Fish stocks in one of Britain’s best-loved rivers are being decimated by groups of Eastern European poachers.
The gangs are illegally plundering the River Wye’s bounty to feed themselves – and to sell on the black market.
The number of wild salmon in the river has plummeted by an alarming 57 per cent over the past two years alone, environmentalists warned yesterday.
The 134-mile long river topped a nationwide poll last year as the country’s best waterway.
Astonishingly, the brazen criminals even set up barbecues by the riverbanks where they swiftly cook and eat their stolen fish before selling the rest on the black market.
A 20lb fresh water salmon can fetch upwards of £300 and tend to be sold to luxury hotels.
Numbers of trout, pike and barbel have also dropped as a result of the illegal fishing.
The gangs responsible for the poaching are believed to be migrant workers who pick fruit on nearby farms.
Profitable: The poachers who catch the salmon can sell it on to upmarket hotels
Some are even poisoning rivers to kill the fish before scooping them up in large nets.
The river, the fifth largest in Britain, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, which means it is illegal to catch fish for food.
The Wye stretches from Wales through Herefordshire and ends in Chepstow, Monmouthshire.
The Environment Agency is stepping up patrols and using covert spy-cameras hidden in trees and hedgerows along the river banks in a bid to catch the poachers in the act.
Chris Ponsford, who works for the agency’s crime team, said: ‘We’re essentially the “environment police” and have the power to arrest.
Repeat offenders could be slapped with up to a £2,500 fine – but it’s hard to land a conviction. So many are getting away with it.’
Mark Lloyd, of the Angling Trust, said: ‘We’ve noticed this trend across the country due mainly to the influx of migrant workers from Eastern Europe.
‘Besides the River Wye, we’ve identified hotspots in Wiltshire and along the River Nene in the east of England.’
The Environmental Agency has seized huge quantities of illegal fishing nets and poles hidden along the banks of the river over the last three months.
Each net is capable of catching dozens of fish, particularly salmon running upstream to spawn, in one go.
Chris Ponsford added: 'There's a big problem throughout the Wye valley with poachers.
'Long lines have been found, but the majority of the poaching comes from local farms where hundreds and hundreds of Eastern European labourers work.
'What they're doing is very illegal - there are very strict regulations governing what you can and cannot take from rivers.
'They go down to the river in the evenings and over the weekends with their rods and barbeques, removing fish to eat.
'Some of the operations are bigger and the fish are being sold on.
'If these guys are taking maybe one or two fish a day, it doesn't take long for them to have a big impact on a stretch.'
Last year the Wye was voted the country's favourite river in a poll backed by WWF Cymru, RSPB, the Angling Trust and the Salmon and Trout Association.
Voters described it as 'magical and timeless', 'a haven for wildlife' and a place 'to get lost and slow down'. But fishing experts now warn the iconic river is at risk from poachers.
Nationwide trend: Mark Lloyd (pictured) from the Angling Trust said the poachers are part of a 'large-scale illegal operation'
Conservation charity The Wye and Usk Foundation reported salmon stocks have dropped by 57 per cent drop in two years.
In 2008, there were a 1,106 reported salmon catches compared with 640 in 2009 and just 477 last year.
The average weight of salmon has also decreased by over 20 per cent from 34lbs in 2008 to 27lbs in 2010 - indicating the fish is being caught and killed before it reaches maturity.
Mr Ponsford said: 'It's an uphill battle but we have a variety of methods to combat fish poaching.
'These include regular patrols, during the day and night as well as at weekends. We also have boats and surveillance equipment such as hidden cameras at our disposal.'
Fishing charities have reported similar incidents happening across the country.
Mark Lloyd added: 'Those laying these lines, which carry multiple hooks, are part of large-scale, illegal operations.
'It is just part of their culture - in Poland, for example, the carp-like barbel is a delicacy and served for Christmas dinner, instead of turkey.
'However, the bigger illegal operations will take time to tackle.'
But a rebuttal (1 post out of 18) in the Comments Section:
What a load of garbage this article is! Wye salmon have been in terminal decline since the 1980's, long before Eastern Europeans started arriving. There are salmon anglers with more than 40 years experience unable to locate a single salmon on sections of the middle Wye, yet we are to believe these newly arrived migrants are finding and catching them with ease? There are many problems for the ever dwindling stock of salmon that still run the Wye, such as abstraction, pollution from intensive agriculture, the spread of illegally introduced alien species like barbel and the constant disturbance of the spawning beds by canoeists and rafters. Eastern European poachers are a non-existent threat to salmon, they would be far more likely to be targeting the WUF's favourite cash cow the barbel.