An Irish Anglers World

Reading Between the Lines

Assessing the Real or Perceived Quality of Ireland’s Tourism Sea Angling Product with a view to Increasing Tourist numbers.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary “Quality” is defined as: the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something, while “Superb” means excellent. The word “Best” is described as meaning: of the most excellent or desirable type or quality, and “Premier” means: first in importance, order, or position. Finally, “Abound” is defined as: to exist in large numbers or amounts.

Discover sea fishing in Ireland.

When describing Ireland’s sea angling product today both the state agencies responsible for its promotion, Failte and Inland Fisheries Ireland, lace their hard copy published brochures and online marketing media with some or all of the above key adjectives accompanied with beautiful atmospheric images of sea anglers, fish, and stunning coastal backdrops. Being a competent sea angler with forty years experience of what Ireland has to offer in a sea fishing context, why does the message portrayed not fully relate to my recent on the ground experiences, is this angler fishing in the wrong spots or has rod and line Alzheimer’s taken hold? Worse still, if this writer’s experience of modern Irish sea angling does reflect what is happening both on and offshore, are the good offices of Failte Ireland and IFI breaching the trade descriptions act, or have consumer perceptions fallen to such an extent that, to use a sporting metaphor, the English Football Conference now manifests itself as the Premier League.

Rod and line sea fishing is not what it was, and that’s a given due to intense post World War II commercial exploitation of the marine resource, the decline within Irish waters becoming particularly evident from around 1990 onwards. Having been lucky enough to experience top draw sea angling off Greystones, Bray, Killiney, and Dalkey in the early seventies extending to east Wexford through the 1980’s yours truly has a yardstick upon which to measure. Also, much to the questioning of her indoors, within my house resides a large collection of old fishing magazines going back to the seventies and eighties to include Sea Angler, Sea Angling Handbook, Sea Angling Quarterly, Sea Fishing, and Irish Angling News which tell it like it was, a historical record highlighting quite clearly the wealth and quality of sea angling opportunities once available around Ireland, now sadly disappeared or greatly diminished.

Archive sea angling publications.

Who talks nowadays in glowing terms of Achill or Belmullet, Greystones or Brandon Bay? Where are the turbot and monkfish of Blacksod Bay, the cod and blonde ray off the Moulditch, or the bass averaging four pound weight which used to run the tables of surf creaming in onto Fermoyle strand? One could say those days are gone, life moves on, so get over it, and those sentiments would be acceptable if the changes through time were of a natural origin, but they’re not. Without mans interference the gems alluded to above would still be delivering, and both Failte and Inland Fisheries Ireland’s sea angling promotional hyperbole would be entirely accurate.

The reality however is some what different, one cannot blame the above organisations for the shiny happy manner in which they portray modern Ireland’s sea angling product, after all their brief is to attract custom. They might however on reflection consider revising their modus operandi and business plan to portray more accurately sea angling opportunities in Ireland today. People are not stupid especially when they have laid down hard cash, consumers can and do see through the cracks and if a product is found wanting they will vote with their feet and go elsewhere. Has this already happened, have tourist anglers from both home and abroad seen through the hype, or are Ireland’s tourism figures down just because of the European fiscal crises?

UK based holiday angler.

Quality and value is a matter of perception, without question Ireland has majestic scenery, ancillary activities that appeal to anglers, and there are presently excellent offers in terms of accommodation, while food and services cost competitiveness have improved dramatically. That said, travelling sea angler numbers have declined from approximately 50,000 per annum in the mid 2000’s to give or take 30,000 in 2011, is this down to recession, a strong euro against sterling, increased competition from abroad, poor marketing, or maybe that our sea angling product just doesn’t cut it, let’s take a look.

Great Britain is Ireland’s major trading partner to the tune of 42%. Tourism figures relating to the UK gleaned from the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation report; Tourism Opportunity, Driving Economic Renewal, February 2011 are quite revealing. Holiday visitor numbers from Great Britain in the 10 years up to 2007 remained static at 1.8 million per year, which is incredible when one considers the amount of money and man hours spent on promoting the Irish market by Failte and Tourism Ireland within that period. Post 2007 the figures go into free fall to the tune of minus 50% by 2010. In 2011 the rot continued by a further minus 3.4% with the first six months of 2012 showing a continuance with a minus 1% reduction. In total a little over 700,000 people now travel annually for holidays to Ireland from Great Britain.

A Welsh sea angler happy out off Kilmore Quay, Co. Wexford, Ireland.

The fact that our nearest neighbour is suffering its own economic problems one accepts will affect outbound tourist numbers from the United Kingdom. In 2010 outbound holidays taken by British residents declined by 7%, however British holiday visits to Ireland fell by 15%, more than double. Taking specifically UK sea angler numbers into account, it is estimated that there are approximately 1.1 million sea anglers within England and Wales (Drew Associates 2004), of which 15% travel to sea fish outside of England and Wales for an average of eight days per calendar year, that’s 150,000+ potential visitors to Ireland.

If one works on the basis of 40% of visitors to Ireland travel from the UK and accept the 30,000 tourist sea anglers figure for 2011, then approximately 12,000 originated from the UK, not a bad return and reflective of the tourism investment one could argue. Yes, but it’s only 7.9% of the 150,000 UK sea anglers who travel to sea fish, where are the remaining 138,000 going to? Surely given our proximity, historical relationship with the UK, and our “as advertised” premier class sea angling product, Ireland should be claiming a greater market share? Given that UK sea anglers travel, what is stopping more of them from committing to Ireland, could it be the product or possibly the message?

Ireland's premier bass angling guide Jim Hendrick.

Travel, Stay, Fish, and Play is Failte Ireland’s catch phrase aimed at tourist anglers, remove the fish though and you have a problem. But there are plenty of fish swimming in the seas around Ireland, in particular the south west coast, I hear you say. Is that so, well let’s take a closer look and utilise the Irish Specimen Fish Committee reports given that they are a true and accurate record of fish caught around Ireland’s coastline, and also a major tool in Ireland’s tourism sea angling promotional armoury.

Very familiar with east coast sea angling from south Dublin down to Carnsore Point, its demise over the last thirty years has been nothing short of catastrophic. Conducting a study in 2010 using the ISFC specimen books dating from 1975 – 2010 and concentrating on the area of coastline between Bray Head south to Wicklow Head, a pattern emerged which reflected the experience on the ground. Sixteen species of fish growing to specimen weight used to swim those waters. Today that number has been reduced by commercial over fishing and gross environmental mismanagement to four namely bass, grey mullet, smooth hound, and tope, all in principal not commercially targeted.

A possible Irish record tope caught and released in 2011 off Greystones, Co. Wicklow, Ireland, by Gerry Mitchell.

Gone amongst many others are the cod, plaice, black sole, and blonde ray which used to adorn anglers catches up to the early nineties. An area that used to be a sea anglers paradise giving access from boat and shore to multiple species catches of mature fish, next door to Dublin, Ireland’s premier tourist destination, now serves up to shore anglers smooth hound, an odd bass, dogfish, rockling, undersize flatfish and pin whiting. Certainly not, unless you are a scratching match enthusiast, angling of international pedigree which 30 years ago it most definitely was.

Offshore it’s a little better, again there are mature smooth hound and tope in reasonable quantities, along with bull huss, dogfish, and thornback ray averaging about eight pound, once upon a time thornbacks used to average in the low to mid teens off north county Wicklow. A smidgeon of hope was provided by a couple of specimen spurdog ratified in 2012 which pushed the specimen count off north Wicklow up to five, still a long way off sixteen though. When one considers that spurdog are a pack fish, one or two here and there doesn’t warrant breaking out the champagne. Again, is the fish product offering of international standard, other than tope, sadly no.

Thornback ray caught off Co. Wicklow, Ireland.

Switching to an all Ireland approach while analysing data from the 2012 ISFC report, a very interesting picture emerges. In total 321 specimen sea fish were ratified across 35 species. Given that shad hybrids for the first time were included as a separate species, for this exercise all shad specimens will be looked upon as a single species, so in effect the number of sea species landed in 2012 can be reduced to 34.

Notable absentees from the list were: Thornback ray, Homelyn ray, Cod, Coalfish, Ling, Haddock, Whiting, and Sole, all much loved by sea anglers but unfortunately commercially targeted. Now as we know for the last few years cod have shown in reasonable quantities along the south and south west coast, the result of a single good year class in 2008/2009. Big cod are a favourite draw for UK sea anglers, Norway and Iceland are fully aware of this, and market accordingly. Ireland on the other hand increases its commercial cod quota by 77% on a single year class.

An east Co. Wexford bass.

A big surprise was the miserable return for the jewel in the crown of Irish tourism sea angling, bass, with only six specimens ratified! Given 22 years of protection and a serious amount of fishing effort nowadays from both resident and visiting anglers, six specimens is a poor showing and proves something is off kilter within the system, inshore poaching and possibly off shore catches most likely to blame. This result also calls into question the current heavy emphasis on bass within sea angling promotional circles.

Assessing the statistics by location the Red Bay/Ballycastle area on the north Antrim coast, merged due to their close proximity, based on ISFC data is Ireland’s top sea angling destination, delivering 112 specimens (34.8% of total sea specimens ratified) across 10 species. Beautiful St Mullins, Co. Carlow grabs second place with 68 specimen shad (21% of total sea specimens ratified), Wicklow rolls in a credible third with 49 (15.2% of total sea specimens ratified), specimens across three species (Thick lipped mullet x 3, Spurdog x 4, Smooth Hound x 42, while West Cork’s Rosscarbary deserves a mention too coming in forth with 46 (14.3% of total sea specimens ratified) specimens across 3 species.

Landing a shad at St Mullins, Co. Carlow, Ireland.

Four locations one of which “St Mullins” is twenty miles inland account for 275 or 85.5% of the total marine specimens ratified in 2012, while just three marine species categories, spurdog: 80 (25%), twaite shad (Inclusive of shad hybrid): 68 (21%), and smooth hound: 45 (14%), account for 60% of the total amount of ratified marine specimens for 2012. Objectively analysed these statistics do raise questions about the quality of Ireland’s sea angling product and the way that it is presently marketed.

Who would have thought that the causeway coast would lead the field ahead of Dingle, Cork Harbour, and Kilmore Quay, with hardly a mention of traditional sea angling destinations such as Dungarvan, Kinsale, and Courtmacsherry? Granted the assessment is predicated on numbers, Cork Harbour actually beating Red Bay/Ballycastle on the species count 11 – 10, although miles behind on specimens ratified 112 – 24. However when a brackish water venue twenty miles inland grabs second place delivering 21% of all marine specimens ratified, with three marine species accounting for 60% of ISFC marine returns for 2012 minus anglers favourites such as cod, thornback ray, coalfish, and ling one has to wake up and smell the roses.

Ireland’s sea angling product in terms of fish caught on the evidence provided by the ISFC reports is patchy, delivering reasonable fishing in pockets with very little deserving of the title exceptional. Quality however is grounded in perception this person’s ordinary being another’s amazing. There is no doubt world class sea angling does exist the ISFC report a testament to this statement, but it’s limited, seasonal, usually off the beaten track, and affected greatly due to playing second fiddle to commercial sea fishing considerations.

John Millerick cradles a tope caught on a special day off Kilmore Quay, Co. Wexford.

Does Ireland therefore stand up as a modern attractive International sea angling destination? Of course, because satisfaction derived from a fishing holiday is based on the total experience relative to customer expectations. Combining all the on and offshore elements that make up a successful sea fishing vacation there are still places dotted around the coast of Ireland that at certain times of the year can deliver that special sea angling moment.

To maximise our tourism sea angling potential though it is imperative that customer expectations are matched to the correct product offering available, all necessary information is proffered so enabling the angler to hit the ground running, and most importantly service providers listen to and adapt to their customers needs. Equally promotional agencies need to adopt a more sustainable rather then a pack em in approach, pleasure anglers like to fish in groups but not crowds.

Presently we are slipping and need to make up lost ground fast with a heavy emphasis on winning back UK custom, while further selling big fish opportunities within both Belgium and Holland. The product needs to be reappraised with consideration given to attracting groups of club pleasure anglers and assessing the viability of new innovations such as kayak angling. The key element underpinning any future marketing drive is that Government recognises recreational sea angling as a vital component of our marine resource development.

Mr Irish Sea Angling, Norman Dunlop.

Based on a survey this writer conducted through the website, answered predominantly by British anglers, Ireland is still perceived as having good fishing (better than the UK), they like to travel in groups staying 4 – 7 days, see Ireland as easy to get to, and are interested in species variety as against pure size. Developing a focused business/marketing plan centred on the above four points will deliver results.

A good start would be to conduct a targeted campaign aimed at the 150,000 receptive sea anglers who travel to fish resident in the UK. These people are on our doorstep, speak the same language, and currently would appear to choose Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Norway ahead of us. Attracting 10% more of this grouping, who will spend a minimum of €1000.00 a head delivers €15,000,000. This is a task worthy of planning and implementation, however to be successful it will need a more coordinated approach from private sector interests and public service agencies then has been seen to date. Yes, some locations will do better then others due to their superior product offering, the most relevant consideration however is that Ireland gains by making the most from a diminished resource.

Ashley Hayden © January 2013

Further reading: Postscript to “Reading Between the Lines”.