Plymouth police take to the water with Environment Agency staff to target poachers and thieves.
Policing Plymouth is not just the city and surrounding areas – it’s also its valuable waters and rivers. Crime Reporter Carl Eve spent a rainy night on patrol with the city’s wildlife crime officer and water bailiffs.
"THE damage they're doing is unreal," snarled the angler. "It's ridiculous. It's rape – they're raping the waters."
Acting Sergeant Ryan Canning, a response officer who also doubles as the Wildlife Crime Officer, has swapped his usual squad car for Nimrod, a 6.5m rigid inflatable boat, piloted by Environment Agency (EA) water bailiffs Tam Sneddon and Pete Gordon.
We're about 40 metres from Royal William Yard's dainty quay and two hard-core anglers are using rod and line from a small boat.
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As usual, it's dark, cold and raining. The vocal angler is bemoaning illegal netters, the poachers who fish using long nets. A bylaw means it is illegal to use a net beyond a line drawn across the Sound, supposedly safeguarding stocks of bass, sea trout, grey mullet and salmon in the Sound, up its rivers and inlets.
The angry angler seethes about the poachers, describing what he'd like to do if he got his hands on them. He thanks the officer and the agency men for doing patrols but demands they catch the poachers before the damage they cause becomes irreversible.
His anger is shared by many other responsible fishermen and anglers around Devon and Cornwall, particularly those in Plymouth. As a result, the Environment Agency and police work together on patrols up and down various waterways in the South West, frequently operating at night in an attempt to catch the crooks red-handed.
Poaching on the scale it's carried out can be both profitable and immeasurably damaging to the marine environment. Even if they have what they call "a good night's fishing", which can often mean netting £1,000 worth of young fish, they will still try their luck at theft – outboard motors, marine satnavs, maybe a kayak or two from a riverside home. If they see an opportunity, they will exploit it. Everything has a value.
As Sgt Canning bitterly notes as we sidle up Hooe Lake: "These people think everything that isn't nailed down belongs to them. They have no qualms about taking anything of value, be it fish, engines, satnavs, even boats. They're thieves, plain and simple."
Just outside Plymouth, a recent run of thefts from boathouses which sit at the foot of properties adjacent to the waterfront has highlighted the issue for police. Working in conjunction with the Environment Agency the police are able to share their information with the hope of catching the crooks in the act.
They also carry out additional partnership work with organisations like the MoD, Police, the Department of Work and Pensions as well as the Marine Management Organisation in an effort to both track the poachers, target their ill-gotten gains and safeguard the fishing stocks.
Operation Moat, launched earlier this month, signals an increasing awareness by the authorities of the cost of marine crime, on both the ecology and the economy of a region. The combined approach, involving a number of agencies, aims to target offenders across the region both day and night.
One example, highlighted by Sgt Canning, saw a male arrested for a marine crime theft, as well as being in possession of a class B drug, and suspected benefit fraud.
Sgt Canning said: "Only by sharing our knowledge and each organisation taking a bite can we bring these cases which will hopefully impact on their illegal activities."
Despite the intention to be out all night, a few hours into the shift, there are problems with Nimrod and we return to shore. However, water bailiff Tam joins us on the road. We're about to head out into the countryside surrounding Plymouth but just before 1am are called upon to hunt for a vulnerable missing person who the police's call handlers assure us is heading towards the Hoe to do themselves an injury.
The police helicopter, several police cars, plus more officers on foot, hunt through the Hoe area, through parks and alleys. The MoD police launch joins us and scans the shoreline around the lido, its bright torch beam slicing through the drizzle and dark.
Sgt Canning notes how if we were still aboard Nimrod, we'd also be called in to help with the search. More than an hour later officers back at the missing person's home address announce he's returned safe and sound. The search is finally called off and officers return to their night duties.
Sgt Canning, ironically now more drenched than if he'd been aboard the boat all night, gets back into the unmarked car and we head off looking for some-land based poachers.
As we turn towards the fringes of Dartmoor, he quips: "It's all about safeguarding – vulnerable people, the public, the wildlife.
"But we always need the public's help, especially with the poachers. Hopefully, if they see something they think is suspicious, they'll call us or the agency."
Environment Agency's 24-hour incident reporting line: 0800 807060.