Thursday, 2 July 2015

Crucian Crusade

Not so very long ago crucians could be found in almost every pond throughout much of England. However, a lot can change in a short space of time and now their numbers are in a steep decline. Unless we take strong action to halt this, they will soon disappear from the few waters they still exist in.

While I’d always believed that crucians are indigenous to the UK, DNA testing undertaken at Hull University suggests that they have probably only been in the country for between 500 to 600 years. It is possible they were introduced as an ornamental species but in this relatively short space of time, this beautiful little fish managed to assert such a position in our affections that it has become as quintessentially English as cricket on the village green. Almost every English angler over the age of 40 or 50 will have fond memories of catching crucians from idyllic lakes and ponds in many parts of England in his or her childhood. Yet, today, most younger anglers struggle to recognise a true crucian as is evident by the number of photographs of brown goldfish posted on social media sites that have been mistakenly identified as crucians.

There are various factors leading to the demise of crucians. They are a hardy little fish that can thrive in farm ponds that present poorly oxygenated conditions that would defeat most other species. Back in the days when anglers freely moved fish from one water to another, these little ponds provided a major source of small crucians to stock into larger fishing lakes. But today most of our ponds have fallen into neglect, becoming overgrown with trees and ended up so stagnant that they cannot support fish. Others have dried up in drought weather conditions, been ploughed over or backfilled for land development.

Secondly, and something that anglers alone must take the blame for, is the relentless stocking of king carp into every drop of available water. Unfortunately for true crucians, their sexual habits may be a bit louche. They will happily interbreed with other species of carp to the extent that they crossbreed themselves out of existence. While there are a few waters where crucians and king carp populations manage to coexist, these are vastly outnumbered by the number of waters where crucians have disappeared altogether.

A third reason for their decline has been their crossbreeding with the brown goldfish Carassius auratus, the presence of which can mostly be directly attributed to dodgy fish farms passing off brown goldfish as true crucians to unsuspecting fisheries. To the untrained eye, brown goldfish and crucians can look remarkably similar. In crucian waters that are stocked with goldfish, the fate of the crucians is doomed!

If the situation is bad in England, in mainland Europe they’re really up against it due to the presence of a foreign invader called the gibel or Prussian carp Carassius gibelio. Gibel carp are a crucian’s nightmare. They look similar to crucians and will happily jump into bed with them. This liaison is proving the kiss of death to European crucians. We should be extremely grateful that, for the moment at least, we do not have gibel carp in the UK. One look at the German top 50 crucian list reveals that all but two of these fish are some form of hybrid. This underlines the importance of conserving what is left of our crucians in England, for it may well be their last European stronghold. However, not only do we need to preserve the few crucian waters we have, we also need to start creating bespoke crucian fisheries to help take the strain (and the pure strain at that, pardon the pun).

One doesn’t need to look far back in angling history to find angling writers undervaluing crucians by referring to them as being “jolly little fellows” or suchlike, as if they were some kind of comical lesser species compared to king carp. Of course specimen carp fishing was in its infancy in those days, with king carp waters still few and far between. Since then, however, specimen, pleasure and match fishing for carp has taken over angling, with stocking more and more king carp becoming angling’s answer to just about everything. In the process we have tragically overlooked the fact that biggest does not necessarily equate to being best. Fishing for crucians has a charm and magic entirely of its own, but as the saying goes, “You never miss your water until your well runs dry!”

Last but not least, crucians are extremely vulnerable to being predated upon. Ask any hard-bitten pike angler of old and they will confirm what good live baits crucians were, back in the days when there were plenty of ponds to plunder. Whatever it is that makes them so attractive to predators, it isn’t unusual to see entire stocks of them slowly disappear due to predation by pike. We often find waters where a few adult crucians reach specimen proportions, before dying out altogether. Forward thinking fisheries can get around this problem by creating a crucian nursery pond containing no other species. In these nursery ponds they can be left to breed as prolifically as only crucians can, before being cropped and transferred into the main fishery once big enough to stand a chance against predators. Incredibly, crucians can actually change their body shape over time as a defence mechanism, by growing a higher back to present a more awkward mouthful for predators to swallow. Crucians found in Scandinavia and parts of the Baltic Sea often exhibit exceptionally high backs for this reason.

On the 28th May 2014 the National Crucian Conservation Project (NCCP) was officially launched at the Angling Trust’s Coarse Fish Conference in Reading. Since then, the project has moved forward at great pace. Its objectives include the creation of a regional network of growing-on centres to increase the availability of crucians large enough to withstand predation when stocked into new waters. The creation of a ‘pure’ crucian accreditation scheme that fisheries and fish farms can apply to be part of is also envisaged. A crucian ID guide is being published, alongside fact-sheets on creating and managing crucian waters. Eventually courses and events will be run for fishery owners and managers. The angling community has responded enthusiastically, with a growing number of crucian fishery projects being started throughout the country .

To compliment the NCCP — and with social media being such an important method of networking in these digital times— the Association of Crucian Anglers (ACA) was set up as a Facebook Group. The aim of the ACA is to provide a means for anglers and fisheries to support the NCCP at a ground roots level. It is a closed group, where membership is either by invitation or has to be applied for. This protects the group from being swamped (and watered down) by serial Facebook group joiners with only a limited interest in crucians. But the door is wide open to anyone that wants to get involved. In 2014 the group held its first fish-ins at various waters in order to assess the condition of their crucian stocks, and this will continue. The group also set about putting together a directory of crucian waters. This quickly grew into a long list which at first glance gave the impression that crucians are still widespread but many of these fisheries turned out to be anything but true crucian waters, with the double threat of brown goldfish and king carp especially prevalent. Of course there may be true crucians in some of these waters but being crowded out by hybrids and goldfish they have are unlikely to thrive and breed.

More than anything else, the joint efforts of the NCCP and ACA has succeeded in identifying the huge affection many anglers have for crucians. Hopefully now we can now harness that affection and get it working on building a brighter future for the species. Who knows, eventually we might even start returning angling to a place where youngsters can once again discover the joys of catching beautiful crucians on the float in the margins, rather than their first steps in angling being spent behind matching rods and bolt-rigs without ever learning the basic skills!

Chris Turnbull ACA. NCCP