An Irish Anglers World

Where are our Mackerel?

Thursday the 9th of August 2012 was an auspicious day in this writer’s life. Leaving Greystones harbour on a glorious foggy morning at 10.00am, Gary Robinson, David Murphy, and I followed a bearing towards an area south east of the cable rock in search of mackerel, after 2.5 hours of hard jigging we boated 12 along with 4 whiting. Back in the early 1970’s that would have represented two drops of the feathers and they would have been bigger too. In those days mackerel teemed off Bray Head, swimming within a fairly tight area commencing about a half mile out which locals would term “two to four humps off”. Now and again a little searching might be involved but in essence you could locate the fish within five or ten minutes then catch what you needed. Our collective experience that fateful Thursday was a far cry from those heady times.

Mackerel on the rocks.

Last May friends and I enjoyed a trip down to the Beara; normally mackerel would be present on rock marks that we fish, fabulous on the grill and essential for bait, on this occasion they were marked absent. Back in the mid 2000’s on one of my first visits to that wonderful finger of Ireland I caught mackerel under the Dursey cable car during the first week in May, an act repeated many times since. Talking to Paul Harris of Dromagowlane House for this piece elicited the response “they’re only in now and not in huge quantities”, the same story applying to Kilmore Quay in Wexford. Why should mackerel show so late and in such reduced numbers? Is the 2012 mackerel experience a one off cyclical blip or is something more sinister afoot? Let’s take a look.

Mackerel to many of us are a summer fixture, we all have memories of evenings feathering on the pier, rocks, or out in the bay before returning hank in hand to the kitchen whence mum, dad, or granny would fillet the catch, dip in seasoned flour before frying and serving up with hot sweet tea. A favourite memory is camping under Charles Fort up from the Bullman Pub along the Kinsale estuary over an August weekend back in the late seventies. Evening full tides occurred that week and the mackerel swam in their droves. We fished German sprats and hit fish from the rocks below Charles Fort right around to the creek below the Spaniard Pub. My mates and I consumed a very healthy diet of mackerel, brown bread, butter, and Guinness for five days, the sea seemed inexhaustible.

Holiday fun, mackerel fishing.

In one way it was, and to be fair even though heavily exploited commercially since, mackerel have remained a relatively abundant fixture discounting this seasons to date blip. That said, I have seen numbers of mackerel drop substantially off Greystones, Co. Wicklow within my lifetime especially through the 1980’s and the preponderance of joey (juvenile) mackerel rise, however this fall based on personal experience seemed to plateau and more or less hold until this year.

Mackerel is a highly lucrative stock commanding based on recent Norwegian landings €1850.00 a tonne, with the Irish pelagic fleet most certainly our commercial fishing sectors jewel in the crown. Ireland has led the way in pair trawling, a favoured method of targeting the species, and associated catching technology, with Killybegs, Co. Donegal the industry hub. Fishing for mackerel within the north east Atlantic took off in the late 1970’s early 1980’s and has progressed substantially since. Killybegs became a Klondike town through the 80’s and 90’s, skippers carved reputations and turned over millions, while the Irish mackerel quota was fiercely fought for in Brussels and still is today.

Boat fishing off Bray Head, Co. Wicklow for mackerel.

From the late 1970’s I noticed a decline in mackerel numbers based on my recreational angling experience, which appeared to plateau as stated earlier, possibly an indicator of good fisheries management. Yes it could be argued that overall the numbers are down pre 1980, but the stock would appear to be holding its own even though 600,000+ tonnes according to ICES figures have been taken out annually by the various exploiting countries fleets, with landings in 1994 reaching a whopping 931,194 tonnes. Presently the (Bmsy) or target biomass to give the maximum sustainable yield for north east Atlantic mackerel is accepted as 2.2 million tonnes. Current evidence suggests that the biomass is actually hovering around three million tonnes which indicates healthy stocks relative to modern times, so where are our mackerel?

The north east Atlantic mackerel stock is divided into three components titled, North Sea, Western, and Southern. There is no evidence of genetic separation, implying that these separate components are not isolated and there is enough migration between them for their population genetics to be the same. Certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) relative to various exploiting countries to include Ireland, Scotland, and Denmark, since 2009/2010, this status has subsequently been suspended primarily due to the entry of Iceland and the Faroe Islands into the fishery and subsequent landings which now run way above quota.

Fresh whole gutted mackerel.

Iceland commenced fishing for mackerel in 2006 and last year officially landed 156,000 tonnes, while the Faroe Islands have increased their catch six fold over the last two years to 150,000 tonnes. Recent form over the last few decades has seen the north east Atlantic mackerel quota allocated between Norway and EU countries with a history of targeting mackerel. However the active emergence of Iceland and the Faroe Islands demonstrating clearly that they want a slice of the cake has created a stand off with mackerel placed firmly as piggy in the middle. Since 2010 at least 500,000 tonne of mackerel over and above the sustainable quota have been removed by these two nations, which is most definitely a factor in reduced numbers around Ireland’s coastline.

Another element worth considering is how accurate mackerel landing figures are? When one takes into account recent revelations of a massive fraud involving skippers and a processing company on Shetland amounting to £47.5 million, where scales at Lerwick based Shetland Catch Ltd were set to underestimate the weight of fish being landed by the boats, have there been other underhand dealings within the pelagic industry? I would hope not but certainly have my doubts.

Brace of mackerel.

Pair trawlers can take easily 3/400 tonne of mackerel in a single haul, the record for an Irish boat tops a 1000 tonne but you don’t want to do that on a regular basis as you could very easily burst the net. Fetching upwards of €1000.00 a tonne, you can’t blame new players wanting to enter the fray, after all who really owns the stock, and does the Norway/EU axis have sole rights over the resource because of recent modern tradition? Iceland and the Faroe Islands by targeting mackerel have answered those questions so it’s now down to the negotiating table.

It is hoped that a solution acceptable to all parties will be reached by 2014, sadly though based on current form the capital stock of north east Atlantic mackerel could be reduced by a further one million plus tonnes between now and then. The stocks limit biomass is presently set at 1.67 million tonnes so there is not much leeway even allowing for recruitment, given the current stock level of 3 million tonne and official quota of 500,000+. Personally I hope they do sort it out and while they are at it maybe would consider increasing the stock biomass to 4 or 5 million tonne for it was probably that size in the early 1970’s when as a fledgling angler I jigged my feathers for the first time two humps off Bray Head. Figures to hand put it at 2 million tonne in 1980, however an upward swing of 1 million tonne between 2006 and 2010 while on average 700,000 tonne per year was being removed highlights the resilience and fecundity of the stock. Taking those recent figures into account the pre 1980, pre industrial level exploitation target biomass figure could quite easily have been double the 2.2 million tonnes accepted today.

The north east Atlantic needs a healthy mackerel fishery if for nothing else to balance nature. At the moment there is a preponderance of sandeel around the coast and skippers off Kilmore Quay report masses of fry in the water, it is hard not to connect both population increases to a shortage of mackerel. We also need a healthy mackerel fishery to provide protein for an ever expanding world population. Resultant jobs created by this fishery are important but not at the expense of nature and certainly not to provide rich pickings for a relative few by exploiting a resource they do not own, but instead share.

Spinning for mackerel.

Mackerel as do all fish in the sea belong to everybody and it is timely that our present Government has launched “Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth” where one of the central pillars is inclusiveness. As a young man I witnessed the presence of mackerel beyond the imagination of anyone born post 1980. Well managed as the stock appeared to be until recent international developments, rest assured it is well down today on the numbers swimming north east Atlantic waters when I was a teenager back in the 70’s. If our present Government are really serious about inclusive marine decision making then I expect to hear voices other than the usual suspects added to the future management mix, and most importantly I expect to see bucket loads of mackerel swimming again off Bray Head post 2014, a result of our natural capital being nurtured as against held to ransom.……..

See also: Marine Conservation and Related Topics.

See also: Save our mackerel!!

See also: Understanding the North East Atlantic mackerel fishery.

Ashley Hayden © August 2012