An Irish Anglers World

Back to the Future.

A sea angler since the age of ten I will never accept what has happened to my sport in the space of half a lifetime. At least in recent years the penny appears to be dropping and high profile people like Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall have at least brought some of the issues affecting marine biodiversity to the forefront. That said, Charles Clover published “The End of the Line” in 2004 closely followed by Professor Callum Roberts “The Unnatural History of the Sea” in 2007. All the above preceded in 2003 by Daniel Pauly and Jay MacLean’s “In a Perfect Ocean, The State of Fisheries and Ecosystems in the North Atlantic Ocean”. A trilogy of books that say it like it is, the latter two scientific but very readable, the former a hard hitting snapshot of the worlds oceans circa 2004, highlighting the collapse of marine biodiversity worldwide and opening a door to the machinations of the commercial fishing industry responsible for the demise.

Sea anglers off Greystones, Co. Wicklow, Ireland, image taken in the 1950's/60's courtesy of Alan Duthie.

For sea angling as a sport to survive it needs fish. Since the mid nineteen eighties and in particular post 1990 our inshore fish stocks have suffered terribly. In all that time I have never heard a consistent lobby from an organisation representing anglers shouting stop and offering solutions to rectify the problem. Instead there is a silence which I cannot understand. Does the Irish Federation of Sea Anglers have a stance on the subject and if so would they speak up, after all they are the representative body for sea angling in this country. Equally if not the IFSA then the Angling Council of Ireland of which the former is a member, especially given that an important objective of the ACI is to present angling concerns to the highest authorities, and to ensure that the voice of angling is heard clearly in the halls of legislation.

I am not a competition angler it’s just too much regimentation for me, however I do recognise how this area has driven sea angling technology and respect it. Also I am not a member of a club or the IFSA. That said I get involved with the sport through my website, have marketed sea angling abroad and continue to do so, and am unapologetically vocal especially on the loss of marine biodiversity. What I experienced in my youth is a heritage that my grand children have a right to enjoy and hopefully still will. If that is to happen then those that represent should include conservation in their remit and pull no punches in the process. Our sea angling product is diminished, in some areas such as the Irish Sea greatly, the product on offer is not capable of supporting a destination tourism industry, and that should be the benchmark.

Sea anglers talk about Iceland for pound plus dabs, the Faroe Islands for large plaice, and Norway for cod. Thirty years ago you could have had all that here, places that spring to mind varying from Cork harbour to Belmullet, Greystones and Kilmore Quay. What all these ports offered then was variety and large fish. Today Cork harbour and Kilmore Quay are Failte Ireland designated angling hubs offering reasonable fishing relative to today’s depleted oceans, with Greystones and Belmullet surviving on memory. Yes I take positives, one has to. If you specialise today sport can be good, but let’s not fall into the trap, three quarters of the fish pre 1950 are gone, we have a problem and we need to deal with it.

Sea anglers have to take responsibility for their sport or it will disappear, and we will be left pole fishing for tiddlers on the end of a breakwater like a scene from a Mediterranean holiday. To some extent this is happening already witness IFSA and EFSA size limits. I have often questioned why the size limits have reduced so and never received a credible reply, answers ranging from “well the fish have got smaller” to “we have to abide by the parent organisation” and even “if we did not target the small fish the competition scene would die”. None of the answers wash and I have to say that the deliberate targeting of small fish creates serious problems that only exacerbate the mediocrity of modern sea angling.

Commercial boats while they may have undersized bye catch do not set out to target small fish they are unfortunately a bi-product of a failed system namely the common fisheries policy. Sea anglers on the other hand do target juvenile fish especially in competitions. A good lawyer, of which the commercial sector employs many, will use this fact to their advantage in future stock and conservation negotiations. Sea angling representative organisations should take note, scaling down and using rigs and methods that would not be out of place on the coarse fishing circuit might be seen as progressive and skillful, but in practice will seriously damage the fight for inshore restoration in the future. There has to be a better way, the commercial sector is facing up to bye catch, can the sea match fishing circuit equally look at ways of maintaining their sport while removing the need to target juvenile fish.

In setting out to catch small fish sea angler’s rubber stamp mediocrity. Over the course of a fishing session there has always been, and still is the likelihood that an undersized fish will impale itself on a large hook. Unavoidable we just deal with it and hope that we do not do any damage in the process. But to go out and deliberately do so, even in these times of dwindling fish stocks is unnecessary. Again I have heard all the arguments ranging from “novice and junior anglers have to learn”, to “well that is all that is out there”, to “well we’re not all experts” which is usually proffered with a hint of sarcasm.

Take it from me, I’m no expert but I am passionate about the sport and always willing to learn even at 50. Bed down the first principles relating to rig making, balanced tackle, casting, bait, rudimentary marine biology and the catch rates will rise. Target the larger species in your area at the right time of year. They still do exist albeit there is less of a variety. In my patch which takes in Wicklow and Wexford the bass, smooth hound, gilt head bream, and flounder reach a good size as do mullet, mackerel, pollack, wrasse, ray, and tope. Further south towards West Cork and Kerry the variety of fish increases as does the size. So why go small?

I more or less gave up sea fishing in the early 1990’s because it got so bad, only returning full time after a fishing trip off Greystones in 2007 seven years almost to the day since I had last been out. My experience on that fateful morning was the catalyst for articles such as this, the fishing was dire and I vowed to do something about it. So I brushed down the old gear bought some new, created a website and to be honest I have never looked back.

Overall Ireland’s sea fishing is poor (sacrilege and treason) looked at in terms of variety or where it was twenty years ago, but it still can deliver if a little thought is added. In the last four years since returning to the sport I have caught specimen wrasse, tope, smooth hound, mullet, and flounder (all not claimed just weighed), landed pollack and bass to eight pounds, congers to twenty, ling to fifteen, plaice to a pound and a half and pound plus dabs. I work harder for the return having in some instances to travel further, but I enjoy the experience and adversity has made me a better angler.

We have to look back to move forward, it is not an exercise in nostalgia but a necessary step to create the benchmark for inshore marine management a nettle that our Government has to grasp. This will only happen if the people push them and that will only happen if public bodies, representative organisations, and media spokespersons deliver the correct and necessary message. For too long a PC mentality has prevailed which has served sea angling badly. The truth is not personal it’s just the truth.

In terms of inshore fisheries management the public service has failed sea angling because it is too fragmented, who has responsibility for our coastal waters? Is protection under the remit of the Sea Fisheries Protection Agency, what role does Inland Fisheries Ireland play, does the Department of the Marine have responsibility for fish stock development and rehabilitation of our inshore waters? I worked in the public sector for 18 months am reasonably intelligent and still confused. What I did see though was too much duplication of roles which ultimately leads to inefficiency and inaction. For the public service to inform the Minister correctly on marine issues there needs to be a unified voice. Unfortunately under present structures that does not exist and that I believe is the crux of the problem.

Equally sea angling needs a political voice with teeth that covers all bases, presently there is none. Within the last year Irish Bass got vocal regarding the proposed opening of the commercial fishery which did provoke a positive reaction from public and private representative organisations and that has to be applauded. However there are more fish in the sea than just bass. Sea anglers within the last year were motivated in some instances to the point of outrage over the bass proposal. If half of that energy had surfaced twenty years ago, I do not think I would be writing this piece now.

We need to look back if we want to restore our inshore waters to some semblance of what they were in the recent past. Sea anglers and their representatives need to get political and present the truth no matter how unpalatable. Why endorse mediocrity, our grandchildren will not thank us for it. A starting point could be European Fish Week which is taking place from June 4th – 12th with a core theme of “give us our marine diversity back”. The general public is being encouraged to tell their story of how they remember what the seas off their local coastline were like in the recent past. These memories hopefully will become the blueprint for a more diverse marine environment in the future. A good plan? I cannot think of one more positive, embrace it one and all…..

Ashley Hayden © May 2011