fishing on some of the UK's most historic waters changes forever.