The Scottish Sea Angling Conservation Network

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Heads in the sand

The fishermen know why there are so few fish by Johnny Woodlock.

For the Sea Fishery Advisory Group of the Irish Seal Sanctuary

As the days progress, more and more fishermen are finally admitting that they know why the fishing industry is facing such a crisis. It is simple; the fish have been caught as juveniles and so cannot reproduce.

I have seen at various, meetings that even the fishing industry representatives (at least in this country!) are finally admitting that too many juveniles have been killed and are being killed. But all responsible fishermen know that there are serious decisions to be made, and soon. All fishermen have seen the tons of dead juvenile fish discarded each day. We cannot go on killing the seed fish if we expect a marine harvest.

The “Cawley Report” is approaching this problem by cutting down on the number of boats fishing. The problem is that if we cut back by fifteen percent and the boats are ten percent more efficient we have not cut back very much, and we are not cutting back on our quota. All responsible fishermen know that the young fish must be left to mature if fishing is to be sustainable.

The big boys in the industry are trying to make out like its rocket science by insisting on assessments and studies before anything can be done. But the fishermen know its not. Its looking everyone in the face and the solution is obvious but painful to admit. As I said we must leave the young fish to mature.

In other countries “No-Take Zones” have been established to leave sanctuaries for fish to live without being caught. These have worked but have their own problems, in that the areas around the Zones are very heavily fished. “No-Take-Zones” mean just that, no angling, no potting, no trawling. I thought about this and while it may work in other countries I believe that with the large inshore fishery in Ireland who cannot move around the coast. I think it would not work as well here as in other countries.

We in the Sea Fishery Advisory Group, of the Irish Seal Sanctuary, have considered other possible ways to ensure sustainability. What about the agricultural model of “set-aside”. What if Ireland was to ban large boats from twenty percent of its waters for five years? After five years the closed area is rotated around the coastline. The North Sea Fishery staged a remarkable recovery in the four years of the First World War. The larger boats can move port to follow the fishing. This idea would mean that every twenty years each area of sea would have a chance to recover. All areas would get a break, and the hardship would be equal. Potting and angling can be sustainable and as they generally are done from small inshore boats should be left to work in the “Closed” areas. Trawlers, even the fifty-footers would have to move.

While I would have sympathy for the smaller trawlers. They used to move all around the coastline in years gone past, following the shoals of herring. But I have seen at first hand the damage trawlers can do to juvenile fish stocks. In some countries trawling is banned outright as being too destructive.

We thought at first that we had had some sort of “Urecka” moment. “Why hadn’t someone thought of this before?” Imagine if Europe was to take it up, Twenty percent of Europe’s waters closed to commercial fishing pressure, it must work. But after a bit of thought some potential problems appear. The problems with fish stocks has reached the stage that most of our seas cannot wait their turn for a break. Which in some cases would be twenty years away, and these waters would have to endure increased fishing pressure from boats coming in to fish while their home waters are closed.

We reconsidered the problem. The young fish are being killed before they can reproduce. How do we protect the young fish? We must protect the spawning and nursery grounds of the fish. Having tried to get specific information on the known spawning and nursery areas from the Marine Institute without definite success. I know that there is a mish-mash of information out there, but the fishermen know these areas. We all know that the fish use the shallower waters around our coast as nursery areas. Trawlers must be banned from fishing these nursery grounds.

I know that each night in the Irish Sea as the sun goes down there is a rush of boats heading for shallow water after prawns. I have been told that at times the area of Dundalk Bay, (a known spawning and nursery ground)can look like a small town at night because of the lights from the numbers of trawlers working in it. Sometimes these can number over a hundred each night. While prawns are the targeted species the bycatch of young fish is huge. A haul of fifteen boxes of mixed catch, to only keep two boxes would not be considered unusual.

As I say the fishermen themselves know where the young fish are. I would suggest that all trawlers be excluded from fishing within the thirty fathom mark as a rule .I know that young fish can be caught at times in deeper water depending on tides and time of year, but so do the fishermen. They are the ones who should be leading the way and avoiding the juvenile fish. But as I said, each night in the Irish Sea there is a rush to shallow water to get the prawns. Regardless of it being the I and G, or the I and H, both known nursery areas.

We considered limiting the size of boat allowed in the shallower waters but any fisherman can tell you about “Rule-beaters”, I doubt if they would, but they could. The practice of up-powering boats to pull bigger nets and “Twin-rigs,” means that trying to limit fishing effort by limiting boat size will not work.

All this talk and speculation should be unnecessary. I believe that the fishermen themselves should be at the forefront of steps to ensure the sustainability of our Seas. If they are not the industry will totally collapse, with the loss of all the jobs.

We all know that major steps must be taken, but many fishermen and their representatives continue to bury their heads in the sand, and insist that only they know the true situation.

We in the Sea Fishery Advisory Group are lucky to have fishermen who realise how little time we have, on our group, concerned enough to get involved. We have plenty of examples in Ireland where sections of our population have had to “Bite the bullet” for a few years, for the long-term good of all. For example the smoking ban was not popular, nor the ban on smokey fuel in Dublin.

Copyright : Johnny Woodlock

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