An Irish Anglers World


The euphoric rush to industrialise Ireland’s sea fisheries and its unravelling sequel

There comes a time in life when you have to say it like it is. Born and reared in post war 1960’s England, my parents took the mail boat like so many did at the time just after Christmas 1956. Settling in London they forged a life for themselves, and subsequently my two sisters and I entered the fray. No different to many emigrant stories, in timeless tradition contact was maintained with the old sod, Paddy’s day was celebrated, the shamrock sported, and for two weeks every summer Mum and Dad rented a bungalow in the Glen of the Down’s, Co. Wicklow, and came home to visit friends and relatives. Personal memories of those times consist of drives out to the Silver Strand, swimming in the dock at Greystones harbour, and boiled red lobsters seemingly a constant in Granny Redmond’s kitchen.

Brothers Leslie (centre) and John (Right) Redmond with John McKenzie (left), Greystones Harbour, Co. Wicklow,Ireland.

In the mid sixties the Kish base had not yet been dumped on the end of Greystones south pier, with the result that the inner harbour remained deep and not silted up due to tidal scouring. Trammel nets hung drying on the railings and stone walls either side of the fishermen’s huts, boats rested upside down on the beach, and local inshore fishermen repaired and prepared pots, nets, and other static gear ready for their next trip out.

Sweeney, Spurling, Kinsella, Ryan, and Redmond were the surnames that I remember associated with the inshore fishing tradition off Greystones. A way of life that was strong up to the sixties and early seventies had died a death sometime around 1980 other than for transient whelk fishers who appeared out of the woodwork in the early eighties to Klondike on the unregulated shell fishery, which was all that remained economically viable once the bulk of the whitefish had been removed due to 35 years of post war commercial over fishing within the Irish Sea.

Living permanently in Ireland since 1970, once my parents like many of their peers decided to return home due to a burgeoning domestic economy, the sea quickly became a recreational fixture through swimming, boating, and fishing. With access to wooden clinker boats built by my Grandfather I grew to enjoy rod and line fishing, while also setting occasional lobster pot’s, long lines, and trammel net’s with my dad, uncles, cousins, and friends. Sadly though it was not hard to notice inshore decline through practical experience in the decades to follow, a blind man would have noticed the change. plaice caught on the Kilcoole bank south of Greystones, Co. Wicklow, Ireland.

Four pound plaice off St David’s school and the Swan’s rock with larger off Kilcoole, doormat size Dover sole fifty meters off Ballygannon, the usual big cod, coalfish in season, pollack, lemon sole, dab, you get the picture all reaching mature size. Unrecognisable today, a fishery that was able to sustain an artisan commercial tradition alongside an equally important recreational angling community, first stuttered, and then faltered, before finally collapsing.

Famous sea angling clubs to include the Knights of the Silver Hook, Inchicore, and Dublin City based themselves at Greystones harbour storing gear in and around Killian’s Hall and the Beach House pub. Greystones and its superb inshore fishing provided an opportunity for generations of hard working Dublin men, at the weekend or on days off, to get out in the air and socialise. Major annual fishing competitions such as the Shakespeare trophy were eagerly awaited by both the participants and locals, with crowds hanging around the harbour at weigh in time adding to the buzz.

Strangled slowly by the environmental tragedy occurring offshore, hidden and silent beneath the waves, a way of life encompassing recreational and artisan commercial interests disappeared over a twenty year period, not because society got more sophisticated, no it was way simpler than that, the fish just faded away. Sieved from their environment by a trawl net somewhere out in the Irish Sea, while for those species that initially escaped that fate their food bearing habitat was being raped and pillaged by mussel dredgers working the grounds for spat off Kilcoole, Newcastle, and other points south to Wicklow Head. All allowed to happen legally by successive Irish administrations.

Preparing for sea. Competition day, Greystones harbour, Co. Wicklow, Ireland.

Having written about and high lighted this tragic tale, one that can be repeated in some way shape or form all around Ireland’s 3171 kilometres of coastline, since 2007 with what appears very little official response, it was with great joy that I received and quickly devoured Irish marine scientist retired, Dr Edward Fahy’s, self published work “Overkill, the euphoric rush to industrialise Ireland’s sea fisheries and its unravelling sequel”. Finally a fully referenced piece of work was out there which helped fill in the gaps, joining together my knowledge and experience of rapid inshore decline, not only off Greystones, but right around the coast of Ireland.

Far from naïve, one assumes that those in charge, both at Government and Public Service level, have the greater interest of the country in mind when they make decisions, especially regarding public resources. Elected representatives and people who work for the Government on permanent contracts hold privileged positions, decisions which directly affect the lives of Ireland’s citizenry emanate from this cohort. People who occupy these positions are granted, and are expected to perform with, a high degree of trust by the nation.

Unfortunately, as has become very clear in recent times, this trust has been abused. Arrogance, fed by the untouchable feeling that only a permanent contract can endow, has spawned reckless and self serving behaviour the resultant of which, in the worst instances, have seen catastrophic consequences where ultimately the nations citizenry are left to pick up the tab.

Dr Edward Fahy, author of Overkill.

In terms of the fishing industry Dr Fahy’s fully referenced book details quite clearly how a Government development agency, Bord Iascaigh Mhara, born out of good intentions, positioned itself to become the central player within an industry where today fishing represents just 1% of agri – food sector employment (Source: CSO QNHS Quarter 4, 2011), while subsequent fish, shellfish, and marine sourced value added exports to include aquaculture production amounted to a mere 8.9% of agri – food exports in 2011 (Source: Bord Bia). Both those figures hammering home the excessive amount of exposure and support which the Irish commercial fishing sector presently enjoys, way over and above it’s actual contribution to GDP, which for the total “Irish Ocean Economy” to include fisheries at the height of the Celtic Tiger bubble boom was just 1% (Socio Economic Research Unit, 2010).

Overkill, whose narrative is not opinion but fact based, will as a result of its being, remove the word “anecdotal” from any future debate or discussion on past, present, and future marine environmental and fisheries management decisions within Ireland’s coastal and territorial waters. The truth is out now, vested interests, politicians, and legislators will not in future be able to fudge or hide.

Dr Fahy’s work, an insider critique of an increasingly, through the sixties and seventies, centralised industry where the supposed development agency BIM became all powerful, more interested post 1973 in divying out EEC/EU funds and subsidies as against building a diverse fishing fleet in balance with the wider resource it sought to exploit, will if utilised correctly create a foundation for change.

Sorry, and sometimes if the end result wasn’t so wasteful and serious, laughable episodes such as the demise of the North West brown crab fishery between 1980 and 2010 due to BIM developing a super crabber fleet to target of all things female crab migrating to their spawning grounds on the edge of the continental shelf, highlight the irresponsible and arrogant behaviour of the so called experts within the sector.

Testament to a wasted resource, beach caught cod from Dungeness, Kent, England. Prolific in the 1960's, now endangered.

Talk about shooting yourself in the foot, the above example one of many sad marine management/development gems exposed within Overkill’s pages, clearly shows how the industry both at public and private level had, and still to this day has lost the run of itself, more interested in short term money and justifying its presence rather than a sustainable long term future.

Oh, but the last paragraph is a general statement! No it’s not, which will become apparent to those that read Overkill. Reference to the “industry” being a top down approach where a few powerful interests backed up by Fish Producers Associations and at Government level have controlled the sector to the detriment of both the resource and the environment. The result being that inshore fishermen who historically would represent the bulk of catching employment have seen their jobs evaporate or become increasingly uneconomic, essentially, the few big boys rule.

This brings us back to Greystones, Co. Wicklow, where once, local restaurants such as the Hungry Monk up to around 1990 could buy much of their fish requirements directly from the harbour. Edward Fahy’s historical and timeline based narrative opens the door to reasons why fish disappeared from the inshore waters off north county Wicklow and other points around the coast of Ireland, from the annihilation of the Irish Sea whitefish resource to the collapse of the localised palourde clam fishery within Galway Bay.

Not without hope though, and most certainly not an attack on the industry, “Overkill” is a call to those in authority from a man of science, that advice proffered with honesty and integrity in future be listened to and acted upon rather than set aside. That the status quo which has resulted in a commercially unviable marine catching sector, totally dependant on subsidies, be adjusted accordingly, in tandem with management systems that allow fish stocks reach levels maintained above MSY, so that a wider constituency of Irish citizens, beyond just fishermen, can enjoy the benefits of a rejuvenated sea fisheries resource into the future.

Of its time, I believe that “Overkill” rightly sits alongside such related works as Charles Clover’s “End of the Line” and Callum Roberts “Unnatural History of the Sea”. A page turner, it will leave you shocked. Does official Ireland still conduct business in this way, I hope not, over to you Minister Coveney.

“Overkill” may be purchased on Amazon by clicking on the following link:

Note: The image of Dungeness cod is courtesy of “Fishing a Pictorial Guide”, Clive Gammon, Frederick Muller Ltd, 1967.

Ashley Hayden © March 2013