illegal netting title.gif (17329 bytes)


Netting – Is it Legal? 

The right to fish, and to carry out activities ancillary to fishing, are enshrined in Magna Carta (and are often quoted by angling authorities when countering the imposition of bait digging bans etc).

However, Magna Carta was drawn up long before sea angling was popular and these laws were originally introduced to preserve the right of anyone to take food from the sea.

As a result, whether you are using a net or a fishing rod, you do not need a licence to fish.

Most netting, even from unlicensed vessels, is therefore not illegal.

What is illegal is to sell the catch if it is caught using an unlicensed powered vessel.

So, any fish caught from the beach, or from an unpowered vessel (oars or sails), can be sold, regardless of whether the vessel is licensed or not, or whether the fish have been caught by hook, or by net.

(Only the owner of a licensed power vessel has the right to sell the catch. If anglers charter a licensed fishing vessel, they cannot individually sell their catch, but they can leave the catch with the skipper to be sold ‘by the boat’)

There are some exceptions to that:

You are not allowed to fish for bass from a vessel in bass nursery areas for instance, or to land or be in possession of undersized fish, or to use certain types of gear in certain areas

(The local Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCAs) should be able to provide full regulations pertaining to the local area).

Some areas have regulations against the setting of ‘fixed engines’ (i.e. gill nets), designed to protect migratory salmon and sea trout (dealing with the depth that the net is set. Salmon & Sea Trout tend to run high in the water, so the headline of the net needs to be deep enough to allow the salmon and trout to pass safely over the top of the net. That makes it impractical to set nets close to the shore).

Most of these regulations served their purpose when there were plenty of fish for all, and gear was difficult to employ. Old-fashioned multi-strand gill netting was relatively expensive and became quite heavy when waterlogged.

Now, monofilament netting is both cheap and light, coming out of the water weighing the same as when it went in. That means that 100yds of netting is paid for by taking 4 or 5 decent sized bass, and a man alone, fishing from a small boat, can easily deploy kilometres of netting during a tide.

In some areas, many miles of netting is legally deployed by unlicensed fishermen, close inshore, but then the catch is sold illicitly. (It’s difficult for the enforcement agencies to catch the netter in the act of selling the catch).

Clearly, the regulations need to be updated, especially the need to establish audit trails so that fish can be traced back through the supply train, and parties buying ‘black fish’ dealt with. Without a market to sell into, illegal fishing would cease.

The NFSA are campaigning against the use of unlicensed gill-nets, and are supported in that campaign by licensed fisherman.

Existing regulations, such as they are, are enforced by the Environment Agency in estuaries, mainly for the purpose of protecting migratory salmon and trout and eels, and by the IFCAs out to the six mile limit (currently, but possibly being extended to 12 miles und new CFP legislation). (note: the EA can be contacted on their free hotline 0800 807 060 to report pollution and illegal fishing – load it to your mobile now!)

In other areas, enforcement was formerly the job of the Local Sea Fisheries Committee.

The Sea Fisheries Committees were first established in the late 19th century, for the purpose of developing and regulating the inshore commercial fisheries, at a time when the seas were regarded as being inexhaustible.

They are financed by local councils (who often do not have a great interest in fisheries, and so are reluctant to provide proper funding for fisheries enforcement) and are made up largely of representatives of the commercial fishing community or those with an interest in maintaining fish markets and processing.

Generally, they are sympathetic to the plight of local fishermen and will endeavour to assist them, rather than to make life difficult for them, preferring to issue warnings rather than prosecute.

Each SFC usually has a DEFRA appointed representative who is responsible for angling matters (who often is not an angler!).

A list of Sea Fisheries Committees, containing contact details, web addresses etc can be found at:

NFSA Advice on Illegal Netting

(This information was contained within the NFSA Quarterly Journal Number 24 – December 2001. The journal is distributed to all members, another good reason to take out Individual/Personal NFSA membership –

Over the years the Head Office has received a number of letters from members with regard to the siting and use of illegal nets around the coast.

Our Fisheries Liaison Representative, Malcolm Gilbert, recently posed the following question to Mr Mark Pitcher, his local Environment Agency Fisheries Officer. His reply is informative and will be helpful to readers.

Question:  If fixed gill nets are being set on the low water mark of beaches within any of the seven areas prescribed in the above legislation, I take it that in view of the head lines inevitably being on the surface and most certainly not more than three metres below the surface at all states of the tide, these nets would be illegal. If this is the case, please can you suggest the most appropriate action to be taken in the event that one witnesses nets being used in this manner?

Response from the Environment Agency and the law relating to the Cornwall Sea Fisheries District Fixed Engine Byelaw 1987.

Any fixed net (even if unattended) set such that the head line is within 3 metres of the surface, at any state of the tide, is illegal under the Cornwall Fixed Engine Byelaw 1987 which was made for the purpose of section 6 of the Salmon & Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975.

Many people target bass using these nets off beaches, setting them at low water using slate anchors etc and letting them fish the tide up with surface floats as the bass move up the beach.

The reason the nets are illegal under byelaw is not that they target bass, but that the manner in which they are set has been proven to interfere with (catch) migratory salmonids, which use certain bays and headland areas on their journey to the spawning grounds in the headwaters of our rivers.

We have records of salmon and sea trout being caught in illegal nets in St Ives Bay, so we know that it happens.

Also, irrespective of the type of net used (legal or illegal) it is an offence to retain salmon or sea trout in any net, in any area of the sea, if the person is not licensed to capture salmon or sea trout. 

The same is true for salmon or sea trout caught from the sea on rod and line.

A legal net used, in which salmon or sea trout are captured and retained, becomes an unlicensed instrument. We had a case of this recently in the River Camel estuary.

Nets which can be used in the restricted netting areas include beach seines for sea fish, drift nets for sea fish as long as they are free to move and attended at all times, and nets with a head rope below 3 metres of the surface of the sea.

A net shot as a ring net from a boat is legal within the restricted areas outside of the estuaries as long as it is not fixed by anchors or in any other way, and is attended during the shooting and hauling.

Any salmon or sea trout caught accidentally must be returned, even if dead.

As to what to do when you see an illegal net, there are the following options:

1.          Phone our incident line 0800 80 70 60 seven days a week, 24 hours a day, as soon as possible. The call will be put through to the officer closest to the incident and who is on duty. We will try our best to attend and seize the net and prosecute the people setting the net.

2.          Call the local police for assistance so that they can detain the people setting the net until we arrive. If this is not possible, the police can caution the offenders, take their names and addresses and pass them to me. We will then contact the offenders and interview them under caution. The police can seize the net, boat etc but most PCs are not fully aware of fisheries law and the best we can hope for is the verified name and addresses of the offenders. I will contact the local officer in St Ives and inform him of the type of offence to look out for.

3.          Contact Eddie Derriman as the offence will also be a breach of Cornwall Sea Fisheries Byelaw. Eddie will be under resource constraints, like me, but it might be worth a try.

4.          Let me have details about the site, the type of net used, the tide and times fished. I will place some resources on covert observation and hope to catch the culprits at it.

NB – This advice obviously relates to the Cornwall Environment Agency, and the by-laws in place within Cornwall .

The exact regulations will differ for each of the Sea Fishery Committee areas, local byelaws and contact details should be available on the respective SFC website, or by request.

However, the same principles for reporting incidents would apply in each area.

Your local Environment Agency and Sea Fisheries contacts will be listed in your local telephone directory – there is a list of Sea Fisheries Committees within the SACN web pages.

Advice given on the North Wales Sea Angling Fishing website

To report a possible illegality in North Wales BETWEEN BORTH & THE DEE ESTUARY contact;


This number will respond to calls regarding netting in bass nursery sites, any and all coastal areas where bass, salmon & sea trout may be taken , Most locations also areas where bass also congregate in the same locations (always ask for a response to your complaint at the time of making your report).

Calls to the HOTLINE are dealt with in total confidence Complaints may also be made at any time to the following :-

DEFRA Fisheries Office, The Old Vicarage, Newry Street, Holyhead, Anglesey, LL65 1DB
By Telephone; 01407 765757 (24 hour answer phone)
By Fax; 01407 769018
North Western & North Wales Sea Fisheries Committee (Lancaster HQ)
01524 68745

There is illegal netting on the North Wales coastline. Any gill net on any beach above the low water line in certain named areas is illegal. 

If you see a net being set to fish, phone the 24hr number immediately - day or night! - and if a car is involved, please take a note of its description and registration number as accurately as you can.

All calls are dealt with as strictly private and confidential and remain so.

Do not be afraid of being wrong - the authorities would rather receive a hundred false alarms than see a Gill Net go without notice.

If you truly care about your sport and fish stocks and know of where a gill net is being used or fishing, phone!

Only specific sizes of trawlers are allowed within a certain distance of our shores to fish.

Within 6 Nautical miles, trawlers up to 45 ft on length are allowed to operate within the
North Western & North Wales Sea fisheries Committee area specifically north and east of a line drawn from Rhyl whilst up to a maximum of 50 ft south and west of Rhyl.

Beam net trawlers of 70 ft and over (usually fitted with large beams on each side of the vessel) are not allowed to fish inside the 12 mile limit.

Also, if you see beam trawling too close in or if any commercial fleet boat has gone too close to your vessel or is in an out of bounds area, please ring the numbers provided asap, preferably with the name of the boat and its registration number (usually found on the bow or stern).

Ask all anglers to act positively at all times to highlight the effect of over exploitation of fish stocks wherever it may occur.


Additional Information.

When an angler suspect that gill nets have been set illegally then they should call the Environment Agency Hotline on line 0800 80 70 60 (load it to your mobile now!) immediately.

Even if the nets do not appear to be illegal, if it is likely that they are set anywhere that they might be obstructing a run of sea trout, or salmon, the Environment Agency should be asked to investigate.

When reporting incidents to the Environment Agency, it is important that you ask for Update Feedback, and take the name of the person that is taking your call.

This will make it much more likely that the call will be recorded and investigated.

If, upon investigation, salmon and/or trout are found in the net, the EA will be able to build a case file of incidents for that stretch of coastline, and ultimately require the Sea Fisheries Committee to pass byelaws (24 & 25) which will prohibit gill netting along that stretch. As well as protecting the salmonids, this will also protect the bass, mullet etc as well.

Very often those involved in both legal and illegal netting can be targeted indirectly.

If possible, note their vehicle number(s), (is it taxed? report it if not). Try to get pictures of the people involved and their vehicles (but be very aware of your own personal safety).

Inform your local tax office that you are concerned that the individuals concerned may not be declaring their income from their netting activities, and alert the benefits agency (there is likely to be a local hotline for reporting suspected benefit cheats).

Often, unwanted bycatch is simply dumped on the beach, or in car park bins. That is illegal, and the local council and/or Environment Agency may want to take action against such ‘fly-tipping’.

Nets that are set in areas frequented by swimmers or jet-skiers etc can be a public danger and it’s possible that the local council will move to ban the setting of nets in such areas under Health & Safety requirements if the matter is brought to their attention.

On occasion we are told that anglers ‘know’ that netters are ‘given the wink’ by enforcement officers and that the only action that will be taken if they are caught illegally fishing is to give them a warning, and if they are caught again they will get another warning.

We have also heard stories of netters being contacted on their mobiles to be told that enforcement officers are on their way to check their nets.

If you have any suspicion that there is collusion between illegal netters and enforcement authorities, then the police should be informed. If you feel you really need to, use your local ‘crime line’ to leave an anonymous report.

If this does go on, it is less likely to continue if the ‘watchers’ are aware that they are being watched, and maybe brought to account for their collusion.

Establish a Sea Watch

If anglers suspect routine and systematic illegal netting in their area, and this does not appear to be being effectively dealt with by local enforcement authorities, a few anglers banding together to establish a Sea Watch can at least have the netters moving away from an area.

Prepared to take part in vigils through the early hours (and maybe do some fishing at the same time) looking out for and investigating any suspicious activity, such a group has two objectives; to gather evidence to force the authorities to act and to deter those who use the cover of apathy and the night to carry out their illegal activities.

(Several high-powered beams suddenly shone upon their activity from the shore and/or boats can unnerve them; just knowing that there is a local group out to nail them can bring their activities to a stop.)

But remember, do not get directly involved. Gather and report the evidence through a Sea Watch co-ordinator to the enforcement authorities, the police and any other interested parties (the co-ordinator being responsible for keeping records of all incidents and how these were dealt with by the authorities and making the information available to all interested parties). Liaison with authorities such as the police and IFCA will be essential.

Publicise the existence of the group, and pressure the local enforcement authorities for action, based upon your observations and any evidence that you have gathered.

Remember it is illegal netters that are being targeted, people undermining the market and taking the catches of legal licensed netters who may also be happy to assist in stopping the activities which threaten their own livelihoods.

Environment Agency Press Release. August 3rd 2001

Thousands of dead fish discovered in anti-poaching patrol.

During an anti-poaching patrol in
Plymouth last night the Environment Agency seized an illegally set fishing net that yielded over one and a half tons of dead fish.

It is the largest amount of dead fish the Agency has ever seized in an operation of this kind in the Agency¹s Cornwall Area, which covers
Plymouth and West Devon.

Agency fisheries officers were alerted to the net by local police during a night patrol on the estuary of the River Plym. The would-be poachers set a kilometre long monofilament gill net across the mouth of the estuary that had snared about 1.5 tons of mullet, 150 bass, hundreds of shore crabs, 5 sea trout and 1 salmon.

The sea trout were released alive but the bass, mullet, salmon and crabs had all died.

The estuary of the Plym is a designated nursery area for bass and it is illegal to set any fixed nets for any kind of fish in this area. The loss of such a large amount of fish will have a significant impact on local stocks in this vulnerable and important area.

Anyone caught poaching can face a significant fine and also risks having nets, boats and vehicles seized. If any local people have information that might help trace the culprits they can call the Environment Agency¹s free, 24-hour incident hotline on 0800 80 70 60.

"Poaching is a real threat to the well-being of our rivers," said Mark Pilcher, Fisheries team leader for the Environment Agency.

"It is very hard to catch people in the act but we can take some satisfaction that no-one will profit from this massive haul."

Vicious Circle

Sea Fishery and EA resources stretched, laughable fines imposed by magistrates, illegal nets not reported.

Magistrates see very few cases brought before them. There obviously isn’t much of a problem requiring the deterrence of exemplary penalties. The defence’s argument that the authorities are out to make it difficult for a hard working fisherman, daily facing the sea’s dangers to scrape a living and feed his family, by prosecuting him for a mere technical offence gets some sympathy.

The prosecuting authorities, overstretched and underfunded, know just how much serious damage illegal netting does to the environment, and to the ecology of the places where they are set. And they know just how much this activity contributes to the decline of fish stocks and the ability of honest fishermen to make a reasonable living, and to continue fishing on the right side of the law. But they have lots of other areas to police with their scarce resources. And no one is making much fuss about the problem - it’s difficult to justify allocating resources to a problem when few complaints are made.

Recently the government has been looking at a system whereby fishery offences will be decriminalised, imposing administrative penalties instead (a bit like clocking up points on your driving licence - too many points and you lose part of your fishing quota, days at sea etc.)

Anglers sometimes see the nets, curse and moan, but in most cases can’t even be bothered to call the EA on the free emergency help line, let alone write a few letters to their MP, local sea fishery committee etc.

That’s what the netters rely upon – apathy!

Sea Anglers’ Conservation Network (SACN)