An Irish Anglers World

Celtic Sea Cod, A Barometer for Sea Fisheries Mismanagement.

Back in September 2011 I wrote an article on winter codling which was published in the October edition of The Irish Anglers Digest. Reminiscing on past catches but equally hopeful based on recent fishing experience, I expressed a hunch that winter 2011/2012 could prove to be a cod fest for shore anglers fishing the south coast in particular. So it came to pass, from mid October onwards those anglers who managed a session or two between the interminable southerlies Ireland has been experiencing, whether casting off shingle banks, rock platforms, or harbour breakwaters landed some exceptional catches. Codling in the 2 – bracket, with the biggest that I am aware of running were swimming close to shore, sometimes very close. Personally I encountered fish from Carnsore point to Castletownbere, with the south Wexford coastline really coming into its own in the weeks before Christmas.

A sea angler since the early seventies and a resident of Kilcoole Co. Wicklow for 16 years from June 1985, I am lucky enough to have personal experience of quality boat and shore codding. Unfortunately I have witnessed, like so many, the demise of this fantastic resource to the point of disappearance. So my joy at the phoenix like appearance of juvenile south coast codling offshore in abundance through late 2009 into 2010, and their presence larger and in fabulous condition through 2011 turned into trepidation the nearer we got to December last and the annual EU commercial fishery negotiations. Historical evidence suggested the inevitable, that our Government would seek raised quotas on this obviously youthful stock citing increased biomass and sustainable exploitation within scientific parameters as their justification, instead of allowing the much depleted remaining cod to grow on and fully re-establish themselves, and guess what as per usual they did the former.

Cod (Gadus morhua) are a fascinating species, their historic and widespread abundance first documented by the Vikings eventually luring Basque fishermen across the Atlantic to fish the rich waters off Newfoundland long before Christopher Columbus supposedly discovered America. Dried and salted Atlantic cod underwrote European economies preceding the gold standard, and in making the pilgrim fathers rich and therefore financially independent of mother England, cod it could be argued was the catalyst for the American war of independence. The species became central to the growth of many a European countries commercial fishing sector, and the explosion in popularity of sea angling within the UK and Ireland since the 1960’s can equally be attributed to this widespread and much loved fish.

Today the once prolific Grand Banks off Newfoundland are economically barren of cod living testament to commercial overfishing of a species once thought to be so abundant and sexually productive that it could be never fished out. Officially closed by the Canadian Government in 1992, during the final season on the banks records show that the last cod shoals came together (aggregated) as the species is prone to do with commercial boats landing great hauls, the next year they were gone. Nature filled the void with crab and dogfish, and as I write the cod still have not returned. Through the 1980’s,Canadian inshore fishermen seeing the decline in their catches had been demanding a moratorium from the Canadian Government, claiming that offshore trawlers were taking all the cod. Their plea fell on deaf ears, and history now shows unfortunately they were right.

Cod left to their own devices are a prolific fish, large mature females one meter long can produce up to three millions eggs. A species capable of growing to well over 100 pounds, the biggest on record I believe weighed 212.lbs, caught in an Icelandic trawl. At a year old they average 30cms in length and weigh about 6 – 8 ounces, by year two they weigh anything between one and two pounds, and by year three could have reached 4 pounds weight and be spawning for the first time. Certainly by year four females are laying eggs.

My first experience of sea angling was boat fishing off Greystones, Co. Wicklow, in the early 1970’s. Back then cod were prolific in the Irish Sea and I assume by extension elsewhere around the Irish coast. Greystones and the Moulditch reef were synonymous with big cod and the beach fishing along the shingle bank which stretches south to Wicklow town was superlative. This resource as we know died a death through the eighties and nineties with only one cause commercial over fishing. Cod in the Irish Sea along with a host of other species have disappeared inshore and become economically extinct due to greed and bad fisheries management, plain and simple. Until this truth is grasped and acted upon at both EU and Government level our sea fisheries resource will continue to deteriorate and so fail to deliver its wide ranging potential.

When our Government talks about job creation and investment within rural coastal communities they are applying a mantra which fails to recognise a wider constituency which has surfaced within the last twenty years. Tourism interests have to be included when deciding on marine fisheries policy now and into the future. The narrow focus centred round employment in catching and onshore processing has to be widened to include recreational angling guides, accommodation and catering, the tackle trade, chandlery, and recreational boat building amongst others.

To illustrate, when beach fishing I use two matching Daiwa kits, both rods and reels combined costing in the region of €900.00. Add on my tackle box, beach buddy, ancillary gear, and outdoor clothing and you are looking at another €400.00 give or take. A day spent surf fishing locally taking in lunch, diesel, and bait, costs €50.00, factor in rig losses per trip (a seasonal average of €3.00) and you are looking at a tidy some of money spent annually. Given that I fish at least once a week that’s €2500.00 per year injected into the economy. My kit I change about once every 10 years which allowing for annual depreciation adds another €130.00 to the annual total, and that is before lure, float, and boat fishing gear, plus trips away are taken into account. All told you are certainly looking at a figure in the region of €5000.00 per annum and that just from one domestic angler.

Multiply that figure through the domestic sea angling population and then factor in tourist angler potential and you have a serious amount of turnover, as yet officially undocumented. By year end as I understand Inland Fisheries Ireland will have completed an economic study, presently out for tender, to establish the real value of recreational angling to this country. Based on a report titled “Economic Impact of Recreational Sea Angling in Scotland. Technical Report. The Scottish Government, Edinburgh 2009”, it will make interesting reading when completed. For the record turnover emanating from sea angling in Scotland is valued at £141million sterling. When placed against the €250million value of Ireland’s sea fish quotas for 2012 (ref: Irish Independent, Saturday December 17th, 2011) one really begins to appreciate the argument for widening the interest base while re-establishing depleted fish stocks.

Should Ireland adopt such an approach combining recreational and commercial fishing interests alongside a management plan which respects and protects the marine environment, we will be maximising for the first time the full potential of our marine resource. Until such time we will continue to read fanfare type headlines in our national media such as those published post Minister for Agriculture, Food, and the Marine, Simon Coveney TD’s return from Brussels mid December 2011 trumpeting increased quota allocations for various species including Celtic Sea cod.

Personally my heart sank when I read those headlines because the Government which was elected promising real change delivered no change. As a metaphor of what is wrong in the sea fisheries sector where time and again science and common sense is overlooked for short term gain, you cannot put forward more clearly an example then what has happened to our southern cod fishery. The decision made based on one successful year class in a decade to increase exploitation of what is a young stock will benefit neither those already in the industry or people who may want to enter.

The Scottish report on sea angling mentioned above correlated a fall off in domestic sea angler numbers as a direct response to collapsing fish stocks. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that the recreational angling sector and by extension the commercial fishing sector in Ireland is being affected in the same way. Who in their right mind would want to invest capital in a resource which is so grievously damaged?

Both Minister’s Coveney and Varadker (Transport, Tourism, and Sport) should consider that notion sooner rather than later and set about combining commercial and recreational interests in the marine alongside a determined management policy to rebuild fish stocks within our territorial waters. It will take courage, vision, and a sea change in approach but it is achievable.

If such a coalition were to occur our marine resource would have the potential to deliver on a scale unimaginable to date. Maybe the pending study on the value of recreational angling to Ireland will be the catalyst. For the sake of cod, plaice, and a host of endangered sea species I hope so…..

Ashley Hayden © January 2012