Is this the future of Irish carp fishing?
Earlier this year, Off the Scale was invited by the English fish supply giant Neil Hardy Aquatica Ltd. for a tour of their facilities to learn, first-hand, how they operate and what role they may be able play in helping to develop Irish carp fishing.
Issue 25 (Nov-Dec 2018) Bill Brazier Bill Brazier & Stewart O’ Keeffe
As I write this, at the back end of 2018, Irish carp angling is, undeniably, in bad shape. Being my favourite species, it pains me to admit that. Objectively, we have some of the poorest carping to be found anywhere, with typically slow growth rates, low stocks which struggle to breed successfully and only a tiny handful of waters offering anything resembling decent fishing. The overall situation was exacerbated this May when an outbreak of the little-known Carp Edema Virus (CEV) wiped out over 99.9% of the stocks in both Belvelly lake, Cobh and the infamous Lough in Cork City , which had been our most prominent public water for almost fifty years. For many, the CEV incident was the coup de grâce for Irish carp angling. The poignant, tentative question on people’s lips now is where do we go from here?
“For many, the CEV incident was the coup de grâce for Irish carp angling. The poignant, tentative question on people’s lips now is where do we go from here?”
Enter Neil Hardy Aquatica Ltd., a long-established, family-owned business which is the largest wholesaler and distributor of tropical and coldwater fish in the United Kingdom. The company also happens to have a major carp breeding facility – one of the biggest in England – supplying carp for both the angling and ornamental market. This farm, which in angling terms operates under the ‘Carp4Restcoking’ banner (more on this later), is recognised by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) as the UK’s safest source of carp, boasting the highest disease-free status available. This accolade allows them to legally export Cyprinus carpio under licence to other countries – including Ireland – which is unique among the near-100 registered carp producers currently operating in the UK. For comparison, there are zero carp producers in Ireland or Northern Ireland, nor is there any official, natural supply.
The main centre of operations for Neil Hardy Aquatica lies in a quiet and up-market suburb of Croydon, near London. The timeworn, wooden-clad building belies the immense numbers and value of fish within the 22,000 square foot premises, as well as the high-tech, albeit somewhat quirky, set-up. There are seemingly endless rooms, rows and corridors containing some 2500 recirculation tanks and filtration systems, supporting a truly mind-boggling array of different fish species of all shapes, sizes and colours imaginable. From diamond neon tetras, clown killfish, calico orandas and dozens of different cichlids, to golden tench, diamond-back sturgeon, blue orfe and, of course, common and koi carp – every conceivable ornamental fish was here, somewhere.
The experience can only be compared to an aquarium visit although this sweaty, high-humidity tour took far longer given the sheer size of the place and was, for fish enthusiasts at least, far more interesting. Every tank was meticulously labelled with details of its inhabitants and each turn of a corner or opening of another door revealed yet another collection of amazing fish. With the constant stream of delivery trucks and staff busily expediting orders, cleaning and feeding, the scale of the establishment – both physical and economic – was plain to see. The fact that an extension of several hundred square metres will soon open came as no surprise. This is a well-oiled operation, no doubt about it.
Not just a carp farm
Like excited schoolboys, the second day of our trip saw Stewart and I chauffeured by Ger Evans, Irish rep for Neil Hardy Aquatica, for some two hours to deepest, darkest Wiltshire where there lies, among the rolling English countryside, a fish farm of some repute. As already mentioned, in the carp world this branch of Neil Hardy Aquatica is marketed as ‘Carp4Restocking’ and is run and managed by renowned breeder and all-round top guy, Tony Campbell.
Established in 2004, Carp4Restocking sits on an 11.5-acre clay-rich site, a quarter of which is outdoor ponds for fry rearing and growing on, as well as holding broodstock. Before we took a look around the carp side of things, the farm also houses a large three-storey building devoted primarily to koi production and it was here we began. Asking Tony about this clearly very-modern set-up, “We have over thirty different indoor systems currently with in excess of 750 tanks. That equates to something like 550,000 litres of recirculated water, so it’s a pretty major operation. I guess many anglers think fish farming is all about raising carp in some outdoor ponds but it’s not! We’ve got a huge number of koi broodstock on site, as well as quite a lot of sturgeon, and this takes up a fair chunk of our time down here” he explained in his usual cheerful tone.
The indoor side of things is highly automated, with advanced software monitoring water temperatures, flow rates, dissolved oxygen, ammonia levels, you name it. “Our system allows most issues to be identified early and even pre-empted, and can even be operated remotely which is great but means there’s never really any getting away from work” laughed Tony. I think it’s fair to say the life of a fish farmer is often seem as glamorous by most anglers but unless you’ve visited or helped out on one it’s difficult to grasp how much effort is needed to maintain a high standard of operation – and that was abundantly clear on this farm. “It’s difficult to not let it completely rule your life” admitted Tony, as we ushered him to the carp ponds adjacent to the ‘koi house’.
Among recreational fisheries, including some of the most famous in England like the Roach Pit and Farlows, Carp4Restocking has fast become one of the go-to sources for quality carp, so much so that demand began to out-strip supply. “It’s hard to separate carp and ornamental koi production on site due to large numbers involved” explained Tony, “but the average annual production, the fish actually sold to customers, is around 150-200,000 fish in total. In the past we have spawned our fish all year round, mainly from August to November, about 10-15 very large spawnings a year, which meant we would hold literally millions of fry over Christmas. Logistically, this was very difficult as you can imagine!” The recent installation of 12 ponds under huge polytunnels will mean that this regime can now change and be more spread out and manageable through the season.
“Among recreational fisheries, including some of the most famous in England like the Roach Pit and Farlows, Carp4Restocking has fast become one of the go-to sources for quality carp”
Biosecurity and Irish carp exports
As touched on earlier, a key point that sets Carp4Restocking apart from the rest is the extraordinarily high level of biosecurity and health clearance they maintain. “We have been testing our carp via CEFAS for many a year to attain our high health status and this is ongoing with tests being done every year and we are KHV, CEV and SVC-free” Tony proudly told me. This unique fish health standing actually allows them to export English carp to the USA for growing on or breeding in the much higher summer temperatures found there, before being imported back for distribution to customers. “Yeah, the USA farm seemed a bit of a mad idea at first but our special health status allowed for it so we thought why not give it a go! It has worked very well so far and the farm there has almost 100 acres of water and over a 100 holding tanks, so the increase in production has been significant. We still breed and grow most of our carp for stocking here but, in terms of logistics, using our USA farm alleviates a lot of pressure. We produce around 100-150,000 carp there annually and hope to do an additional 8-10 large spawnings a year before too long”.
As some of you may know, the disease-free certification achieved by Carp4Restocking also permits them to export carp to Northern Ireland, where the Northern Ireland Carp Anglers Society (NICAS) have stocked and established no less than five waters and counting in recent years. “I’m particularly pleased with what’s happened in the North” smiled Tony, “that I’ve been able to play a small role in bringing carp fishing to more Irish anglers. It just shows what can be achieved in a few years by doing things properly”. The purchase of relatively large target fish (4, 5 and 6-summer carp up to 20lb in weight) for fisheries like those run by NICAS isn’t cheap, nor is the ongoing, annual stocking policy with smaller fish. However, by all accounts, the business model used by NICAS, whereby anglers join the society on a yearly basis, is working excellently.
“I’m particularly pleased with what’s happened in the North” smiled Tony, “that I’ve been able to play a small role in bringing carp fishing to more Irish anglers. It just shows what can be achieved in a few years by doing things properly”
“We currently have 140 members and that figure keeps growing, just like our fish” says NICAS chairman, Alex Chew. “Our turnover in 2017 exceeded £30,000 and without Tony’s fish we simply wouldn’t have any fishing or revenue. There is literally not one single alternative source of disease-free certified carp we can import from, and of course the same goes you for boys down south”. Alex, in his usual straight-talking style, added, “Don’t get me wrong, it’s not been easy but the hard work is really paying off and we’ve gone from basically nothing to, hands-down, the best carp fishing on the island of Ireland”. I don’t think anyone can argue with that.
It may have been hard to breathe and the camera lenses may have fogged up instantly but the sweltering polytunnels, which typically reach 35-40°C even on an average summer’s day, were seriously impressive. At the time of our visit, the dozen, steep-sided, lined ponds were mostly full of baby carp, feeding voraciously on both natural food like Daphnia (water fleas) as well as fry pellets. Feeding time came and Tony dropped another impressive statistic; “We use around 20-25 tonnes of fish food here every year and, at the moment, about 15-20 tonnes in the USA”.
Like most anglers, I love looking at baby fish, whatever the species. They somehow evoke the same warm, fuzzy feeling as a puppy or kitten does and to think that a carp the size of your finger might well one day grow into a thirty pounder – as many of Tony’s fish are doing right around the UK – is amazing. Some are achieving growth rates of 6-7lb per year in rich lakes. As you’ll no doubt agree, the scaling patterns and frames of the Carp4Restockings mirrors, in particular, are spectacular and testament to the many years of hard work selectively breeding and lovingly rearing.
In terms of strains used, you could say that Tony and co. have now developed their own. “Well, without giving too much away” grinned the carp maestro, “we originally had two different lines, one mirror and one common and with a lot of hard work, trial and error and endless patience we’ve now arrived with fish we are genuinely delighted with. They spawn well, grow well and most importantly to us, look simply amazing! That’s what really helps us stand out from the crowd”. As you can see from the photos, a distinctive quality of many of Tony’s fish is the unusual scaling patterns and skin colours, from fish with heavily-plated, abnormally large scales to mirrors with a paint-like dusting of micro-scales near the tail. They are among the best-looking carp to be found anywhere.
What of the future?
So, this is all well and good but how does a farm in the south of England relate to Irish carp fishing? To bring this piece full-circle, the state of play does not make for great reading. We have very few established carp waters, private or public, with carp having been stocked on an often ad-hoc basis, both officially and unofficially for many years. Since the closure of the carp breeding units at Inland Fisheries Ireland’s Roscrea fish farm and the Erne & Melvin Hatchery (NI) in 2008 and 2015, respectively, there is no supply for supplementing existing waters or creating new ones and we have no viable national source for inter-water carp transfers. In any case, relocating fish from one angling water to another has inherent biosecurity risks. Although we Irish are blessed with very eye-pleasing carp, our growth rates and ultimate sizes are among the lowest in the entire world, thanks to our historical lack of selective breeding programmes – any carp bred for stocking by the authorities in decades past were about sheer production numbers rather than growth potential.
“Carp can still be legally imported (under licence) and stocked into carefully selected, suitable angling waters under the EU Fish Health Directive and other national guidelines, in conjunction with both the Marine Institute and Inland Fisheries Ireland”
As you may be aware, numerous imports of carp from Carp4Restocking have happened in the last decade (first in 2008), and, despite belief to the contrary, nothing on the legal side of things that has changed in recent years to prevent this happening again in the future. Their fish are still disease-free, certified to the highest standards and carp can still be legally imported (under licence) and stocked into carefully selected, suitable angling waters under the EU Fish Health Directive and other national guidelines, in conjunction with both the Marine Institute and Inland Fisheries Ireland.
Why then, you may ask, are there not at least some waters being developed and stocked with English carp in the Republic like there are in Northern Ireland? I think it comes down to a lack of organisation and coherence, on all sides. As well as having very, very few actual carp fishing clubs, we also have no national group or representative body. At preliminary, yet detailed, talks with Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI) earlier this year on this very topic, I personally tabled the proposition of a national carp group and they were, genuinely, very supportive.
The CEO of IFI, Ciarán Byrne acknowledged that “IFI understand the desire of carp anglers to develop the sport in Ireland and we have suggested and agreed some steps in this direction, the first being that carp anglers get formally organised into a single group or body (akin to Northern Ireland), such that any steps taken will be the right steps and have the support of both anglers and IFI, alike.”
At the same meeting IFI also added that “we have balanced our understanding of the desire of carp anglers to develop the sport in Ireland with concerns about illegal introductions and disease etc. Clearly, having a formal, responsible national group would make progressing any issues easier. IFI also recognise the impact of the recent disease outbreak on the Lough in Cork and the impact this has had on the carp angling resource, both locally and nationally.”
The outcome of this meeting very much contradicts general opinion on IFI’s take on carp fishing and certainly quashed several fears I had before attending. In summary, our state agency with the responsibility for inland fisheries development and management has agreed, provisionally, to work with carp anglers on national policy, stockings and development provided it is all conducted in the right way and through the correct channels – and this is where Neil Hardy Aquatica and Carp4Restocking will come in. The supply is there, the legislative channels are in place, the demand is certainly there and the potential to create both local employment and increased revenue streams through carp angling is significant.
We need formal management structures in place and an agreed framework within which to work and achieve. Call me naïve if you like – I’m sure many doubters will – but now is time for all Irish carp anglers to come together, in an unprecedented way, and work on building some sort of future. If we don’t then nothing will ever change. Plans are already afoot, watch this space.
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