Scientists Recruit U.K. Anglers as River Fly Detectives

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
July 15, 2003

London's Natural History Museum is famous for its fossilized dinosaurs and giant replica whales, but behind the scenes, museum staff are focusing on organisms less likely to pull the crowds. Elm trees, mosses, and river flies are among the plants and animals causing them concern. And in looking at ways to conserve declining populations they're appealing to 100,000 amateur naturalists for help.

"Sharing knowledge and expertise is essential for us to maximize our efforts to conserve the U.K.'s wildlife," said Johannes Vogel, who is coordinating the Natural History Museum's Amateurs as Experts project. "We want to bring the full wealth of amateur and professional knowledge together."

Backed by various government agencies, universities, and conservation groups, Vogel and his team are particularly keen to work with anglers.

Fly fishermen are recognized for their knowledge of the aquatic insects trout feed on. In fact, it was Victorian fly fishermen, not scientists, who first studied these insects closely in order to imitate them with artificial flies. This is reflected in the English names the flies are known by. Monikers like "pale watery," "turkey brown," and "Welshman's button" were all thought up by trout fishermen.

They were also the first people to notice these flies are vanishing from U.K. rivers. Their concerns were compiled in a report published by the Environment Agency for England and Wales in 2001. It suggested a massive reduction in fly abundance. In the case of mayflies like the iron blue and large dark olive, by 66 percent and 65 percent respectively since the 1970s.

Water abstraction, agricultural runoff, climate change, and pollution from sewage treatment plants have all been blamed. But scientists say much more data is needed before they can pinpoint a cause, and this is where the fishermen come in.

River Fly Workshops

The Natural History Museum is now staging workshops around the country where anglers are taught to monitor river fly populations using scientific methods. Their findings can then be presented to government scientists for further investigation, or passed to national recording schemes for the three main groups of river insects: caddisflies, mayflies, and stoneflies.

"At the moment very few people contribute to our records," said Steve Brooks, a research entomologist at the museum. "We want fishermen to help us to build up a better picture of the distribution of these insects."

Brooks says the trouble with the current data is that it's hard to tell whether a species is disappearing from a river because it's unlikely there's any scientific record of it being there in the first place.

"It's in fishermen's interests to get involved because there really isn't anyone else to do it for them," Brooks said.

Conservation efforts tend to focus on those high-profile, easy-to-recognize species that grab the public's attention. If dolphins, eagles, or otters have a problem, people usually listen. But when it comes to drab, barely distinguishable bugs that spend most of their lives as underwater larvae, Brooks says it's only trout fishermen and entomologists who miss them.

Continued on Next Page >>


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