An Irish Anglers World

Irish Bass Fishery Policy, a Case for Innovative Action and Individual Responsibility

Due to over exploitation throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s of abundant inshore bass stocks within a then unregulated fishery, the Irish Government implemented in 1990 a “Conservation of Stocks Order” resulting in a cessation of the Irish commercial bass fishery and the species being managed solely for tourism angling purposes.

Twenty four years later one would presume that Ireland’s inshore waters should be home to an abundant stock of adult bass, unfortunately this is not the case. An initial swelling of bass numbers in traditional coastal haunts throughout the 1990’s and on into the mid 2000’s ranging from large shoals of juveniles to good numbers of adult fish provided evidence that the 1990 bass conservation order was both visionary and working. Sadly post 2007 on the ground evidence would suggest that Ireland’s inshore bass stocks have gone into decline, dramatically so within the last three years.

A fine Wexford bass from Autumn 2008.

Why Irish bass stocks have apparently declined is a mystery and has become the topic of much conversation and speculation for sea anglers and other vested interests throughout the summer of 2014. What is clear is that a physical occurrence, either benign or malicious, within the marine environment has affected the Irish bass fishery and it is incumbent on all who cherish the resource to establish the catalyst for this rapid decrease in bass numbers.

Given the timely launch of a bass policy document by Inland Fisheries Ireland, the aim of which is to provide direction and recommendations towards future bass fishery management and subsequent legislation, the following narrative will detail this anglers interaction with Ireland’s east coast bass resource post 1990, based on objective practical experience over a thirty five year period in tandem with an assessment of bass specific research documentation to include the Irish Specimen Fish Committee reports.

Historical Overview Post 1990

A cursory glance at the Irish Specimen Fish Committee reports pre 1990 will show that even through the lean year’s of the 1980’s large bass were still being caught, interestingly across a broad coastal geographic spread from the Causeway Coast right around to County Clare. Most bass were caught on bait rather than lures and as someone who fished regularly during that time period, comparison by observation would suggest that general beach/shore fishing with bait was practiced by a greater number of anglers then as against today.

Gerry Mitchell displays a four pound beach caught Irish bass.

A trip by this writer to Brandon Bay and Inch strand Co. Kerry in early March 1984 resulted in a 5.5 lb Inch strand bass on a bitterly cold afternoon along with two similar fish on Fermoyle the previous day. To stand waist deep in tables of surf following in the footsteps of Clive Gammon and Des Brennan it has to be said was the highlight. Another session comes to mind on Morriscastle, Co. Wexford, the 26th May 1985 to be precise where 200 anglers lined out from Ballinoulart south to Tinnebearna. A south easterly gale created havoc that night and drove in the bass, 55 were weighed in whose number included three specimens to 12.03 lbs, this soldier landing a 9.04 pounder, my biggest to date.

Living in Kilcoole Co. Wicklow from 1985, occasional forays with Koster and Toby lures to key locations along the local coastline produced an odd large bass up to eight pound when conditions were right, a fair amount of fishing effort being put in for those fish. Post 1990 having digested Ladle and Vaughan’s seminal publication “Hooked on Bass”, ledgering of large fish and crab baits was introduced to the mix resulting in a couple of large bass from identified potential rough ground marks.

Allowing for a couple of years in the mid 1990’s where due to life and work commitments sea fishing was shelved this writer one evening  in late August 1998 took the dog for a walk along Kilcoole beach bringing a lure rod and the missus along for company. Reaching a favoured spot a 32 gram silver Kilty catcher was launched seawards entering the water about 70 meters out. Allowing the lure to sink and sweep round with the tidal flow a slow retrieve commenced. Bang, the lure was seized by something strong, a fish that thrashed in the current, occasionally running then thrashing again, a bass and no mistake. Running 5 – 6 lb on landing, upon recasting another identical fish was hooked and beached within five minutes of the first.

Bass on a koster lure, 1987.

The missus thought that yours truly was showing off, however the same trick had happened at the same spot back in 1987 ten years previous, the difference being that this time the feat was reproduced again less than a week later. From then on that mark and another were fished regularly when conditions were right between that day in 1998 and the summer of 2001, where employing 32 gram silver Kilty catchers bass averaging 4 – 6 lb were encountered most every visit, the average catch being 1.5 mid range adult fish every two hours. Having recently shared experiential fishing knowledge with bass angling guide Jim Hendrick, coincidently during the same period Jim reciprocated the catch rate on marks he fished in south Co. Wexford only he caught 1.5 bass per hour. It was this catch return which ultimately resulted in Jim’s decision to set up his bass guiding business in 2003.

The above is a true and accurate reflection of how Irish east coast bass fishing presented to this angler and is indicative of the improvement in bass stocks that occurred within the first ten years of Irish bass conservation post 1990, but also makes reference to what existed prior. Anglers reading this piece have to consider and accept that the returns described above of mid weight lure caught adult bass in those frequencies, from what are not “honey pot marks”, would have been unheard of ten years previously. That level of bass angling expanded and or maintained in the south east counties of Wicklow and Wexford until 2008 when a gradual decline in this anglers catches became apparent based on diary entries, which has become very obvious over the last three seasons to 2014.

To be viable tourism bass angling has to be of International standard requiring professionalism, recognised ability on behalf of the guide and a rate of return numbering 8 – 10 adult fish per day. Unfortunately today this standard cannot be achieved consistently within Ireland’s inshore waters after 24 years of conservation, what has gone wrong being anyone’s guess. By rights estuaries, headlands, beaches and tide races from Carnsore point to Galway Bay should be alive with mid weight bass in the 4 – 6 pound bracket, sadly and mysteriously they are not.

Bass catch returns chart 2003 - 2013.

The graph above kindly forwarded by Jim Hendrick shows clearly the decline in bass catches experienced post 2007 by Jim’s clients. The graph equally reflecting this writer’s dwindling bass returns over the same period, for quite an amount of weekly effort it must be said throughout the months from June to October. Will the bass return next year? One would love to think so, however based on pre conservation measure experience as detailed above, what pertains today as “Irish bass angling” is no better and probably worse then what existed before the measure was ever implemented.

What to Do?

On Friday 22/08/2014 Inland Fisheries Ireland CEO Ciaran Byrne launched the IFI Bass Policy Document, which is unquestionably a positive step placing bass firmly on the Government agenda. During his speech Ciaran Byrne iterated that the policy document will provide direction for legislative change over the next three years and that at the end of the process Ireland’s bass fishery would be to quote “fit for purpose”. Sadly based on recent seasonal evidence the Bass Policy Document is already out of date, needing immediate updating to reflect the fishery as it currently presents. The Bass Policy Review Group should consider meeting forthwith to amend the recommendations put forward in light of recent negative developments exemplified by a visible lack of bass and the very pertinent decision by Jim Hendrick to close his bass guiding business after ten years trading.

Specimen Greystones bass from the 1980's.

Short of a miracle Ireland’s bass anglers and those that manage the resource have to accept that after 24 years the bass conservation measure for whatever reason(s) has not failed but is definitely misfiring, certainly within Ireland’s south east region, the immediate priority being to establish how this could have happened with a view to correcting the anomaly. There is no time for speculation or procrastination, two obvious areas of research being offshore interception of transient bass stocks and or inshore netting allied to unscrupulous angler activity. Irish bass have not packed their bags and moved either south or north, ICES declaration that there is a problem with overall European bass stocks providing credence for that statement. Given the decade of improvement in the Irish bass fishery throughout the 1990’s and the rapid decline post 2007 over exploitation of the mid range adult population somewhere is beyond doubt, with a modicum of honest effort the culprit(s) whether acting legally or illegally relative to EU and or Irish legislation should not be hard to find.

In the meantime Ireland has to reconsider its marketing policy as regards tourism bass angling, to currently promote the resource as an International standard product being well wide of the mark, tantamount to false advertising. That the bass angling market is segmented into bait and lure angling, both elements reflecting differing levels of spend and expectation is immaterial, the current Irish bass resource is damaged and marketing needs to reflect this. Business is founded on trust and if Ireland persists in saying that the country hosts fabulous bass fishing and the product does not meet market expectations, trust will be broken and the customers will move elsewhere. It is not good enough to sell Irish bass angling based on the premise that Ireland’s bass angling product although damaged is better than other European countries, it has to be of an International standard “period”.

A lure caught four pound Irish bass.

Regarding future management decisions, given that IFI, Failte Ireland, the Department of the Marine and the Sea Fisheries Protection Agency are all limited by reduced funding and staffing levels greater coordination between all departments should be considered, duplication of roles avoided and outsourcing of private sector expertise where needed sought and contracted. Twenty four years of investment in Ireland’s bass resource allowing for the present decline has hinted at the potential, the years between 1998 and 2008 highlighting what a healthy bass fishery can deliver. Ireland at Government level acted correctly and decisively back in 1990 to protect and conserve the resource, an equally sharp response today will have a greater effect second time round, an amended 2014 Bass Policy Document taking into account the current situation however must precede that call.

Ashley Hayden © August 2014