Kayak Fisherman Ireland

Bad Decisions

There are two types of ‘bad’ decisions; the proverbial ‘Christmas party’ type of bad decision where the outcome is a mere few days of embarrassment for all involved and the ‘fundamental’ type where the outcome has negative effects and impacts across a wide range of society. To kick off the year I would like to look at a couple of decisions which I have assessed as ‘bad’ that closed the year for us in 2015. One of them was formulated after consulting experts, compiling data and being very well informed while the other is the culmination of decades of bad decisions and it could potentially take decades to undo the damage caused by both.

Towards the end of 2015 the figures and quotas were released for the 2016 year with regard to the Common Fisheries Policy. Most will be familiar but to summarise the decision is made after consulting with fishermen, fisheries scientists and stakeholders to set an acceptable amount of fish that each EU member state can land in that year. The advice is well informed, compiled from data from not only the previous year but also from historical data trends that over a prolonged period can tell us how our interactions with fish species have fared out and ultimately after all surveying has been completed and statistics compiled the scientific community are fit to advise policymakers on advisable acceptable levels of fishing for each commercially valuable species in European waters.

A sample of boarfishFisheries science is a very important aspect to understanding our seas, our fish stocks and realising what sort of harvesting level is sustainable both for more traditional fish species and newer targets such as boarfish (Capros aper). For those that are dismissive of the science and its application, one need only to look at the Australian example of the orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus). This fish was discovered by the deep sea fishing fleet during the 1970s and with nothing known about the species they were hauled aboard and landed to be sold off. With a glut of fish that were selling at market, the fishermen continued to harvest until the catches started to get smaller and smaller. Unbeknown to the fishermen at the time, orange roughy were an extremely slow growing fish with lifespans that reached 149 years. Otolith (ear bone) analysis of the fish told fisheries scientists that this fish also took a long time to reach sexual maturity and had suffered from huge numbers being ‘fished out’ before this realisation was made.

Without fisheries science these fish would have been wiped out completely with only 10% of the stock left by 2008. The slow development and maturity of these fish means that it is going to take a very long time for the stocks to recover. Fisheries science guides us as to what levels of spawning stock are available, it lets us know things like maturation rates and fecundity (eggs produced), advises us of spawning grounds, times and habits to name but a few parameters. All this information can then be utilised to project forecasts as to sustainable levels of fishing which is exactly what is needed to make informed and prudent decisions to protect what is there for generations to come. So why, yet again, in 2015 did EU policy and quota makers ignore the advice from the scientific community and set quotas above the suggested thresholds? Decisions like this just seem incredulous. All the data is available and the best advice is suggesting scaling back on the quotas for many species but those that make the decisions have decided to do exactly the opposite. A child with the most basic understanding of sustainability can tell us that the decisions are bad. So if a child can identify these potential problems, how can policymakers in Brussels not?

EU Fisheries

When one considers the value of Irish fisheries to the EU it would appear that sustainability is not the top priority of the fishery, landings and sales are. Ireland’s ocean economy is valued at €2 – 4.5 billion every year, depending on whose figures you look at, the Irish fleet is entitled to 12 – 18% of fish landed form Irish waters, again depending on whose figures you believe. It would appear that over 80% of fish caught in Irish waters is not landed here; it is landed by other fleets fishing in Irish waters under EU rules. There is the argument that joining the EU has benefitted us immensely through road schemes, etc., but when it boils down to it Ireland’s EU membership has returned a net benefit of €41 billion while the benefit for the EU has been calculated at €184 billion which suggests the net benefit is the EU to the tune of €140 billion and counting (Eurostat/ICES databases). Food for thought indeed.

Bad policy decisions like these will result in the slow eradication of the industry and food stocks over time. One promising decision to come out of negotiations is the recreational bass fishing allowing continuing in 2016 on a catch and releasing basis. There was some consideration to closing the fishery altogether which would prove disastrous for the Irish fishing and hospitality sector. Hopefully careful monitoring of this regulation will see a positive outcome for the fishery in Ireland.

Fishery science in action

Closer to Home

Looking a bit closer to home I would like to consider an event that has struck absolute mayhem upon countless families and households in this country, right before Christmas. Following large amounts of rainfall, parts of the country were submerged by overspill from swollen rivers. Was this scenario avoidable? It probably was and I am of the opinion that rather than the flooding being a product of excess rainfall, I think these floods were the result of decades of bad decisions summing to create a problem that may well be decades in its unravelling. Of course the rainfall contributed to the flooding but it was encouraged by bad decisions over land management.

More forestry will reduce peak flowsA lot of areas that experienced flooding are to be found in the lower reaches of rivers. I think the problem areas for the lower reaches of most rivers can actually be observed in the upper reaches. Historically, large parts of this country were covered by bog and forestry. When large rainfall events occurred the excess water that fell on the ground was soaked into the bog which acted like a natural sponge. The bog then slowly released the excess rainfall over time and the rivers were not subject to the rapid rising of water levels. Forested area allowed for a portion of the rainwater to be absorbed by roots, again lessening the impact of huge rainfall amounts on these types of land.

A lot of the bog and forestry have been replaced by open pasture land with accompanying drainage schemes to ensure that said land drains quickly and does not become waterlogged. When excess rain water hits these surfaces it is quickly funneled off into drainage ditches which pour into our rivers and lakes. The land at the top of a river catchment drains very quickly but the accumulations of water have to go somewhere and gravity ensures that they travel to the lower reaches at unmanageable volumes, creating flooding. Without the natural reservoirs of bog and forestry that were once commonplace there is little to hold floodwaters in the upper catchment anymore. Drainage ditches ensure easy passage for whatever rain that falls in the upper catchment. Many rivers in this country, large and small, could fit into this description, the Shannon, the Suck and the Barrow being obvious examples.

More drainage ditches are not the answer

Other factors exacerbate the situation; planning decisions that granted permission to build in areas of historical flood plain, excessive use of concrete which does not allow for any drainage with unsuitable drainage systems to cope with water amounts, bad forecasting and storm modelling, being ill prepared for the resulting flooding. All of these are the result of bad planning decisions and while some are easy to fix almost immediately some of them are decades, even centuries in the making and will take decades to address effectively. Many of the factors are the product of decisions made long before our time but it is our responsibility to start correcting them. I honestly believe that whatever grants and payments are made towards flood protection schemes, I think it would be best spent upstream rather than downstream. Action upstream is what is needed in the form of rewilding some of the land areas that surround our rivers. Research papers have suggested that by reforesting just 5% of the land can reduce flood peaks by 29% which is an astonishing figure and there is already an active campaign in England to reforest river catchments that are prone to flooding.

From a fisherman’s perspective floods can be a good thing. They help salmonid species to ascend and descend rivers on spawning runs. They add colour to the water which encourages a lot of species to feed. A dropping river can provide fantastic spot but all of this is cold comfort for those that have houses or shops destroyed. One hopes that we can start to look at long term solutions to the problem and natural ecosystem services that can be provided by planting trees and protecting bog would be a good start. It would be far more prudent to work with Nature rather than against it. Maybe they should get anglers to help with the decision making?

I saw a very interesting little piece that dismissed conventional thinking on anglers. The assumed perception is that it is a sport of relaxation where one can switch off the brain. I beg to differ and I was thrilled to hear the response which was something along the lines of, “When you are fishing you are constantly thinking, making multiple decisions every minute. Rig refinements, casting into the right spot, trying to figure out why you are not getting bites. Should I fish deeper, should I fish slower, should I move swims, should I change lure colour/size/shape/depth/speed? Would bait be better? What kind? Is the weather having an effect? Is it too bright or too dark? Is the water temperature dropping or rising? What direction is the wind from? All these questions run through your mind every minute you are out fishing and every single one of them requires a decision to be made. Fishing does not slow the mind or relax it, it speeds it up. It gets it firing on all cylinders. Fishing does not shut the mind down like most of you think. It develops the ability to make critical decisions in the blink of an eye. It trains the mind to be more active.’

By Gary Robinson

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