An Irish Anglers World

Towards a Greater Return from Ireland’s Marine Resource

At some point during the last days of 2012 humanity reached a population milestone, when in a far flung corner of our ever shrinking world a mother gave birth to a healthy baby, whose successful introduction pushed the number of living Homo sapiens on earth beyond the seven billion mark. A not to fanciful possibility is that the child inhaled its first breath as the annual EU Fisheries Council was drawing to a close, with member states having negotiated and agreed on respective industry sea fish quotas applicable for 2013.

Crab boat working south east of the Saltee Island's, Co. Wexford, Ireland.
Sea fish today are the primary source of protein for eighteen percent of the Worlds population. Numbering approximately 1.4 billion people, most of this grouping reside within the third world. Eminent marine scientists agree, using 1950 as a baseline year, that existing world marine fish stocks have been depleted by 80% in the sixty two years following due to commercial overfishing, resulting in a significant present and future source of food being denied to humanity just when we need it most. That an intelligent and rational species can score such a monumental own goal is hard to fathom, however studying various Irish media reports, pre and post the 2012 EU Fisheries Council negotiations, provides more than a clue as to how the human race has reached this sorry nadir.

A press release issued by the Marine Institute dated 11/12/2012 titled, “Sustainability of Fish Stocks Continues to Improve” accompanied by an image of Marine Institute CEO Dr. Peter Heffernan presenting Minister for Agriculture, Food, and the Marine, Simon Coveney with a copy of the 2012 Stock Book begs an immediate starter question for ten: Given that historical fish stock levels were multiples of what they are today, regarding “sustainable” commercial exploitation, what is an optimum present day individual stock biomass, and who plays God when deciding? Based on the sea life I experienced in my youth and how it has evaporated before my eyes, it’s hard not to doubt how expert the experts really are.

Front cover of 2011 stock book.
Coupled with the Dept of Agriculture press release dated 20/12/2012, titled “Coveney Successful in Difficult Negotiations on Fish Quotas” with the Minister ticking the usual “respecting scientific advice”, “coastal communities”, and “ensuring the future sustainability of our fish stocks” boxes. If the negotiations were truly successful and therefore beneficial to Ireland nationally, as the Minister equally stated in 2011, why then are there no cod on the south Wexford beaches this winter when there were reasonable numbers last year? A clue Minister, you increased the Celtic Sea cod quota by 77% on a single year class twelve months ago. Short term gain doesn’t make a country better off, the absence of cod along Wexford’s south coast this winter proof that the Ministers decision in Brussels circa 2011 was a mistake.

Similar “phyric victories” were trumpeted this year as being good for the industry, such as an increase in the Celtic Sea whiting quota. Well lets get real and honest here, the annual Brussels charade is not about saving fish, the environment, or developing a sustainable commercial fishing sector, but about keeping a few voices happy, the bigger picture to include creating new long term maritime based jobs doesn’t come into it, any reference to the latter being lip service. It’s certainly not about feeding the planet long term, which should be the real issue.

Running for shelter, an off shore trawler returning to Castletownbere, Co. Cork, Ireland.
A Christmas 2012 book shop best seller was Independent TD Shane Ross and Sunday Independent business editor Nick Webb’s title “The Untouchables, the people who helped wreck Ireland – and are still running the show”. Detailing how official Ireland bankrupted the country and still remains in situ relatively unscathed, while the average taxpayer now carries the can, having read the narrative, the  greedy, self serving, and incompetent cultures within Irish financial, construction, Government, and political circles that it describes can equally be superimposed on elements within the fisheries sector. Barren inshore coastal waters stripped of their natural assets an unfortunate modern legacy of greed, poor regulation, political favouritism, and a narrow vision of Ireland’s true maritime capability.

If Ireland is to one day realise the full potential of its fisheries resource it needs to begin thinking well outside the box sooner rather than later and incorporate recreational sea angling and coastal tourism interests into the existing commercial fishing industry mix. A radical move would be to initiate proposals from a wider stakeholder grouping while holding the EU presidency, however one has to be realistic, the political will is not there yet and a lot of ground work still has to be done. That said, with CFP reform imminent now would be a good time to broaden the existing proposals to include recreational angling and coastal tourism briefs, because as they currently stand the CFP reform Q&A documents would appear to offer nothing exceptionally radical other than slight tweaks of the present status quo, maximum sustainable yield and reduced discards being to a certain extent aspirational aims.

A shore caught hank of quality plaice from the south of England, once a common feat, now rare. Image courtesy of the Guinness Guide to Saltwater Fishing.

When all is said and done the primary focus has to be to restore our seas and oceans natural capital, ie fish, then manage and utilise the biological bank vault correctly. The commercial fishing industry presently is set up like a mining company and as such without a radical change in direction will eventually work the seam to its uneconomic conclusion, a fine example being the once great copper mines of Butte Montana, once the largest single deposit of copper in the world. Dubbed the richest hill on earth and a magnet for thousands of Irish immigrants, first discovered in 1864 the mines finally closed in 2000 with the town of Butte having to devise a whole new way of making a living. Tourism and a thriving university drive Butte today, with the mines legacy measured in fortunes made and lost, 136 years of well paid but dangerous employment, a hill cut in half fronted by a massive hole in the ground, and memories of a post civil war pioneering age.

Fish unlike copper are capable of reproducing, so if managed correctly could be termed a sustainable resource, the fate of Butte doesn’t have to visit the likes of Killybegs, Castletownbere, or Kilmore Quay. That said radical changes in approach, methodology, and how the industry views itself will have to take place, along with (in the short term while fish stocks readjust upwards) possible further contraction of the fleet. In tandem the recreational fishing sector will have to shape up radically too and not just consider, but adopt, a sea angling licence, records of all fish landed, and the real possibility that charter boats retain for sale certain species such as pollack and ling which suffer pressure damage to their swim bladders on being reeled to the surface. Wrasse and pouting come to mind also as species that do not fare well after being hauled up from the depths. The recreational bass lobby too will have to accept that someday their favourite species will not be sacrosanct but will command a commercial sale value, while recreational fishing minimum sizes will have to be set, for most white fish species, at a minimum 30 cms, just like before.

A national favourite, fish and chips.
Marine fin fish have to be looked upon first and foremost as a valuable source of food and not a commodity measured in terms of tonnage, monetary value, or a nice jiggy feeling at the end of the line, the welfare of seven billion people being much more important than any of the latter three notions. At the EU Fisheries Council meeting last December 2012 Minister Simon Coveney secured €213 million package for the Irish fishing fleet. If figures are what the captains of influence understand, then restored fish stocks will most definitely improve on the amount quoted above with subsequent future job and earning prospects boosted also.

Should the recreational/tourism sea angling sector be fully recognised and accommodated at the negotiating table Ireland could see a further €100 million plus contribution added to the national coffers, that being a grossly conservative estimate. To reach that position sea anglers will have to play ball and consider codes of practice alien to them at present, but the rewards of species variety and maturity will far out weigh the inconvenience. Think of Beara Peninsula catch returns all around our coastline. Should Ireland’s coastal waters once again achieve that level of abundance, and they really can, then certain levels of personal sacrifice will be worth the long term gain. We have to change our mindset and be more visionary, expansive, and pro-active both in thought and deed. Let’s make it happen.

Ashley Hayden © December 2012