An Irish Anglers World

Ireland’s Sea Fishing Industry Today

A passionate consumer of seafood with roots firmly embedded in the marine, I read with interest the interview with BIM’s Michael Keatinge in the February issue of Inshore Ireland. Both sides of my family hail from Greystones in Co. Wicklow. My Grandfather on my mother’s side, Willie Redmond, a master craftsman, built wooden clinker design boats, and along with his sons fished the inshore grounds south of Bray Head side-by-side with my father and his brothers. Using traditional methods they long lined, trammel netted, and potted what were prolific fishing grounds for a host of whitefish species that included large cod and plaice, mackerel, crab, and lobster.

In the seventies as a young lad I was introduced to this wonderful resource and grew to love its magic; like Forrest Gump you really did not know what you were going to catch next! Today, however, less than thirty years later, the inshore fishing grounds off north county Wicklow lie barren, victim to commercial overfishing, mussel dredging, and unregulated whelk fishing.

Using Irish Specimen Fish Committee records, I recently compiled a report highlighting all specimen fish caught on rod and line between Bray Head and Wicklow Head, from 1975 to date. The picture it paints is one of dramatic decline in whitefish biodiversity.

Pre 1975, 16 species of fish could be caught to rod and line specimen weight off Greystones. Today only four species on or above specimen weight are still present, namely bass, tope, smooth hound, and mullet – the rest to include rays, codling, plaice, and black sole, are noticeable by their absence.

It begs the question: Have we really turned a corner regarding sustainable sea fisheries management, or are political rhetoric and industry smoke and mirrors, still the stock in trade?

It has always been my belief that recreational and commercial fishing can coexist side-by-side, and that the lack of a coherent Irish Government marine policy and the EU Common Fisheries Policy has ill served both sectors, creating a ‘them and us’ dynamic that has fostered mistrust. The to date non-existent recreational sea angling lobby however has not helped the situation, leaving the sophisticated and very astute commercial lobby a free run when it comes to negotiating fisheries policy. In light of the above, and taking in my own ‘on the ground experience’, I question the detail in Michael Keatinge’s interview regarding the current state of Ireland’s sea fishing sector and its future direction.

Discards are on the agenda today due to TV personality Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s fish fight campaign. Suddenly it becomes a buzzword, the average Joe on the street now understands a shocking truth, and the industry is embarrassed into showing real concern. The honest approach would be to hold the hands up because discards are still the elephant in the cupboard. Yes, the industry might argue that the quota system is ultimately to blame for discards, but I do not hear much mention of high grading, an equally cynical and wasteful practice. In recent years to be fair there have been attempts to lessen the impact of discards through improved net design and grids. A particular focus for new technology being the nephrops sector, however why not phase out the practice of prawn dragging altogether, and encourage potting instead.

The very fact that prawns represent half of our demersal catch is an indictment of how we have decimated our whitefish stocks. Cod predate on prawns and as their stock declined nephrops filled the gap. A cynical person could argue that prawns are more valuable then cod, so in principal the industry still prospers until prawn stocks decline, which due to demand and current fishing effort they inevitably will. Transferring effort from a depleted and uneconomic stock to one that is viable is called fishing down the food chain, and that is where boarfish come in.

Boarfish (Caproidae family), a distant relative of the John Dory, are a shoal fish averaging about 15 cms in length. Traditionally taken as a by-catch of the pelagic fleet, they usually ended up as fishmeal. Now with reduced pelagic quotas due to declining stocks of mackerel and herring, boarfish are being targeted and quotas have been set. This is another prime example of the industry fishing down the food chain. It happened with orange roughy (Trachichthyidae family) and we all know what happened there. I do not see any great joy in announcing this new fishery, in fact it does nothing but expose failure.

When Michael discusses fleet decommissioning and states that current fleet size reflects the quota value of the fishery, he shows positive progress for a necessary policy. The question has to be asked though: Does fishing effort balance with the reduction, and is there a real desire to move the fleet towards smaller more artisanal orientated fishing vessels, that will provide a better quality higher value end product, create more jobs on and off the water, and ultimately in conjunction with a properly enforced sustainable management plan, allow our inshore fishing grounds and fish stocks to recover?

A feature of summer 2010 was the amount of codling in the two-three year age bracket swimming off the south coast. From Wexford to West Cork they were conspicuous because they had not featured for years. No doubt the product of a good year class, but there is one thing for certain:  good management isn’t responsible for the increase, just a lucky circumstance.

Their abundance has caused the price of cod to fall in the shops from above €20.00/kg within the last 12 months to €15.99 today. Still expensive but going in the right direction however, there is a catch. Will these fish be allowed to grow on and reproduce to swell the stock further, or will they end up being targeted anyway or, worse still, figure as discards?

A healthy fisheries sector is vital for Ireland’s future. Historical mistakes have been made through ignorance and greed; however we cannot ‘plead the Fifth’ now as we understand full well the biological composition and mechanics of our seas and oceans. The legacy of how we ran our fisheries is seen today in the catastrophic reduction in sea fish stocks worldwide.

This poses a real threat to Third World populations and their ability to feed and financially sustain themselves, and also has contributed to the painful political reality of having to unravel and piece together again an industry and way of life so necessary for Ireland’s future development.

Michael’s words do not inspire me; they follow a time honoured tradition. Forget the Cawley report* or any such similar document commissioned by an industry rooted in 18th century management principals but prosecuting its cause with state-of-the art technology. Rather like the army elite in WWI pitting their battalions against high explosive and raking machine gun fire, history shows it took three years and the loss of a generation to work out that folly.

Industrial fishing on a grand scale commenced in 1950, 61 years and Michael’s commentary later, the decision makers behind the EU and Irish fishing industry still haven’t copped on. The barren seas off Co. Wicklow prove it.

*Steering a new course: Strategy for a restructured, sustainable and profitable Irish Seafood Industry 2007-2013 (Report of the Seafood Industry Strategy Review Group 2006)

See also: The Cawley Report. Steering A New Course For The Irish Seafood Industry 2007-2013. A Fundamentally Flawed Document.