An Irish Anglers World

What is the Future for Irish Sea Angling?

I’m forty one years a sea angler and boy have I seen the changes, some extremely positive such as the technological advances in tackle, fishing methodology, and in more recent times a conservation minded approach where catch and release is both practiced and encouraged. On the down side fish stocks have reached critically low levels, and destructive commercial practices such as beam trawling and mussel dredging have rendered many areas of once productive seabed a sandy or muddy desert.

Back in 1971 I lived in the borough of Dunlaoghaire, and as a fledgling shore angler fished Killiney bay off the beach at Whiterock and also below the Holy Child convent. Codling and big plaice were the predominant species along with pollack, coalfish, and wrasse. Dogfish figured in catches only after easterly blows, I’m sure they were there however instinct tells me that white fish are quicker to the bait and also probably preyed on their young, so LSD’s in those days rarely featured. Noticeably, as clean fish stocks diminished the number of LSD’s increased dramatically.

Seine netting mackerel on the south beach Greystones, Co. Wicklow.

Boat fishing wise due to family connections Greystones was my home patch, however dad and I used trail a boat occasionally to Bullock Harbour and fish Dalkey sound, Sorrento Point, the back of Dalkey Island, and the Frazer Bank with good results. Greystones is well documented in previous articles that I have written but Dalkey/Killiney was not half bad either. Off Woodbrook Golf Club, Killiney Station, and under the Vico Road were a resident population of very large plaice to 5.lbs plus in weight. Codling were common also, along with dab to specimen weight, various gurnard, big whiting, some very large pollack and wrasse around Dalkey Island, and massive shoals of mackerel.

Since those heady days Irish sea angling’s fortune has diminished greatly and one can trace the decent back to when Ireland first joined the Common Market in 1973. The rich inshore waters that I remember off south Co. Dublin and north Co. Wicklow declined slowly at first through the remainder of the 1970’s, picking up speed as the eighties progressed, before nose diving in the early 1990’s. Many commercially targeted species such as cod, plaice, and ray reduced in size and numbers before eventually becoming rare or non existent additions to angler’s catches. There has been no improvement in fish stocks other than bass since, and sadly no likelihood in the near future unless a radical change in management approach and structure is implemented. Anglers of my age, I’m fifty one, and older from around the country can relate similar tales pertaining to their local fisheries, and a glance through angling books and magazines published at the time will reveal images of fish catches, the size, quantity, and range of species in a lot of cases rarely seen these days.

Competition day, Greystones harbour, Co. Wicklow, Ireland.

Am I being nostalgic, certainly not, the last few paragraphs are an exercise in highlighting the demise of Ireland’s inshore marine biodiversity over the last forty years and how quickly it occurred. Shifting baselines is a theory put forward by scientists that humans from different generations accept what they are used to as the norm, this view being particularly relevant when taking the environment into account. Put simply things change over time, the bountiful seas that I remember were already diminished by the time I introduced them to my offspring. Likewise my father, uncles, and grandfathers related tales of eight pound plaice from Kilcoole and common skate off Ballygannon, catches that had disappeared come my day. People born today or in recent years can only imagine what it’s like to observe the sea boil and foam over a wide area as mackerel drive brit to the surface. How millions of scales drift and wink in the aftermath coupled with the smell of fish oil wafting in the air, these David Attenborough moments as I call them are a rare sight if ever today but a common memory from my teenage years.

Ireland’s inshore waters today lie denuded and degraded; this situation arrived at within half of my current lifespan. An extremely necessary food and recreational resource as I write is being mined to the point of no return, its economic value reducing in direct proportion to the mismanaged exploitation. Sadly it doesn’t have to be this way, but who out there has the desire, conviction, experience, and vision to champion our marine environment and stop the rot.

Welsh tourist anglers departing for a days fishing off Kilmore Quay, Co. Wexford.

On June 20th last while on a day out off Kilmore Quay, soon after stepping off skipper Eamonn Hayes charter boat Autumn Dream I answered a detailed questionnaire, part of the Inland Fisheries Ireland survey on the socio-economic value of recreational angling to Ireland. Timely, the last such study was conducted by Brendan J Whelan and Geraldine Marsh and published in 1988. The questions I answered were comprehensive in nature covering a broad field and will provide a useful snapshot in time from which future policy decisions relating to angling matters can be derived. Later that evening I pondered whether sea angling would benefit in any way once the final document is published, will the finished product spur necessary change or become a dust gatherer sitting on a shelf like so many of its predecessors.

Fishing out the last such report on recreational angling’s economic value to Ireland prepared by the ESRI for the then Central Fisheries Board and published in 1988, unsurprisingly with regard to the sea angling sector not a lot has changed. Figures show there were approximately 43,600 indigenous sea anglers resident in 1988 of which 50% lived in Leinster, bass were the most popular species, and deterioration of fish stocks along with a lack of key information relevant to tourist anglers were the big issues.

Shore competition fishing in south Wexford.

Visiting sea anglers numbered 5,000 with bass again the most popular species, 40% had come before or intended to visit again, a trait which still pertains to this day, anglers are very good repeat customers. 33% said that the fishing had deteriorated and 66% wanted more information. There were high levels of satisfaction with the lack of overcrowding, however it should be noted that visiting anglers in 1988 evaluated sea fishing as fair (39.1%) to poor (37.9%), as against excellent (6.5%) and good (16.5%), even then the writing was on the wall. Which is why I worry for the future now, having been presented in 1988 with key indicators relating to a major economic resource from which future management plans could be formulated, nothing it appears was done as many of the same issues still crop up today, only with regard to sea fish stocks the situation is now much more serious.

Commercial sea fishing has found to its cost that employing modern technology, increasing effort, travelling further, and switching to the next exploitable species eventually catches up with you, no fish equals no industry. Recreational and tourism sea angling are hamstrung by the same constraint, the big problem for those who cast a line in the sea is that the recreational/tourism angling sector has no say in its future because it is not represented and never has been at political level, a status quo which needs to change and quickly. Digging a little for this article a few phone calls were made to relevant people, internet sites were examined, and reports consulted in an effort to establish who or what organisation is driving the sea angling resource into the future. What follows is a construct for debate.

Inland Fisheries Ireland has a brief regarding bass only and is presently formulating a bass policy document. Yes the organisation promotes general sea angling but as I write has no act or part in future management decisions regarding the marine resource in its entirety, its primary responsibility being conservation, protection, regulation, management, and development of the inland fisheries resource. Any marine scientist will tell you that a species cannot be looked at in isolation, ecosystems are not linear they are constructed like a web, bass are just a piece of the jigsaw, the brief needs to be widened if not solely within IFI then across a range of Government Dept’s working together.

Could the Marine Institute include recreational sea angling in its remit? Yes if requested but to date I can find no evidence. In contacting the Dept of Communications, Energy, and Natural resources it transpires that their prime responsibility is for the corporate governance of Inland Fisheries Ireland and the Loughs Agency, while the Sea Fisheries Protection Agency’s (SFPA) role in sea fisheries conservation is to secure compliance with Irish legislation which gives effect to the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy. My query to the Dept of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine on recreational sea angling was immediately switched full circle back across to the Marine Institute.  It is hard not to extrapolate based on the above experience, that the economic importance of recreational sea angling circa 2012 at Government level is either not recognised or at best well down the priority list.

This situation exists because sea angling has never been continuously lobbied and represented at political level, and presently there is no one working within the public service who, even if they harbour a passion for and deep understanding of the sector, are raising their head above the parapet so placing recreational sea angling in all its facets on the agenda. Des Brennan, Peter Green, Kevin Linnane, and latterly Norman Dunlop, all ex employees of the old Central Fisheries Board now Inland Fisheries Ireland, in my opinion are sorely missed today.

It has always intrigued me why the Irish Federation of Sea Anglers (IFSA) has never gone down the political road especially when it comes to diminishing fish stocks, but then again the IFSA would appear to be a competitions based organisation who’s membership is at best 5000, a figure hardly representative of the present number of sea anglers resident in Ireland today, which must (based on a marine institute survey of sea anglers 2003) be in the region of 70,000.

Through my teenage years and early twenties Greystones, Co. Wicklow was a hive of sea angling activity. Every weekend in season club members from the Knights, Greystones Ridge, Inchicore, Dolphin Richview, Dublin City, amongst others would launch their dinghies and fish the Moulditch ridge, Kilcoole bank, and Breaches shoal for cod, plaice, ray, tope, and a host of other species. Boat competitions such as the Shakespeare Trophy would attract entries of up to (I will stand corrected) 50 boats x three crew. The beaches south of Greystones hosted international and national events which could number 200+ anglers, boat and shore opportunities sadly all gone today due to lack of fish. Given that 50%+ of all Irish anglers live in Leinster the proportion around Dublin must be sizeable. Greystones demise is reflected in reduced sales of boats, chandlery, tackle, fuel, food items, drink, clothing, I could go on but you get the picture, and that is before further socio – economic and tourism aspects are taken into account.

A Scottish survey on recreational sea angling completed in 2009 (Technical Report, Economic Impact of Recreational Sea Angling in Scotland, The Scottish Government, 2009) found a direct correlation between the abundance of fish stocks and participation. A case study of the Firth of Clyde revealed evidence to support a view that sea angling participation in the region had fallen largely because of a decline in sea fish abundance. Logically this makes sense and I can vouch for the small number of boat and shore anglers which one now sees around Greystones as against twenty/thirty years ago, lack of fish being a definite factor. As to new entrants and tourists, yes they will initially try their hand, but if the fish aren’t forth coming they won’t stay around. On that basis it seems ludicrous to spend money on promoting sea angling at Government level as we do through IFI and Failte Ireland unless we are prepared to protect and develop the primary resource which in this instance is sea fish.

The recreational sea angling constituency represented by anglers and service providers is large enough if harnessed to have a real say. Socio-economic information on recreational sea angling produced by the current survey will not matter a jot unless the findings contained are acted upon. Properly developed and marketed the sector can produce future revenue streams much larger than exist today as long as key personnel who understand the sector are employed within or contracted to the public service, a strong political presence is established, and improved fish stocks become part of the future mix. Fish stocks ultimately, as for the commercial sector, will be the final arbiter which is why a champion needs to rise from the ashes, unite the diverse constituents, and take their place around the negotiating table in Brussels. Given the current decision making process like it or not that is the way forward. Until this happens sea angling as I remember it will continue to die, with no national benefits accruing as we continue to squander what I believe is our first and last true natural resource, the modern day fishery off Greystones, Co. Wicklow a testament to this.

However the emergence of a person or grouping recognised by key decision makers and Government, applying courage and vision, while advocating a sea change in approach where all stakeholders have consideration in the future direction of the marine, could have a profound influence on how our inshore fisheries develop over the next twenty years. Should this development happen the future is bright, one has to believe it will………

Ashley Hayden © July 2012