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28 May 2017updated 31 May 2017 12:09pm

Magna Carta was good for humans – but even better for fish

“All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea coast.” 

By John Burnside

It may look like a minor clause in one of the greatest historical documents of all time, but the insertion into Magna Carta of this single clause – “All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea coast” – had as benevolent an effect as any of its better-known demands.

Up until then, the king’s weirs, while they maximised his own catch, had prevented far too many fish from returning to their spawning grounds upriver, and so had a disastrous impact, especially on salmon populations. Within a few years of Magna Carta the rivers were teeming with life. So much salmon was available that at the height of the season monks at some abbeys begged their abbots for greater variety in the kitchen. Yet increased salmon stocks benefited many abbeys and the fish became an important part of the economy. In 1109, Lenton Priory in Nottingham was granted the right to the first draught of fish from the Chilwell spring each year, a privilege that helped sustain it as one of the richest monastic houses in England.

This all changed with the Industrial Revolution. After a golden age, during which even Henry VIII sacrificed 500 marks of personal income a year in further restrictions on fish weirs, centuries of goodwill towards England’s rivers were overturned in a decade as waterways throughout the land were obstructed and polluted regardless of consequence. Fish populations plummeted and vital food sources were lost in the toxic soup that the salmon now had to navigate (for the mature fish, an exhausting climb to their high spawning grounds and, for the vulnerable smolts, the outward journey back to the sea). From having been so plentiful that a hungry monk could groan at the sight of freshly grilled cutlets, the Atlantic salmon has now joined the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species.

Now, wild salmon face a new challenge – from other salmon. Or rather, they face a threat that we post-industrial human beings have introduced: the fish farm. Having seen what the Industrial Revolution did to our river life, people have responded by trying to replace fish supplies using industrial methods, creating cramped conditions, leading to heavy infestations of lice, highly distasteful disease-management regimes and, some would argue, considerable cruelty.

It makes no sense: just as it made no sense to pollute our land for the profit of a few back in the 19th century. What does make sense is to work on cleaning up and unblocking our rivers to allow salmon to re-establish themselves, as they have done every time societies allowed them room to grow.

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All across the country, local river trusts and national organisations such as Salmon & Trout Conservation UK are working to re-create the healthy salmon stocks these islands once enjoyed, as consumer groups work to shame supermarkets into disclosing the sources of their farmed salmon and pressurise retail outlets to use only those farms that follow best practice. Anyone shopping for fish at such establishments can join in: all it takes is a mobile phone and a list of acceptable sources (S&TC UK offers useful advice on how to get started).

On the other hand, farmed fish will always be farmed fish – all too often a grey, fatty piece of doctored flesh that I wouldn’t want on my table.

So, why not boycott altogether? There are plenty more fish in the sea. But we Brits love our cod, our haddock and, of course, our salmon, no matter how grey; so we want them all the time, no matter the season. In earlier times, with a wider range of seasonal treats to look forward to, things were much better, not only for us, but also for the health of our rivers. 

This article appears in the 24 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain