An Irish Anglers World

An Angler’s Tale

Irelands East Coast.
With particular reference to County Wicklow.
A story of gross negligence and inaction.

Today is November 17th, 2007. The day is grey, rainy, and cold. Tonight it will blow gale force eight from the south, no fishing tomorrow. My name is Ashley Hayden and I have been a sea angler since the age of ten. I didn’t see the best of it, but what I did experience leaves me in no doubt as to how far we have traveled, and it leaves me sad.  No matter how much it is talked up the reality is that sea angling both from boat and shore on Irelands east coast is a shadow of what it was 30+ years ago. Yes in that short space of time there has been a major collapse in availability, quantity, and size of most clean fish species aswell as certain so called rough species. The decline is due to a number of factors, with the main culprits being commercial exploitation, lack of political will and vision, mussel dredging, and whelking. Apathy wouldn’t be far away from the mix either, or maybe just a collective head in the sand. Whatever, the fact remains that overall people have done nothing, while this decline has continued unabated. If the rot isn’t stopped inshore fishing on the east coast will be a distant memory. Presently, there is still time, but radical decisions will have to be made ASAP.  This essay will not draw on science per say, but on practical experience over time, in highlighting the decline and making positive suggestions regarding rehabilitation. These suggestions will benefit everybody from the pleasure angler to the commercial fisherman; all that is needed is the will to make it work.

Grandad Redmond and Uncle Jago Hayden tending to trammel nets on the old pier Greystones, Co. Wicklow.

My experience dates back to 1971, the year that I was introduced to Angling by my Father. The venue was Greystones Co. Wicklow, late August/September, a scorcher of a day, and we were dinghy fishing. Both sides of the family are from the area and have strong links with the sea. My Grandfather, Willie Redmond was a boat builder specializing in clinker designs, and my Father and Uncles long lined and trammel netted in their day. Marks, tides, local conditions, species to expect, and other relevant information were handed down. A wealth of knowledge. In 1971 things were more or less as they would have remembered based on their experience fishing as teenagers in the fifties, and as young men back home from England on their holidays in the sixties.

That day in late summer was my introduction. My Father and I dug lugworm on Blackrock Strand for a long line he had constructed. We went out in the Jean Anne, a 16/17 ft clinker boat built by my Grandfather and named after my Mother. The long line, which had about 100 hooks, was shot off the Swans Rock northwards along St Davids, targeting Plaice. The line was let fish over the turn of the tide, about a two hour period, and then hauled. We caught Plaice, olive green with bright orange spots, and a love affair started with the species which hasn’t diminished. From St Davids we motored out to the leading edge of the Moulditch bank to fish for Cod. The Moulditch is a ridge of marly kelp covered ground running North East/South West about a mile south of Greystones. With the tide running south we anchored just off the ridge about half a mile off shore and dropped our lugworm baited hooks to the bottom to be taken by prime Cod and Codling interspersed with an odd Pollack and Coalfish.

The above mentioned species were the mainstay of Greystones angling, year in and year out but were far from the only species available to be caught. Besides the ridge, the seabed is mixed, predominantly mussel beds interspersed with sand. Certainly between Bray Head and Wicklow Head this would be the case. The average depth inshore would be about 5 fathoms ( 30 feet ) and tides, in a lateral direction ( north/south ) would be quite strong. The whole area being rich in feeding, Mussel, whelks in abundance, Sand eel and Launce, Mackerel in season, attracted many other species of fish.

An early picture of Ashley Hayden fishing the ridge off Greystones, Co. Wicklow.

Pollack, Coalfish, Dab, Gurnards (Red, Grey, and Tub), Ray (Blond and Thornback), Bull Huss, Dogfish, Tope, Smooth hound, were common in season to the extent of becoming target species. Other species that I have caught or seen landed would include Sole, John Dory, Bass, Wrasse, Flounder, Conger, Turbot, Cuckoo Ray, Black Bream, Whiting, and Pouting. While out fishing I have seen Porpoises and Basking Sharks. A veritable aquarium, alas no more. The quality described above whether from boat or shore more or less held its own until the early nineties then came the collapse.

There is no doubt that collapse is not too strong a word. The signs were there, the reduction in the quantity of mackerel available through the 1980’s, but when it came it was dramatic. A bench mark can be set around 1993/94; from then on things have never been the same. It was like someone switched the lights out. In my opinion there are a number of reasons for this decline and it is too simple to just blame over fishing although this has obviously played its part. Year upon year seed Mussels have been dredged up and taken to Wexford Harbour to supply the Mussel fishery there. This has had a detrimental effect on the banks in the Kilcoole/Newcastle area. The sea bed has been vandalized by the dredgers affecting future growth. Also since the late eighties there has been widespread whelk fishing between Bray Head and the Arklow Bank. There would appear to have been no real control on this fishery with the result that the food chain has most definitely been affected. Combine the two activities, Whelking and Mussel dredging and there is a problem. Plaice feed on Mussel, and Cod feed on Whelks. Remove these two food items sufficiently and the food chain is broken, therefore there is no reason for Cod and Plaice to continue populating the area. I believe that this has happened along the Wicklow coastline.

Mandy with a summer codling, south beach Greystones, Co. Wicklow, 1983.

Regarding mackerel, the rule was, “two humps off Bray Head” drop the feathers and troll. Between two humps and four humps exposed on Bray Head the shoals would be found. Teeming is the only word to describe the amount of fish. The water would be stained with the oil and scales from the feeding frenzy down below. Sadly for the mackerel a sonar device was invented, I think in the seventies, which could detect mackerel. Previous to this conventional sonar could not detect mackerel as they have no swim bladder. As I understand it the swim bladder bounced the signal back. From then on the industry developed technology to mine the shoals. Irish and Russian skippers were at the forefront of this. The Cornish and Norwegian mackerel stocks were and are still heavily exploited, especially during their winter spawning runs when they are oil rich. This exploitation started in earnest from about 1979. Quickly through the 1980’s it became apparent that quantities were diminishing. One now had to search for the shoals, and when found the shoals were a lot smaller. Today the mackerel are smaller too and even far less numerous. The scientists will tell you the stock is being exploited sustainably, but actual experience does not back this up.

The evidence for over fishing is glaringly obvious. The first sign is a decline in the average size of fish caught. Then there is a reduction in numbers landed. The next stage is a preponderance of juvenile fish, followed by disappearance. It is common to see a biomass replacement as the fish decline. At present, August 2007, the latter stage has most definitely been reached. In the Greystones area there is now a preponderance of immature Whiting. Fifteen years ago they would have been far less numerous. Fifteen years ago the Cod shoals would have preyed on juvenile Whiting, now the Whiting flourish. A prime example of biomass replacement. Fifteen years ago Tope in the winter were unheard of. Now it is possible to catch Tope in December given the right conditions. This is because Whiting are a winter fish, the Tope (a summer species) now hang around into the colder months because they are feeding on the Whiting. A sixty pounder was caught off Killoughter Beach, Co. Wicklow in December 2003. The Tope are numerous because they are not commercially exploited.

In mid July 2007 I was invited out by friends on a boat angling trip. With plenty of big black lugworm dug the night before at Seapoint, Dunlaoghaire for bait, we set out from Bray Harbour. We agreed to round Bray Head and fish various marks off Greystones. It had been fifteen years since I had been in a boat off Greystones and the intention was to see how the old haunts fished. The day was glorious with only a light sea breeze. A big four meter was running and our plan was to fish three hours up and down over the top of the tide. First stop we decided to drift off the cable rock. Bottom fishing here would always throw up a few Codling. I ground fished while the friends jigged with hokais and feathers. Mackerel came aboard and I was surprised at how small they were, what I used to call Joeys. It was surreal to see full houses of immature mackerel. I caught juvenile Codling, Whiting, and Dab. From there we motored to the Ridge to fish for Cod. What we caught was a succession of small Coalfish, with an odd tiny Codling occasionally coming aboard. Finally we tried the inshore Plaice grounds; barren is the only descriptive word one could use. The contrast with my previous experience dating back fifteen years was stark. Excluding mackerel, which as I mentioned were small, very few fish were caught. About eight species were landed, Codling, Whiting, Coalfish, Mackerel, Dab, Launce, Dogfish, and an Octopus. Most were put back as immature. We kept a few of the larger Mackerel and three small Codling. A wonderful mixed fishery is now a shadow of its former self. Under the collective watch of various government departments, agencies, and vested sea angling organizations, this tragedy has been allowed to happen. What was bountiful is now a desert. It can be rectified but people would want to start shouting now.

Around 1993/94 I learned how to fly fish for sea trout, it had become a better option than fishing off the beach or boat. The east coast beaches would still draw me but only occasionally deliver. Memories of catching 21 Plaice to Three pounds weight between a mate and I in an afternoon on Killoughter are just that. Ray to 14.50 lbs, bumper Codling catches, mixed species hauls, the diaries are there to prove it. All gone. The north Wicklow beaches once the Holy Grail for shore anglers and home to the main beach competition venues in Ireland are now bye passed. The silence is deafening. It appears that it is easier to say nothing then to shout. What exists today is not the norm, but it appears to be accepted. Like as if the present, or some point in the last ten years is the baseline to work from. The rich seas that I experienced in the seventies had already had twenty five years of serious post war industrial fishing. I have no notion of what the true baseline would have been like; my early forays off Greystones though have given me a good inkling. The present situation bears no comparison. The sea to date has been treated as a commons. The folly of that approach is the legacy which we live with today, broken and becoming more devoid of its diversity even as I write. What has happened is a sin and it is my intention to enable my grand children to enjoy the wonder of that day in late summer 1970 by fighting to restore what has been so recklessly vandalized, in less than forty percent of an average human lifespan.

The first step is to acknowledge our debt to future generations. What right have we to plunder and destroy their heritage and food supply? To remove the wonder of biodiversity and render in less than a lifetime the sea around our coasts a boring desert. This does not have to be. The answers are many and varied and well known to work, it just needs political will. Reducing the fleet, no go areas monitored by GPS, proper policing and big fines, more sea bed and by catch friendly fishing methods, are some of the solutions. Allied to the above and most importantly is public awareness, and that is the key to the seas survival. People love the sea. Holiday memories, walks along the prom, swimming, diving, surfing, “The Blue Planet series”. It’s part of us, and we believe that our public representatives are watching over it on our behalf. The reality is different and the public are waking up to this fact. The message is save our seas, as everybody, not just the vested interests, has a stake in them. When the masses shout politicians will listen and change will occur within the fisheries sector. It is up to like minded people to spread the word. Ask the restaurant, the fishmonger, the supermarket, where the fish they are selling was caught. Are they from a sustainable stock? Were they harvested in an environmentally friendly manner? Have they been shipped half way around the world? Am I eating a food item that was caught in the territorial waters of a poor third world country? These are important questions and we need to know to ask them. From these simple questions a momentum can be set in motion which ultimately will lead to the restoration of what is now being lost. These questions will lead to informed choice, and it is that which will save our seas, and reintroduce the wonder and biodiversity of a very recent past.

Ashley Hayden, November 2007 ©

See also: The Inshore Fishery off North Co. Wicklow from an Angling Perspective.