Lament for the lost fishes

THE mackerel men are disappearing from the rocks and piers around our coast – a sure sign that summer is coming to an end. This hardy breed of angler turns up on almost every tide, intent on filling a bag with the flashing blue and silver fish which daily visit Ireland’s shores during the holiday season.

The mackerel is a humble creature in comparison to its close relative the tuna but it shoals in such huge numbers that it has long been a vital part of the ecosystem of the Irish Sea and a source of cash and food for coastal communities all around these islands. It usually migrates from its Spanish spawning grounds in May and returns at the end of September. It is a popular species with anglers because it is easy to catch, if you are patient enough to wait for a passing shoal, and a simple trace of feathers is all that is required to tempt them.

But the days of plenty may be coming to an end.

The species is just the latest to be hit hard by commercial over-fishing which often takes place beyond the reach of regulation. The European Commission concluded that during the period 2012-2016, Ireland over-fished its quota of mackerel by 28,700 tonnes. Last year Northern Ireland’s fleet landed more than 6,000 tons worth almost £4.7 million.

It is a tasty treat when fresh from the sea, rich in oils and vitamins but the average size is getting smaller and it is unlikely we will see the Irish record beaten – a monster of 4lb 2oz which was caught at Ballycotton in Cork in 1979. I was on holiday there in 1968 and the waters shimmered with colour at every high tide. I caught so many I could not give them away.

The fate of the mackerel is a sad reminder that my generation might be the last to recall the days when Ireland had abundant resources of fish and how we have shamelessly plundered Mother Nature’s bounty for corporate gain. Other species have already suffered and their fate may prove irreversible. The herring was almost hunted to extinction by the 1970s and the cod is now an expensive luxury where once it was a staple of the poor man’s diet.

Commercial fishing is a hi-tech business which operates on an industrial scale. The Atlantic Dawn super trawler is based at Ireland’s largest fishing port, Killybegs in Donegal. It is 144 metres long, 14,000 tons and has a crew of 63. It can process 400 tons of fish a day, mainly for African markets, as it ranges between Ireland and Rockall in the north Atlantic. Conservationists have dubbed it the ‘ship from hell.’

But the fishes which have suffered most are freshwater species and those which migrate to the sea from Ireland’s rivers and great lakes.

Clergyman AA Luce, a professor of philosophy at Trinity College, recalled his youth in the 1920s when it was impossible to bring home more than two salmon from a fishing trip to the Liffey because he could not carry more than two 20lb fish on the handlebars of his bicycle. Today a salmon from the river is rare and a 20lb fish caught anywhere in Ireland makes headlines. The Irish record of 57lbs has not been bettered since 1874 and many rivers are closed to anglers each year in an effort to preserve stocks. The state owns the most productive fisheries like the Ridge Pool on the Moy and Galway Weir where a day’s angling can cost 150 euro.

The construction of two hydro-electric power stations on the river Erne in the 1940s damaged the salmon run dramatically. High court judge and angler TC Kingsmill Moore called it a ‘vanished Eden.’ I met a man who fished the Arney which flows into the Erne. He told me that in the 60s fish of 40lb were left at the roadside for local people to eat because they were so plentiful. I have not seen a 40lb fish since the 80s.

Only 3,000 salmon have passed the counter into the Bann System this year when in my childhood more than 600,000 would run up into the Lough Neagh rivers. Anglers would lean over bridges after every spate to watch for their arrival and I caught my first in the Moyola. The salmon runs on the Blackwater and the Foyle systems have also suffered from a cocktail of problems ranging from climate change, to over-fishing at sea, and the destruction of spawning grounds.

Salmon farming in the west of Ireland, which creates fish parasites, has had a dramatic impact upon the sea trout population and in many places angling is allowed on a catch and release basis only. Concerned anglers are behind the Save our Sea Trout campaign. Pollution is also a major problem, even in remote areas. In August some 2,250 trout and salmon were killed on the river Glenagannon in Inishowen, county Donegal.

The pollan, a freshwater herring which lives in Ireland’s great lakes, has almost disappeared and there are concerns for the wild brown trout in places like loughs Corrib, Mask, Erne and Neagh which are Ireland’s largest freshwater sources. Particularly at risk is the Croneen, a large lake trout which runs into the river in autumn to spawn. Around lough Neagh they are called dollaghan. In my childhood brown eels were caught every time we went fishing but they too are struggling to survive. The cooperative at Toomebridge on the Bann is the largest eel fishery in Europe and produces tons of fish every year, largely for the French and German markets.

Legend has it that Finn McCool gained wisdom by catching salmon from the river Boyne. Such wisdom is required if Ireland’s fishes are to survive the greed of his fellow men. Summer is almost gone and the rods and feathers have been packed away. But let us hope we have not seen the last of the mackerel.

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