An Irish Anglers World

Thoughts on Repairing the Irish Sea Circa 2017 Restoring a Once Great Mixed Fishery

Born in 1960 I was brought up within the bosom of two families steeped in the artisan fishing traditions of Greystones, Co. Wicklow. My Grandfather Willie Redmond, a master craftsman, built wooden clinker style boats whose lines were specific to the short inshore sea conditions that prevail along Ireland’s eastern sea board.

Grandfather Redmond leased one of the fishermen’s’ huts at the harbour which to me always smelled of salty two stroke and was chock full of oars, seagull engines, spurs (row locks), dwees (buoys), trammel nets, anchors, ropes and other such fishing paraphernalia.

Digging lugworm on Duncannon strand, Co. Wexford.

Over the two summers of 1970/1971 my father taught me to row in the harbour at Greystones and dig lugworm on Booterstown strand along with basic sea lore so that I would be ready to help shoot a long line that he had built. Made of a heavy cotton backing with lighter cotton snoods attached to Mustad 2/0 spade end hooks, the construct was based on the local historic design he would have used back in the 1950’s.

On a scorching hot late August or early September day in 1971 we set forth in the Jean Anne, a 16’ to 17’ clinker boat built by Grandfather and named after mum for a memorable introduction to the great mixed fishery which existed at that time off Greystones. Described in my first published article “An Angler’s Tale”, I will not reiterate suffice to say that large plaice and cod/codling abounded at the time and their appearance in our catch left a deep and lasting impression within me.

Fishing for codling off Greystones, Co. Wicklow in the early 1980's.

From that day on I was hooked on sea fishing, summer months from 1971 on would find my father and I along with Uncle Liam and my cousins when time allowed long lining for plaice and codling from Killiney Bay to Kilcoole or setting trammel nets with Uncle Leslie along Ballygannon. In 1974 I got into rod and line fishing which opened up another approach to sea fishing and really opened my eyes as to the species availability between Dunlaoghaire south to Wicklow Harbour.

What also became clear was the connection between various seabed types, run of tide, weather conditions, time of day, time of year and the quality and quantity of fish available. Mixed ground without a shadow of doubt provided the most varied and productive fishing off Greystones, Co. Wicklow with the permanent mussel banks delivering the cream.

The Moulditch Buoy off Greystones, Co. Wicklow.

Yes, the Moulditch Ridge (a kelp covered boulder field) attracted in season huge shoals of cod/codling and coalfish with a smattering of pollack, however the mixed “mussel endowed” ground off Ballygannon/Kilcoole delivered plaice, dab, sole, flounder, cod, coalfish, pollack, bass, gurnard, ray, tope, bull huss, dogfish, smooth hound and in my grandfathers time common skate.

Pelagic species were well represented too, my early forays with dad in the 1970’s after mackerel imprinting within my brain images of plenty which can only be imagined today. The size and numbers of mackerel off Bray Head was staggering. Dad and I used also mackerel fish between the southern end of Dalkey Island under the fort, across to Sorrento Point; again the quantity of mackerel within this tide race was prolific.

Catching mackerel off Bray Head, Co. Wicklow.

Living during the 1970’s in Dunlaoghaire, as stated earlier I commenced rod and line shore fishing during the summer of 1974, with Killiney Beach north to Whiterock under the Vico Road my home patch. Codling in abundance, fine plaice, flounder, wrasse, pollack, and coalfish were the main species caught. Occasionally hiring a boat from the Homan family who lobster/crab fished and ran the tea house on Killiney Strand, my friends and I would row up to Sorrento Point and ground fish just off the tide race for codling, whiting, pollack and dab up to specimen size.

Upon gaining my drivers licence I began casting a line further afield the mid nineteen eighties finding me on county Wexford’s east facing strands in late spring early summer night fishing for smooth hound, codling, flounder and bass. Top long distance casters at the time, of which I was not one, were also catching ray, huss and tope off the same beaches.

A 1985 beach caught Wexford smooth hound for Ashley Hayden.

The above narrative paints a picture as to how recently productive the Irish Sea actually was, but more pertinently how quickly its star has fallen. Described briefly above is one persons’ experience of Ireland’s east coast inshore productivity relative to fin fish numbers. For the most part this huge abundance and variety of species were seasonal visitors from offshore within the greater Irish Sea or following seasonal migratory patterns into the Irish Sea from another part of the North East Atlantic, mackerel (Bay of Biscay) and Celtic Sea cod being two examples.

What has happened to reverse the above process and experience so that today the Irish Sea as represented off Greystones, Co. Wicklow is in effect a marine desert when 30 years ago it was a Garden of Eden? Objectively understanding the local natural dynamics, as I do through four decades of first hand exposure to the resource where I have witnessed “ecological boom to bust”, commercial over fishing leading to fishing down the food chain and habitat destruction both the result of gross mismanagement of the resource are the collective root cause and not, as I keep reading/hearing lately “climate change” resulting in increased water temperatures, this latter explanation being a red herring.

A "no fishing" sign on the pier of Greystones, Co. Wicklow.

The broken fishery off Greystones Co. Wicklow is a micro example of marine depletion within the greater Irish Sea, which mirrors how the whole Irish Sea and one could argue North East Atlantic ecosystem currently presents; where mismanaged commercial fishing activity has sundered through gross over fishing the interconnectivity of very recent historical fin fish migrations while in the process destroying key benthic habitats. Examining basic food web dynamics relative to my experience of the extremely productive north Co. Wicklow inshore sea fishery off Greystones gives substance to the previous statement.

On introduction to the fishery in 1971 cod/codling were the key species, in huge abundance and growing to double figures the average size was two – five pound. The stomachs of these fish would be crammed with crab and brittle star, to a lesser extent whelk, in wintertime mussel and in summer on occasions herring fry. I remember catching codling in mid water when after mackerel and as stated the waters off Bray Head from late June to September in the 1970’s were heaving with these tiger striped speedsters.

A Greystones dab caught in recent years.

Plaice were equally abundant attracted by the permanent inshore mussel banks which stretched southwards towards and beyond Wicklow Head. These fish which we targeted successfully with lugworm when gutted would present with rows of seed mussel in their gullets like train carriages one behind the other ready to be crushed in their gizzard to extract the mussel meat.

Mussel banks are rich habitats home to a vast array of marine flora and fauna to include shellfish, crustaceans, worms, juvenile fish, adult fish and seaweeds. These permanent habitats were the reason why fish migrated to north County Wicklow’s inshore waters. When bottom mussel dredging started in earnest off Wicklow the permanent mussel banks were torn up and replaced with “non mussel fixing sand”, eventually and inevitably the fish stopped coming as the food source disappeared.

However that was not the end of it, cod were being commercially targeted within the greater Irish Sea and in the Celtic Sea from which the Irish Sea experienced an annual migration. The Greystones fishermen called the members of this migration “white cod” which they said swam up from the south. Cod/codling diminished off Greystones through the 1970’s and 1980’s. At first numbers stayed up but size got smaller, then the fish got smaller then they all but disappeared except for odd juvenile codling to twelve inches long.

It was over fishing and not water temperature increases that caused this decline. Why have the cod not comeback? Because they have and are continually being exploited at a very young age with the result that spawning biomass is today negligible. If a year class does get through as happened in the Celtic Sea around 2008/2009, initially juveniles are caught and killed in their thousands by fine meshed prawn trawls and if they survive that obstacle then EU quotas are increased when the year class gets to about year four so removing the rest.

Now factor in that cod/codling eat vast quantities of crab, brittle star, herring fry and prawns. Historically cod represented a massive amount of predatory biomass, their removal alone has radically altered biological structures within the greater Irish Sea allowing nephrops, crab, brittle star and a host of other marine creatures to thrive like they had never done before. Now factor in all the other fin fish species marked absent as a result of over fishing and one now begins to understand how biologically the Irish Sea is misfiring on a grand scale relative to its pre exploitation norm.

As for the permanent mussel banks now removed, besides being a necessary food source one extremely important action disappeared with them, the ability of the sea to clean itself. Up to the 1980’s in settled weather the sea off Kilcoole would become crystal clear the result of filtration by millions of mussel, this phenomenon does not happen today. If one includes the historic permanent oyster beds which existed off south County Wicklow before being exploited to extinction within the 19th century, evidenced by oyster shells on the beaches north and south of Arklow, what was the potential historic water quality of the Irish Sea relative to the combined filtration actions of oysters and mussels like and how prolific in terms of food and shelter were these vital repositories of marine life?

Within the three above examples of faunal exploitation, cod, mussel and oyster are not only clues but the answer as to why today in October 2017 Irish Sea fish stocks across a range of species are not recovering, the biological dynamics of the fishery having been seriously changed due to human action. Cod – a key predatory player gone, key permanent habitats and sources of food (mussel and oyster beds) gone.

In Greystones waters as whitefish (cod, plaice, etc) were removed other species post 1990 became more numerous or expanded their range, dogfish, juvenile dab and gurnard along with smooth hound filling the void which cod left. Pre 1990 I fished for smooth hound off the east facing Wexford beaches in late spring only, one would very rarely encounter them north of Wicklow Head, today in season they can be caught right up the east coast beyond Dublin.

The attrition of benthic marine food sources, habitat and juvenile species continues unabated today with bottom dredging and suctioning of scallop, cockle and razor clam beds alongside nephrops(prawn) draggers which flatten the seabed in tandem with killing huge quantities of juvenile species allowing nothing to regrow due to the volume and frequency of commercial effort.

Today the Irish Sea is a mono commercial fishery based on nephrops or Dublin Bay prawns, with a coastal whelk fishery linked on Ireland’s east coast to the towns of Arklow, Wicklow and Dunlaoghaire. The commercial fishing industry followed the decline it wreaked on the ecosystem by adapting downwards as each trophic layer was removed by them. Sadly as each trophic layer was removed the ability for the ecosystem to return to its former glory became harder as internal biological dynamics were turned on their head.

While micro investigation of marine food webs pertaining to the Irish Sea today are a vital element of the rehabilitation of this once great mixed fishery, a macro approach I would argue is the necessary starting point to recovery. Fallowing off key areas to observe and research how these future undisturbed areas react and change ongoing allied to rehabilitation methodologies linked to historic knowledge of how the fishery originally presented pre exploitation is the key. Any other approach will only continue the road to perdition a state of which the Irish Sea may have already reached………..


Ashley Hayden

October 2017