The great British fish rescue

Meet the people carefully rehoming aquatic life in our waterways

Illustration: James Albon, Photos: Colin Nicholls


Winter is a busy time of year for the Canal & River Trust, who make the most of the low cruising season to carry out essential repairs. In order to do this maintenance, sections of the network often have to be drained to allow the engineers easy access. Sounds straightforward, but what happens to the fish when the water is drained?

Our waterways are positively brimming with aquatic species. It’s estimated that there are 1,750 lbs of fish per mile of canal, and it’s up to the Trust to make sure each and every one of them is unharmed and rehomed to another section of water. That’s where the fish rescue team comes in.

To find out how this incredible work is carried out, we popped down to Lock 2 on the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal to meet fish rescuer James Kirk. Donned in a yellow rubber suit and armed with something that looks a bit like a metal detector, James had plenty to tell us about this curious operation.

James, set the scene for us. Why are you conducting a fish rescue here?
The Canal & River Trust needs to carry out repairs to the canal wall along this section, as the walls are old and crumbling after many years of use. Some of them are around 100 years old. In order to do this, they’ll have to drain the water. If we don’t conduct a rescue, thousands of fish would be killed.

What does a fish rescue entail?
Firstly, for our equipment to work effectively, we drain the canal to about knee height. We then use an electrofisher to generate a small electrical current in the water to slowly stun the fish. This allows us enough time to net them and put them in safe containers, which you can see floating on the water there. We then rehome the fish in the nearest watered section, which today would be on the other side of the lock gate. Sometimes, the Trust takes the fish to stock elsewhere, but nine times out of 10, we’re just rehoming them further along the canal.

How long do the fish stay stunned for?
Between two to five minutes, depending on the fish size, species and water temperature.

Why is this method used in fish rescues?
Electrofishing has been used in fisheries management for 20 to 30 years now because it’s one of the kindest and most effective methods of rescuing fish. Ideally, the most fish-friendly method is netting but due to the snaggy conditions on the canals it’s just not effective. Using the electrofishing method, we can say that we’ll rehome 100 per cent of the fish.

Is it dangerous for you?
If we weren’t wearing these rubber suits we’d get a bit of a whack, but so long as we wear them, it’s safe. If you were to grab the anodes of the electrofisher it could possibly knock you out. Luckily I’ve had no electrical mishaps in the 15 years I’ve been doing this. The most hazardous thing is slipping or tripping over because of the snaggy nature of the canal bed – there can be trolleys, bricks, rocks and all sorts down there.

What species have you been finding today?
We’ve found roach, perch, a few pike and bream. There’s been the odd eel. It shows a healthy canal when you’ve got so many different species in there, and such high populations. So far we’ve found hundreds of fish and we’ve only done about 20 metres. A lot of people wouldn’t think it but the water quality in canals, even in the cities, is the best it’s ever been.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve found in the canals during your fish rescues?
Once we found an unexploded Second World War bomb – we had to stop work for the day while the authorities came to remove it. As far as surprising fish go, we found a puffer fish but it was dead, unfortunately. We’ve had some tropical fish, which can survive a bit longer in the summer months but don’t make it in winter. I’ve come across turtles and snakes, too. No treasure as of yet.

How did you get into this line of work?
I’ve always been a keen fisherman and loved nature and the outdoors. I found out they did relevant college courses related to fisheries and fish, so I pursued that, and now I’m running my own fisheries consultancy.

What’s your team like?
I’ve got a good bunch of lads working with me. You have to be really keen and passionate to do this job as it’s not very glamorous. We’re in the water a lot and it’s muddy and cold – sometimes there’s even ice on the water.

What do you love about what you do?
Being outside, in nature every day. I can’t imagine working in an office, surrounded by four walls. I also love getting to see the country from top to bottom. Just yesterday we were in Wales on the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal and today we’re here in sunny Birmingham.

Pet peeve of the job?
Spectators saying, “You’ve missed one.”

As part of its Winter Works programme, the Canal & River Trust is hosting an Open Weekend at Foxton Locks on 10-11 February, where visitors can venture down into the drained lock chambers and see the remains of the historic inclined plane. Find out more on our website.