Nobody asked me - discards in Ireland.

I have lived in a small fishing town in North County Dublin all my life and as a child I spent a lot of time with my friends fishing for Mackerel from a local pier.There used to be lots of trawlers based at the pier, classic fifty-foot prawn trawlers mostly, with a few smaller boats fishing inshore for lobsters.

My children will never experience this sight. Why?

When the fishermen were sorting their catch at the harbour, well-worn sheets of plywood would form a sorting table with the crew standing around it pulling the tails from prawns with the prawn heads and all the rest of the catch being swept over the side of the boat to feed the waiting seals and wheeling seagulls, occasionally slicks of dead fish would cover the water.

It was an appalling sight.

Even as teenagers we discussed this waste, all these were baby fish that would never grow to be large enough to eat or sell, or reproduce and we concluded that this could not go on, but that was many years ago and it has continued to go on.

In fact, it is still going on.

Only when areas of the Irish Sea were closed to cod fishing in a futile attempt to restore cod stocks did the matter of discarded fish become an issue raised in the papers, why? Because the fishermen did not want the closures.

A few years ago I was asked by the Irish Seal Sanctuary to join its Sea Fishery Advisory Group and was given the opportunity to write and present a paper to the North West Waters Regional Advisory Council (NWWRAC).

However when I attended my first R.A.C. meeting I realised we were an assortment of ex-fishermen, anglers and a salmon netsman lined up against a set of paid “men in suits” there to represent the interests of those whose only interest is to catch fish.

What struck me as the odd was how possessive they were about “their” fisheries.

The marine resources of Ireland belong to the people of Ireland, the fishermen pay nothing to exploit these resources but they have powerful political allies. It is time the people realised what damage is being done to OUR marine resources. I did not give permission to anyone to wipe out the cod and herring fishery in the Irish Sea.

If the public do not react we will be facing a position where all our fish will have to be imported, and the inshore fisheries will collapse.

There are sustainable fishing methods,but while they catch quality fish and prawns they might not catch the quantity.

As an angler I remember when I could go out a few miles and catch a load of mackerel, but we had to watch out for Spurdog when fishing because we would also catch these; then a market was found for them and within a few years they were gone practically wiping out the angling charter fleet in several locations around Ireland.

Spurdog have a gestation period which is the same as an elephant at twenty-two months, and give birth to a few live young, they also have a tendency to form gatherings of the same sex and approximate size, so a trawler could catch a big haul of pregnant females.

All Sharks and Rays are long lived and reproduce slowly so should be protected from commercial exploitation.

I had never been at sea on a trawler so I resolved to try to get to sea for a fishing trip to see exactly what the story is.

One of our group is an ex-fisherman who is disillusioned by the tricks and “Rule-beaters” he has seen at sea used to catch more fish and get around the laws. He arranged for a skipper to take us out for a day trip.

We were trawling what would be considered a small net with a square mesh panel in it to allow juvenile fish to escape. I checked the net was deployed and the panel, known as a T.C.M., technical conservation measure was indeed in the place it should be to be effective.The fishermen say these will save the fishing industry, but the square mesh panels have been around for nearly twenty years and obviously don`t work well enough.

After three hours it was time to haul the net with everyone straining over the side to get the first glimpse of the “Cod-end” containing the catch.

I was ready with the camera and when the catch was pulled from the sea it was gut-wrenching to see all the juvenile flatfish heads sticking out through the meshes all gasping and still alive.


I knew these would all be going back into the sea in a short while dead.

But there were quite a few prawns also, so the catch was unceremoniously dumped onto the deck. There was a huge amount of small plaice and other flatfish including black sole, there were also a large quantity of juvenile haddock.

The baskets were then poured onto the sorting table where the prawns were either tailed or, if large enough, were put into boxes whole to be sold as “Jumbos”.

Four spurdog were the only large fish we caught in a three-hour trawl, we did catch a lot of lesser-spotted dogfish, one bullhuss, which was referred to as a “Blind Jemmy” and I was told it was worthless, so I got it back while it was still alive. Everything else, except for the four spurdog, which were all female, was dumped over the side.

The spurdogs make 40 euros a box.

I don`t think its worth that to wipe out a great sporting fish The lesser spotted dogfish I threw overboard as quickly as I found them, most were still alive.

The juvenile flatfish and round fish, such as haddock whiting and a couple of small codling, all died fairly quickly.

We were trawling in two hundred feet of water. I found the sheer variety of the catch amazing - plaice, turbot, haddock, dragonet, juvenile octopus, sponges, crabs, gurnard and even a solitary scallop. I was amazed to be told that “We don’t bother with the fish”, in fact, the vast majority were juvenile fish, which were too small to land.

The fish cannot be landed because they are undersize but they are dead and must be dumped.

Fishing is an odd thing in that you will hear of boats called the Marine Harvest and Sea Reaper, They use farming terms all the time but never sow seed or look after their stock.Trawling is totally environmentally unfriendly and is banned in many countries as too destructive.

Yet I looked around from the deck at one point and could see sixteen other trawlers working the same area of sea as us. Five of these were “Twin-riggers” Large trawlers usually brought in from France and rigged to pull two large nets, Our net was eighteen fathoms wide but these boats pull two nets, each net between, thirty to fifty fathoms wide.

I was told that one of the Twin-riggers had landed twelve hundred stones of prawn tails after ten days at sea all of which are dipped into a preservative to prevent them discolouring and allow the boat to stay out longer. How many tons of juvenile fish were thrown back dead to make this catch.

We must assess the discard problems.These are well known yet commercial fishermen are allowed to continue to trawl in known spawning and nursery areas.

We are wasting time and juvenile fish continue to die in huge numbers.

We must all demand that all non- selective fishing methods are excluded from spawning and nursery grounds or we will face the prospect of explaining to our children or grandchildren why they can not go fishing in the sea.

At the very least I can say that I tried to do something before it is too late.

The Canadians reacted too late too save the Grand Banks cod fishery. I appeal to everyone.

Contact your government representative and Minister for Natural Resources Eamon Ryan at to get their fingers out now and protect the spawning and nursery areas of your sea.

Ensure the future of your fisheries. We are not anti- fishermen, and one of their representatives offered to co-write a paper with us, but as usual this has been put on the long finger.

We must all act now.

(Copyright) Johnny Woodlock

( Photos courtesy of Irish Seal Sanctuary )

Condensed by SSACN from the original article by Johnny Woodlock.

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