Fishmail: Acid Attack

December 12th, 2002

One afternoon in April 1943, Dr. Albert Hoffman set off home on his bicycle from his laboratory at Sandoz, a large pharmaceutical company located in Basel, Switzerland. By the time he got home his world, and ours, had changed forever. That afternoon he had been working with a chemical he had first isolated in 1938, an alkaloid substance derived from the ergot fungus - a substance known as lysergic acid diethylamide-25, better known to us as LSD. Somehow, he accidentally ingested a tiny amount of his working sample that afternoon – and as a result, he cycled his way merrily, if somewhat chaotically, into history.

You may feel ambivalent or even completely agnostic about his discovery. You may feel less so about his employers' next significant achievement. Sandoz waited 43 years to spring its next trick on the world, but this time the trick was altogether less magical. On the first of November 1986, a fire broke out at a Sandoz warehouse on the banks of the Rhine, resulting in the explosion of hundreds of barrels of chemicals. The water used to put out the fire washed over 30 tonnes of pesticides, dyes and fungicides into the river, killing untold millions of fish and wiping out all insect and plant life for a hundred miles or more downstream. The subsequent investigation showed that Sandoz was by no means alone – even the previous day, Ciba-Geigy was discovered to have spilled hundreds of gallons of atrazine, one of the world's most widely-used and toxic herbicides, into the river – and dozens of other companies in all the countries of the Rhine basin subsequently admitted to having used the river as a waste dump for decades.

Look at the Rhine now, and you would never believe it. It has fish in it, lots of them, and plants too. You can even eat them, if you feel so inclined. Pollution levels are down over 90%, an achievement that ranks as one of the world's greatest ecological clean-up exercises. After 40 years of being used as Europe's sewer, the Rhine is back to something near health – nowhere near its pristine original state, but close enough that the people responsible for cleaning it up can feel pretty damn pleased with themselves.

Who were those people? Not environmental activists, for sure. Not fishermen, either; or farmers. The terrible irony of the Rhine cleanup is that the people behind it were the original polluters – the very companies that dumped their unwanted stock and by-products into the river in the first place. Sandoz and Bayer and Hoechst and BASF and many others not only stopped what they were doing, but developed new technologies for cleaning river water – Bayer, for one, now sells these technologies all over the world – and set themselves new environmental standards, much more stringent ones than those imposed by their governments. Collectively, they addressed their guilt, used their own internal resources and ingenuity and solved a problem that no amount of lobbying or legislation has ever been able to solve satisfactorily elsewhere in the world.

What does this mean? It is often hard for those of us who spend time on the world's waterways to accept that big companies are anything other than greedy, irresponsible, shareholder-enslaved entities for whom fish are about as important or interesting as mosquitos. And it remains true that industry of one kind or another remains by far the greatest threat to our environment everywhere in the world. But it teaches us two important lessons nonetheless. Our actions and the damage they cause to our waterways don't have to be irreversible; and that makes people if anything even less responsible. We'll just dump this in here – we can always clear it up again if anyone notices, right?

In most countries, there's a big question mark over whose responsibility it is to notice these things, or to do anything about it. Governmental environment agencies in even the most enlightened countries are, by and large, toothless and ineffectual, despite their best intentions; compromised by their masters' economic dependence on industrial giants, they can do no more than try to retain some sort of equilibrium. In the UK, fines for water pollution have historically been laughably small, even for those who have caused immense damage – farmers or pharmaceutical companies who have wiped out miles of river with pig slurry or pesticides are routinely slapped on the wrist and asked not to do it again. But their incentive to not do it again is tiny, thanks to our ruined agricultural policies and the fact that it is much cheaper for them to risk another fine than to dispose of their waste in an approved and safe manner.

What implications does this have for us as anglers? For years, I have thought of myself as a pretty responsible sort of guy, from an ecological point of view at least, if not a sociological one. I'm a qualified marine biologist, and ran fish conservation and breeding projects for some years before turning to journalism as a way of life. I know my way around water quality and management, and the way they affect fish behaviour and vitality. I don't leave litter on the banks. I don't drop cigarette butts in the water. I have served on the committees of several angling associations. And I am, of course, by no means unique – there are uncountable thousands of anglers all over the world whose knowledge and conscience greatly exceeds mine. You'd have thought that as a group, we'd be pretty powerful people. But we're not; we are still regarded as mavericks, eccentric old fools who stand around on muddy banks waving sticks around. As a group, we have as much clout and coherence and influence as Kermit the frog.

We need to change this. But how many of us actually ever do anything about it? And how many of us really care? In some ways, the current climate encourages us to not care, because we have created fisheries where fish are regarded as disposable, replaceable items. Put-and-take fisheries, stocked chalkstreams (themselves just different kinds of put-and-take fisheries), even the big reservoirs; all places where we are hardly encouraged to worry about the long-term health of the fish, because they have no long term. If they all get caught or wiped out, we can always stock some more, right?

Sure, there are fine organisations like the Wild Trout Trust, which protects and restores trout habitats in the UK, and encourages us to think of rivers as places where fish actually live, not just rent a corner of a pool until someone with a fly-rod comes along to evict them. But they are all fighting against terrible odds, with little funding, reliant on the efforts of the few individuals who care enough about any of this to switch off EastEnders, put on their waders and roll up their sleeves. The rest of us have handed the future of our fishing to the people who least want us to have it.

I have just re-read Fen Montaigne's fine and scary book Hooked, a tale of a flyfishing odyssey in Russia. I'd recommend that everyone read this book, because it shows what happens when we all take our eyes off the ball; and what happens to even healthy rivers when nobody thinks beyond their next meal. If ever a book has made me feel guilty, this one was it. I'll leave you to discover what it contains for yourselves. In the meantime, I wish you all a merry festive season –may your stockings all contain Loomis GLXs. Next week: quantum physics!

Sean Geer ( is a freelance journalist and author. He specialises in ritual humiliation by fish on four continents - most recently in Ireland, where he became the first angler in history to not land a mayfly-caught trout on Lough Corrib in the middle of the mayfly season. A retired seahorse conservationist and self-taught zen origamist, he is currently writing a novel about sex, death and the meaning of fish.

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