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Challenge Every Claim – Taking On The UK Environment Agency

April 7, 2010

In a 16 March BBC “Green Room” article, Lord Smith, Chairman of the UK Environment Agency made several broad-brush statements and claims relating to the effects of climate change.  The article was titled “It’s still real and it’s still a problem”.

In the article he made several claims including this one:

“The rare vendace fish is disappearing from its former stronghold in the Lake District, and is having to be re-introduced into the colder waters of Scotland.”

Having never heard of this fish, and wondering how much warming there must have been in the waters it inhabited for it to no longer be able to survive there, I casually decided to do some Googling.

I quickly came across this statement  from Cameron Durie, Technical Specialist to the UK Environment Agency:

“Cameron Durie, the Environment Agency’s technical specialist said: “The loss of vendace in Bassenthwaite Lake is down to a number of reasons. They’ve suffered from competition and egg predation from illegally introduced fish species as well as nutrient enrichment of the lake from agricultural run-off and sewage.

“But the final blow is sediment that has come into the lake – we consider this to have been the most damaging factor in its decline.”

So a big red light was flashing in front of my eyes.  Two people from the same organisation contradicting each other.

I decided that no matter how small this issue was, that it was worth investigating.  After all, the Chairman of the UK Environment Agency very clearly used the vendace extinction within the context of an article highlighting the effects of climate change, so the major reason for it’s decline *should* be climate change…right?

So buckle up while I educate you about this little fishy fellow.

Vendace populations have only ever been confirmed in four locations in the UK (Maitland, 1966).   Those locations are:

  • Castle Loch, Lochmaben, Scotland
  • Mill Loch, Lochmaben, Scotland
  • Derwent Water, Cumbria, England
  • Bassenthwaite Lake, Cumbria, England.

The two paired Scottish and English locations are close geographically and linked via waterways, so it is evident this species has never flourished far and wide within the UK.

The Castle Loch population died out around 1920.  This was within 10 years of a sewage plant being built upstream, and also around the time several non-native species were introduced to the waters. In the nineteenth century the population was abundant, as there was an annual “vendace club” event where the fish were netted (Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1833).  So something other than climate change caused their rapid decline in Castle Loch.

The Mill Loch population also declined rapidly in the first half of the twentieth century, and was not found after the early 1970’s.  The reasons for its decline there are less well documented, but again relate to a decline as non-native fish populations grew.

The Derwent Water population is still going strong, although a recent decline has caused concern. The decline has run parallel with increases in the non-native fish populations in that lake.

So there are clearly long term trends in a long term decline of this species.

The Bassenthwaite population was found to have vanished by 2001, having been in recorded decline for 30 years before that.  It is this population to which Lord Smith was referring in his article, so lets go over the facts.

The vendace decline in Bassenthwaite Lake has been the subject of several studies, commissioned mostly by English Nature and ironically the UK Environment Agency. The major reasons stated for its decline in every single one of these studies are:

1. Introduction of non-native species, such as ruff, which feed of vendace eggs.

2. Increased eutrophication which has increased since the opening of the  Keswick sewage processing plant upstream.

3. increased siltation in the water due to a variety of reasons including erosion of soil due to land use changes.

Nowhere, absolutely nowhere in any study, does it mention that temperature changes are even a minor contributory factor in the decline!

So I wrote to Lord Smith and asked him about it.  His reply was:

“Climate change affects the environment in many ways.  These include the increasing intensity of rainfall events.  We believe that the increased intensity of of rainfall events was in part responsible for the increase in sediment acculmulation in Bassenthwaite lake and causing smothering of the vendace eggs”.

“Temperature increases are a major threat to cold water fish species.  The temperature rise further reduced the amount of habitat available to the vendace”.

So that is pretty clear then, he is stating that the vendace died out in Bassenthwaite due to increased rainfall levels and increased temperature levels.

The problem is that neither of those reasons is true.

As anyone can see, even from my brief historical outline here, the species has been on the decline for 100 years, and the factors that keep coming up are non-native fish species, increased siltation for a variety of reasons and sewage treatment.

Lord Smith asked me to discuss it further with Cameron Durie, the Environment Agency Senior Technical Specialist (fisheries). Sounds like he should know the real reasons I thought, especially as he was the nominated officer listed on the final report into the vendace relocation project from Bassenthwaite in the 1990’s.

In Mr Durie’s reply he covered and confirmed the general reasons for the vendace decline in Bassenthwaite lake, stating:

“The recent history of the population does not make good reading. Healthy in the 1960s, in trouble by the 1980s, in more trouble by the 1990s and extinct in the 2000s is probably a fair summary.”

“I am not a climate change expert and frankly struggle to understand the difference between weather and climate. How much of the sediment in the lake was generated by changes in our weather/climate and how much can be attributed to land use practices I am not qualified to judge.”

I asked Mr Durie:

“As for the claim in Lord Smith’s letter of increasing recent rainfall increasing the sedimentation of Bassenthwaite, I cannot find any evidence that this is a proven fact in any study. The letter says “We believe”.  Where is the EA commissioned study reaching that conclusion please? As without one, your “belief” is no more valid than mine.”

I also asked Cameron for data, reports or papers that the Environment Agency has, which would lead them to conclude that temperatures have risen in Bassenthwaite and that temperatures are higher there than in Derwent water where the population is still alive.

I also asked why there were recommendations from scientists for investigating the reintroduction of the vendace into Bassenthwaite once local conditions stabilised.  How could this be being suggested if temperatures were too high already?  The altitude of Bassenthwaite and Derwent Water is almost identical, and they are linked by the River Derwent, so how could they be alive in one but not the other due to water temperature increases?

Mr Durie has not yet provided a single piece of evidence to support the increased rainfall and temperature claims.

As a final confirmation that I was correct, I contacted Dr Ian Winfield, lead author on several papers relating the the vendace, and generally accepted as one of the countries leading specialists in them. Ironically he was also an author of the final report on which Cameron Durie was chief contact for the Environment Agency, evidence the Mr Durie is well aware of the realities behind this species decline!  Dr Winfield’s reply to me was crystal clear when I forwarded him the original article and the text of my written reply from Lord Smith:

“Personally, I do not draw these conclusions and it is my belief that they are not shared by Environment Agency staff with whom I enjoy close working relationships.”

So there you have it.  Case closed, straight from one of the UK’s leading scientists on the subject.

But Lord Smith was also crystal clear about colder waters.  Why?  I decided to look into the relocation project which had been started as far back as 1997 by the Environment Agency.

Specimens and eggs from Bassenthwaite were successfully transferred to Loch Skene in Scotland back in the mid-1990’s. Specimens from Derwent Water have also been introduced into  a lake in Cumbria called Sprinkling Tarn (a location that held the UK 24 hour rainfall record until 2009, making it an odd choice considering the Environment Agencies apparent belief that heavy rainfall killled the vendace off in Bassenthwaite Lake! ). However the reasons for these locations being chosen was down to a variety of reasons, of which temperature was only one.

It transpired that current temperature is not the concern. The reason that vendace are only being introduced to colder waters is purely down to the Environment Agencies policy of taking into account potential climate change.

So the statement about colder waters was not related to current conditions at all, but purely because it forms part of a policy to factor in potential climate change effects to commissioned projects.

Conclusion.

The context of the BBC “Green Room” article was related to the effects of climate change.  Therefore for it to be mentioned as a legitimate example, the main reason for the demise and relocation of the vendace fish should be due to climate change.

That is only fair and reasonable?

That is simply not the case however.  It was used with dramatic license to make a point to the general public, who now think that bascially the vendace fish has had to be hoisted out of the boiling English lakes and dumped in colder Scottish waters by the “knights in shining armour” of the Environment Agency.

Whichever way you look at it, the vendace has died out over the years everywhere except Derwent Water.  The reasons for this are not linked to climate change but to a variety of well researched and documented reasons.  It has not suddenly collapsed as a population due to any recent warming, but has been on the decline for around 100 years.

Further, the mention of “colder waters” does not relate to any proven reality on the ground, but purely to the Environment Agencies internal policies dictating that future potential climate change must be taken into account within its projects. There is no data that proves Bassenthwaite lake’s water temperature has risen significantly, or that any rise has made the lake unable to support the vendace fish.

The real truth is that this poor little fish has been used as another piece of “proof” for global warming.  This post is not about the vendace in reality. It is about how  a UK Government Agency has been caught out in distorting the truth and in feeding disinformation to a member of the public.

The use of the words “stronghold” and “having to be” in the original article were clearly written to imply that something unprecedented was destroying this fish, forcing a dramatic relocation away from the boiling waters of Bassenthwaite.  When challenged on the facts, it turns out there is no data or evidence to back up a single thing the UK Environment Agency told me.

The moral of this tale is simple. Challenge every single “fact” no matter how small.  Little lies left unchallenged become part of great big ones.

——————————————————

Survey of vendace in Daer Reservoir and Loch Skene. Maitland, Lyle, Winfield.  English Nature 2003.

Translocation of vendace from Derwent Water to safe refuge locations. Maitland, Lyle, Winfield. Environment Agency 2006.

Conservation ecology of the vendace in Bassenthwaite Lake and Derwent Water. Winfield, Fletcher, James.  Finnish Zoological and Botanical Publishing Board 2004.

Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Volume XII. Edinburgh 1833.

(Plus numerous others all cited within those stated above, including Maitland.)

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From → BBC Climate Bias

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