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					                         Nobody asked me.

                           Johnny Woodlock

I have lived in a small fishing town in North County Dublin for all my life.
As a child I spent a lot of time with my friends fishing for Mackerel from the
local pier. There used to be lots of trawlers based at the pier, so much so that
it was extended in the early seventies. These were the classic fifty-foot
prawn trawlers mostly, owned and fished by their skippers, with a few
smaller boats fishing the inshore waters for lobsters. I used to be fascinated
by the variety of fish landed and got to know some of the fishermen. Just
like farmers they would always tell you that catches were better in previous
years. For about two weeks each year there would be an influx of boats from
all around the East Coast, to chase the herring. The pier would look like
someone had covered it with sequins for those two weeks with herring scales
shining in the sun everywhere. My children will never experience this sight.
Why?

Sometimes we would visit the harbour to find the boats had just returned
from the fishing grounds and 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. It was like watching a
machine at work. Both gloved hands would be moving all the time with
barely a glance from the operators; the tails would start to cover the empty
boxes which in those days were still made of wood. All the rest of the catch
would be swept, together with the prawn heads over the side of the boat to
feed the waiting seals and wheeling seagulls. Occasionally we would arrive
at the harbour to find slicks of dead fish covering the sea. All these fish were
too small to sell and when the seals and gulls could eat no more they just
floated around, 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. We concluded that this could not go on. Or the
fishermen would put themselves out of a job. But even then we realised that
the fishermen were caught in a no-win situation. That was many years ago
and it did go on for many years. As you will see 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 these closures, or any
which might effect their catch.

A few years ago I was given the opportunity to write and present a paper to
the North West Waters Regional Advisory Council (NWWRAC), which was
set up by the E.U. to get the opinions of stakeholders into the drawing up of
the fisheries policy for the E.U. I was asked by the Irish Seal Sanctuary to
join its Sea Fishery Advisory Group. Their aim is sustainability of fisheries
for the fishermen, coastal communities and the marine environment.
However when I attended my first R.A.C. meeting I realised that we were up
against a real problem. We were an assortment of ex-fishermen, anglers and
a salmon netsman and lined up against us were a set of “men in suits”. The
fishermen’s representatives. These guys were paid to be there to represent
the interests of their members, who want to catch fish. Most are owners of
fishing boats and have not been to sea for a long time. What struck me as
odd was how possessive they were about “their” fisheries. It appears that the
commercial fishermen consider themselves the only stakeholder in our
fisheries. The marine resources of Ireland belong to the people of Ireland.
The fishermen pay nothing to exploit these resources. 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, and are well
able to provide a living to fishermen, without killing future stocks.

 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 on feathers with the mackerel. Indeed I must admit
that I remember the bad old days when after a fishing competition there
would be a heap of dead spurdog left on the harbour because no one wanted
to eat them. Anglers were the first to realise that this could not be allowed,
so very quickly killing fish was stopped at competitions, to the extent that
now, all major competitions are run on a strict catch and release rule. Then a
market was found for them, and within a few years you could not catch a
spurdog on rod and line, they were gone from all the old places. I have since
learnt from talking to charter skippers that they were practically wiped out in
several locations around Ireland by targeted fisheries. 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. Despite the fact that all discarding of waste is
supposed to be done at sea, it still happens that sometimes I can go to my
local harbour and find the water surface covered with a slick of juvenile fish.
Mostly whiting and haddock. While I knew many fishermen and had spoken
to them about their experiences, I myself 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.
Anyway I asked him to see if he could get a skipper to bring us out for a day
trip. Eventually the phone call came, “We are going out on Monday”. We
were beside the boat at nine and ready to leave at half past, with twelve
hundred litres of fuel loaded aboard to last five days fishing. I had taken my
anti-sea sickness pills but had no idea how long the day would be. I was told
we would be in that night. Luckily the sea was calm as we headed out and I
asked questions about the gear and how many hauls we intended to make.
The plan was to make three three-hour tows of the net. This meant we had
nothing to do until the first haul was aboard so we sat in the galley, read the
papers and drank tea. This might sound easy but you can only read a tabloid
so many times, there was also plenty of “slagging” and mocking, after
questions about the week-end. Needless to add that I quickly got called the
“Greenhorn”. The senior deckhand told us of a favourite trick the “Old
Salts” used to play on “Greenhorns” when he started fishing. He said they
would tell the new man to throw a worthless black ray overboard. When
they tried to do this they would get a “belt” up the arm from the electric ray
they had grabbed. I remember seeing a dead electric ray in the local harbour
in the early seventies and no one believing me when I told them about it.
However he also added that he has not seen one in years. It will probably
come as a surprise to many that there used to be electric rays regularly
caught just off the coast of North County Dublin. Are they still there? I have
no idea. But all Sharks and Rays are long lived and reproduce slowly so
should be protected from commercial exploitation. I wandered around taking
photos and watching out for dolphins. The skipper had told me he had seen
a lot around the previous week. We were trawling what would be considered
a small net with a square mesh panel in it to allow juvenile fish to escape. As
a point of interest fishermen know that the mesh size in the main net does
not matter because once diamond mesh is towed it closes because of the
pressure. Square mesh does not close. I said to the skipper that these panels
were often put in the net too far forward of the “Cod-end” to be effective. He
said that theirs was right at the end of the net. I checked before 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.
Remember that fishermen want to catch fish. After three hours it was time to
haul the net. I have to admit that I found it very exiting as I watched the
warps winched in, the otter-boards taken off, and then the “Dan-lenos”
slowly pulled aboard as everyone watched to see the net. As an angler I felt
the same anticipation I feel when pulling something large up from the
depths, you know you have something, but you cannot be be sure what, until
you see it. The rope around the “Cod-end” was pulled to the side of the
trawler then winched up 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. The net was deployed immediately
to start the next tow. I was told then that it was the “Greenhorns” job to
shovel the catch into baskets. I did not mind because I got a chance to see
the catch closely, 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 fetch only
forty Euro 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. Juvenile octopus, sponges, crabs, gurnard and even a solitary
scallop were all in the pile at my feet. The scallop was quickly slipped away
for me to enjoy. I saw species of fish I had not seen before such as pogge,
and I had never seen a live dragonet before.
I threw a few what I considered decent plaice and haddock into a box,
because I thought they would be sold. I was amazed to be told that “We
don’t bother with the fish”. Everything went over the side except prawns and
the spurdog. This would have included a decent turbot and a few nice plaice
had I not grabbed them for my own consumption. The vast majority of the
catch was juvenile fish, which were too small to land. This is the worst thing
about it. The fish cannot be landed because they are undersize but they are
dead and must be dumped. Anyway our day finished at eleven thirty that
night when the catch was landed. I had my bag of fish, which would have
been discarded. I was exhausted, and I have no idea how these guys could
get up the following day and do the same again. But they do. Commercial
fishing is not an easy life but fishermen love it. One of the crew was the
skipper’s father, who is not a young man and probably past retiring age. But
he sticks at it, despite have to crew, cook and at one point take a sewing
needle and repair a torn apron. Remember I was blessed because the sea was
very calm. I later learned that the pay for the day, a full share, was actually
below the legal minimum wage, it would have been even less if I had
received a half share for the shovelling, but what I had experienced was
priceless. It had been an educational day for me, and I had seen several small
groups of porpoises.

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 non-selective, 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, thirty to fifty
fathoms wide. With six feet in a fathom they are huge nets and require huge
power to pull them at what I discovered was twice the speed we were towing
at. We had loaded twelve hundred litres of fuel, which would last five days
fishing. These “Twin-riggers” can burn more than sixteen hundred litres of
fuel a day. A problem which I got a feel for in conversation with various
fishermen is that most of the boats, particularly the larger boats and “Twin-
riggers”. Are owned these days not by their skippers but by companies or
rich owners who employ skippers to fish the boats for them .The owners
then can put pressure on the skippers to catch more fish. The owners get the
fuel rebate at the end of the year. Perhaps it is because of this pressure that
we see more boats being caught fishing and landing illegally.
We caught at least sixty boxes of mixed catch yet we actually kept only
eight boxes, thirteen stones of tails and six boxes of “Jumbos”. I was amazed
when I was told that one of the “Twin-riggers” had landed its catch after ten
days at sea, and it had landed twelve hundred stones of prawn tails. All these
tails are dipped into a preservative to prevent them discolouring and allow
the boat to stay out longer. I dread to think of the tons of juvenile fish
thrown back dead to make this catch.

At a public meeting in Dublin in May this year both Joey Murrin and
Lorcan O`Cinneide both admitted that boats killing juvenile fish was
probably the single biggest reason for the depleation of fish stocks. Joey
Murrin admitted to feeling pangs of conscience at killing all these young fish
when he started as a fisherman. While fishermen’s representatives argue
about using TCMs and that we must assess the discard problems. They know
the discard problems, and yet continue to trawl in known spawning and
nursery areas. But convincing the public to allow them to use TCMs will let
them keep fishing and killing young fish.

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. There
will be no fish left. 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 eamon.ryan@oireachtas.ie 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.

The Sea Fishery Advisory Group of the Irish Seal Sanctuary is made up of :

Johnny Woodlock; environmental scientist, angling writer and concerned
parent.
John Daly; concerned ex-commercial fisherman and parent.
Patsy Peril; salmon netmens representative and concerned citizen.
John Crudden; European Anglers Alliance representative and angler.
Brendan Price; Environmentalist and concerned parent.
 words and pics ;Johnny Woodlock

				
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