An Irish Anglers World

THE INSHORE FISHERY OFF NORTH COUNTY WICKLOW FROM AN ANGLING PERSPECTIVE, Bray Head to Wicklow Head, with particular reference to the inshore waters off Greystones. Updated, 2010-08-24.

The area of coastline between Bray Head and Wicklow Head was once the jewel in the crown of east coast angling. From both boat and shore a wide range of species were available and the average size was high. Greystones, Co. Wicklow served as the launching pad for a flotilla of dinghies bound for the rich fishing grounds of the Moulditch Bank (also called “The Ridge”), the Kilcoole Bank, and the Breaches Shoal. While south of Greystones running unbroken for eleven miles lay the bank of shingle which gave access to some of the best and most varied shore angling in Ireland. Alas no more, venues such as Ballygannon, Kilcoole, Five Mile Point, and Killoughter are shadows of what they were 20 years ago.

The Kilcoole Bank looking south towards Wicklow Head.

Clean fish such as codling and plaice were the mainstay of Greystones angling, but specialist anglers could target big ray, bull huss, spurdog, and tope with a high chance of success. Washed by strong tidal currents and rich in feeding, vast mussel beds, whelk, sand eel and launce, supported a real mixed fishery. Up to twenty five species were commonly available, depending on season, with always the chance of a rarity. The beauty of the boat angling was the shallow nature of the grounds, meaning relatively light tackle could be used, and that the fishing was accessible by trailer or beach launched dinghies. The variety of species available was an attraction common to both boat and shore anglers. An angler never really knew what type of fish might take the bait next.

Due to a combination of factors which include commercial over fishing, mussel dredging, and unregulated whelk fishing, the once rich fishing grounds between Bray Head and Wicklow Head now lie denuded and degraded. The following study, derived from the archives of the Specimen Fish Committee, charts the decline graphically. The drop in species biodiversity is highlighted, and the year within which serious questions should have been asked relative to the ongoing environmental damage is pin pointed.

The study covers a thirty five year period between 1975 and 2009, to include 1975 and 2009. The records of the Irish Specimen Fish Committee were used because they represent a true and accurate record of fish of a large average size caught on rod and line in and around the coastal waters of Ireland. The information covering two years 1979 and 1981, was not available to the study at the time of writing, however these missing years do not skew the overall findings as will become apparent.

A sign of the times, juvenile coalfish from the Moulditch bank, off Greystones, Co. Wicklow.

Decline of Inshore Fishery between Bray Head and Wicklow Head
1975 – 2009, Based on Archive Material Derived From the
Reports of the Irish Specimen Fish Committee

Number of Recorded Specimens Caught By Species
Bray Head to Wicklow Head, 1975-2009.

  • 10 x Bass.                     Largest recorded, 13.lbs 12.oz, year 1976.
  • 5 x Black Sole.                         ”                     , 2.lbs 8.oz, year 1975.
  • 1 x Brill.                                     ”                     , 5.lbs 6.oz, year 1996.
  • 3 x Bull Huss.                            ”                     , 17. 44.lbs, year 1989.
  • 1 x Cod.                                     ”                     , 29.lbs, year 1985.
  • 1 x Dab.                                     ”                     , 1.lb 8.oz, year 1986.
  • 3 x Lesser Spotted Dogfish.      ”             , 3.lbs 5.5 oz, year 1980.
  • 15 x Mullet.                               ”                   , 6.50 lbs, year 2008.
  • 25 x Plaice.                                 ”                  , 5.lbs 10.5 oz, year 1980.
  • 16 x Ray (Blonde).                   ”                  , 27.lbs 8.oz, year 1990.
  • 8 x Ray (Homelyn).                 ”                 , 6.lbs 12.oz, year 1988.
  • 19 x Ray (Thornback).           ”                 , 23.lbs 12.oz, year 1983.
  • 2 x Rockling.                                ”              , 1.lb 8oz, year 1992.
  • 13 x Smooth Hound.                 ”             , 13.lbs 12.oz, year 1991.
  • 20 x Spurdog.                              ”             , 13.lbs 8.oz, year 1975.
  • 37 x Tope.                                    ”              , 53.lbs 8.oz, year 1991.

Chronological Record of Last Recorded Official Specimen by Species
Bray Head to Wicklow Head, 1975 – 2009

* 1982, Dogfish (lesser spotted).
* 1983, Rockling.
* 1985, Cod.
* 1986, Dab.
* 1987, Plaice.
* 1989, Black Sole.
* 1989, Bull Huss.
* 1990, Ray (Blonde).
* 1993, Spurdog.
* 1996, Brill.
* 1997, Ray (Thornback).
* 1998, Ray (Homelyn).
* 2007, Bass.
* 2008, Smooth Hound.
* 2009, Mullet.
* 2009, Tope.

Analysis:

1.    In total 179 individual specimens were caught and recorded over the thirty five years in which information was available to the survey.
2.    Range of species: bass, black sole, brill, bull huss, cod, dab, lesser spotted dogfish, mullet, plaice, blonde ray, homelyn ray, thornback ray, rockling, smooth hound, spur dogfish, tope.
3.    On average 5.26 specimens per year were caught across the range of species landed.
4.    Between 1975 and 2009 specimen fish representing 16 separate species were landed by anglers from boat and shore between Bray Head and Wicklow Head.
5.    Out of the sixteen species recorded one can be regarded as a rarity. That is the brill landed in August 1996. The grey mullet although always available, have only been targeted by anglers in recent years. Hence their late inclusion from 1997.
6.    Between the years 1975 – 1989, 130 (72.62%) of the total amount of specimens caught were landed representing 14 separate species.
7.    Inclusive of 1990 to 2009, 49 (27.37%) of the total amount of specimens caught were landed, represented by 9 species.
8.    Inclusive of 1995 – 2009, 33 (18.43%) of the total amount of specimens caught were landed, represented by 7 species.
9.    Inclusive of 2000 – 2009, 25 (13.96%) of the total amount of specimens caught were landed, represented by 4 species.
10.    Inclusive of 2005 – 2009, 19 (10.6%) of the total amount of specimens caught were landed, represented by 4 species.

Simple though the parameters of the study are the decline in biodiversity of the fishing grounds off Greystones over the time period is very clear. In total, between 1975 and 2009 it is known that 16 species of fish inhabited the area that grew to on or above the official rod and line caught specimen weight. In the fifteen years 1975 to 1989 fourteen separate species on or above specimen weight were recorded. Between 1990 and 2009 the species count of recorded specimens had dropped to 9. By the year 2000 this figure had dropped to 4 species, bass, tope, smooth hound, and a relative new comer, grey mullet.

With declining fish stocks and species availability anglers started targeting new species. grey mullet fell into this category. The first recorded specimen landed being a fish caught in September 1997. The next registered mullet specimen was recorded in October 2004, with thirteen more submitted between the years 2007- 2009 inclusive. Now these fish were always there to be caught, the Broad Lough north of Wicklow town and the Breaches, south of Kilcoole being venues that always had a stock.  It was just that anglers in the main never really targeted them. If one takes mullet out of the equation only two species of the original common fourteen species regularly caught to specimen weight post 1975, namely bass and tope, are still viable specimen targets for north Wicklow sea anglers circa 2009. If one factors in smooth hound, a species whose range has extended northwards over the last decade, only four species out of sixteen still grow to specimen weight off the north Wicklow coastline. It should be noted that all of the above four mentioned species bass, tope, smooth hound and mullet are presently not commercially targeted.

Taking mullet out of the equation and only dealing with open sea fish the picture becomes more disturbing. Between, 1975-2009, 164 specimens represented by 15 species of fish were caught and registered. Up to 1989, 130 (79.26%) of the total specimens represented by 14 species were landed. Post 2005 to 2009 inclusive this figure falls to 6 registered specimens off three species bass, tope, and smooth hound, representing 3.67% of the total number of specimens registered since 1975. A dramatic fall both in numbers and species landed.

Many well respected marine scientists agree that 1989 is the tipping year when world fish stocks went into decline due to industrial commercial fishing post WWII. This study correlates with their findings. A marked decline in species availability occurs in the seas off north Co. Wicklow from 1990 onwards. It can be extrapolated also that fish size has reduced as well given the reduction in specimens landed. By 1995 the decline was well established, and has continued downwards ever since. First hand accounts from anglers who fished the grounds off Greystones historically, and still do today endorse this sorry picture.

Specimen plaice from the Kilcoole bank, late eighties.

There has not been a recorded specimen plaice landed off Greystones since 1987. These fish were once a mainstay and specimens have been recorded caught from the Kilcoole Bank weighing up to 8.00 lbs. Cod and codling were once the back bone of the fishery. The last big recorded cod of 29 lbs was landed in 1985. Shore caught codling of 2 – 4 lb weight were a common catch, even in mid summer, up to the early nineteen eighties, let alone in the winter months when they would be expected to feature. Large thornback ray were common up to the late eighties. Only two specimen thornbacks have been recorded since 1989, the last one being submitted in 1997, with the last big blonde ray landed in 1990.

Over fishing elsewhere is certainly one of the factors responsible for this decline. cod are heavily exploited in the Irish Sea as are plaice. The former are now classified as endangered, while the FFS (Fisheries Science Services) say that Irish Sea plaice stocks have full reproductive capacity and are being harvested sustainably. The experience off Greystones and Wicklow regarding plaice however does not back this statement up.  The Kilcoole Bank up to the late eighties was a serious plaice Fishery, now it is a desert. Granted there is a strong likelihood that sustained mussel dredging in the area, along with over fishing, has played its part in the demise of the plaice shoals locally.

Mussel dredging removes mussel reefs and by its nature damages the sea bed irrecoverably, thus affecting the ability of seed mussel to fix themselves to the sea floor. With mussels being the main food item of plaice, if they become scarce then so one assumes will the plaice. In fact given that juvenile whelks inhabit mussel reefs, the possibility of the local marine food chain being damaged by unregulated whelk fishing allied to mussel dredging has to be considered.

Recent boat angling trips in 2009 and 2010 off the north Wicklow coastline from both Greystones and Wicklow harbour have yielded very poor returns of demersal species, in terms of size, numbers, and frequency of capture. Occasional juvenile codling, coalfish, pollack, whiting, and dab off Greystones, with the grounds north of Wicklow harbour almost devoid except for a few dogfish, an odd ray, bull huss, smoothound and tope in season.

Taking the overall picture, in the fifteen years 1975-1989, 130 specimens representing 14 species were registered. In the subsequent twenty years 1990-2009, the number of specimens registered numbered only 49 representing 9 species. Within the last decade the species count has dropped to four. Effort is a factor; it has reduced in the north Wicklow area over the years, due primarily to the decline in fish stocks. That said, the availability of species tells its own story, four today out of sixteen which once grew to specimen weight. Given the number of sea anglers resident in the greater Dublin area, if the fish were there the effort today would be far greater then it was in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Unfortunately which ever way the figures are analysed the inescapable truth is of a dramatic loss in biodiversity off the north Wicklow coastline during the last twenty years.

Tope from off the Moulditch bank. One of the few fish species still found to specimen weight.

It is hoped that this simple analysis will not be looked upon as an exercise in nostalgia, but an attempt to highlight what has been lost and the speed of that loss. It is aimed in particular at those who may not be aware how abundant the inshore waters off north County Wicklow were up to very recently. The study I hope, will inform and galvanise all stake holders into not accepting mediocrity, for that is what the inshore waters off County Wicklow represent today. That it will act as a focus for motivation, enabling people to come together and demand that the marine environment is given a chance to recover. That concepts such as marine protection areas are given consideration, mussel dredging ceases off the Wicklow coastline, and that Whelk fishing is properly regulated.  It is not too late in the day to reverse the damage done to the marine environment between Bray Head and Wicklow Head. With proper management allied to an enlightened approach, a once great fishery can be restored to benefit both recreational and commercial interests, if not for today’s generation then maybe at least for tomorrows.

See also: An Anglers Tale.

Ashley Hayden © 2010