Caught hook, line and sinker: Sunderland pair in court after social media posts brag about illegal salmon and sea trout fishing on River Wear

Two men who boasted of their illegal fishing exploits catching salmon and trout from the River Wear have been reeled in by the police after photographs of their haul were posted on social media.

Connor Bell, 30, of Bexhill Road, Sunderland, appeared at South Tyneside Magistrates’ Court where he pleaded guilty to using unlicensed gill nets to catch salmon and sea trout on the River Wear, including at a location near Fatfield in Washington.

Michael Hutchinson, 39, of Cranberry Road, Sunderland, also appeared for similar offences and one other offence of handling the illegally caught fish.

Bell was sentenced to five months imprisonment, suspended for 18 months, and ordered to do 200 hours of unpaid work, while Hutchinson was was sentenced to two months imprisonment, suspended for 18 months, and also ordered to undertake 200 hours of unpaid work.

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Both men were also ordered to pay £1,000 costs and a victim surcharge of £128.

Attention was drawn to the illegal activity of using gill nets after photographs and videos taken on mobile phones were then posted on Hutchinson’s social media account.

Gill nets are designed to catch fish by their gills and are rarely licensed in rivers due to their ability to catch large numbers of migratory fish in a short period of time, as well as their potential for catching and killing fish indiscriminately.

The nets are also capable of causing injury or killing sea birds and mammals which become entangled in them.

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Connor Bell and Michael Hutchinson posing with their illegal haul of salmon.

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PC Peter Baker, Wildlife Officer at Northumbria Police, said: “We are really pleased to have been able to deliver effective justice and show the impact of illegal fishing and poaching. We are privileged to see a varied amount of marine wildlife around our area, and we should all play a part in protecting and supporting the environment.

"As a Force, we take all reports of this nature seriously and are committed to taking appropriate and robust action against the minority found to have been involved in such offences in the region’s waterways.”

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Northumbria Police also enlisted the help of the Environment Agency who were represented in court by lawyer Matthew Treece who told the court that files on Bell’s mobile phone and Hutchinson’s social media pages had highlighted “multiple weekends of illegal netting” during the summers of 2020 and 2021, along with photographs of both men “posing with catches” of up to 14 fish at a time.

The illegal gill nets used to catch the fish.

Images from Hutchinson’s Facebook profile also showed a relative, with the captured fish, along with comments from Hutchinson encouraging them to become a “fine young poacher.”

During sentencing, District Judge Garland told Bell and Hutchinson then they were “lucky” to avoid going to HMP Durham as the offences were “extremely serious”.

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Judge Garland added: “These weren’t boyish pranks. You were out there putting a large net across a confined space of river where it was highly likely you were going to catch fish of one sort or another. And you did.

"If you hadn’t gone around bragging on Facebook about what fish you were catching, you wouldn’t have been in as much trouble as you are.”

The latest stock assessment report, from the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales, shows that 37 of the 42 salmon rivers (88 per cent) in England are now categorised as being ‘at risk’ or ‘probably at risk’, potentially meaning salmon stocks are no longer at sustainable levels.

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David Shears, Senior Fisheries Enforcement Officer for the Environment Agency in the North East, said: “With salmon stocks reaching crisis in many of England’s rivers, this level of illegal activity could have a serious impact on the sustainability of future stocks in the River Wear. That’s why we take reports of suspected poaching seriously and work closely with the police to take action where appropriate.

“We’re committed to tackling illegal fishing of all kinds whether online or off and as this case clearly demonstrates, we will take action, especially where potentially damaging methods are used.”

Information about illegal fishing can be reported to the Environment Agency’s 24-hour incident hotline on 0800 80 70 60.