As a population and custodians of our country and natural heritage to be passed on to following generations, we have an incredibly worrying attitude towards the Irish environment and its biodiversity. A few issues were brought to my attention within the last week alone that make this glaringly obvious and it is to my great shame that I realised that we, as a nation, care little for our country and the state we leave it in for those that follow in our footsteps. We do not own the land, we just look after it for those that come next. I would like to consider myself of sound mind and capable of reasoning and logical thought. I am not a fanatic and I do not wish to come across as a ‘flaky tree-hugger’ type. I do have a profound respect for the world around us and I am firmly of the belief that if it gets destroyed then economics, arts, sports, politics and every other vein of life, creativity and industry will cease to exist. This is not hearsay or a theory; it is a logical process of thought.
Despite this, there are people whose greed and desire for monetary gain surpass all logic when it comes to environmental matters. First let us take the example of one of the many salmon farms that are operating around our coastline. Although a problem for some time in Australia, AGD or Amoebic Gill Disease is starting to become a regular feature of Irish salmon farms during high summer temperatures. Touted by some, mainly those within the industry, as a parasite that can be treated with freshwater bathing, some very controversial pipework has been installed through lands which happens to be a Special Area of Conservation in Connemara and protected under EU legislation. The reasoning behind these actions is that the outbreak of the parasite is an emergency situation and as such treatment for which needs to be given exemption status to allow the industry to carry on making profit. This all could sound reasonable enough until you start to dig a little deeper.
Galway County Council has not cleared the introduction of these pipelines, in fact they have denied permission for its installation and the removal of potentially many millions of litres of water from a SAC but the industry has ploughed ahead regardless. There is the possibility that if there is an emergency then they could probably justify what they are doing. But is it really an emergency? I am not so sure. I was approached a few months back to offer assistance to a PHD student who just so happens to be studying Amoebic Gill Disease. After such an approach was made, I felt that the appropriate thing to do was to look into this disease to see what I could find out about it. As a disease that attacks the gills in farmed salmon, AGD manifests itself through unnatural practices that farmed salmon are subjected to. It is brought about shortly after the period where smolts are moved from freshwater to saltwater pens. This transition from fresh to salt water does occur in the wild but here the smolts are afforded the time to sit in estuarine waters where the can gradually acclimatise to the ever increasing salinity that they will find in their new home in the sea. They are afforded far less time to acclimatise under artificial farming conditions.
AGD is then exacerbated by warm temperature levels, overstocking and inadequate lack of flow of saltwater through the salmon holding pens at sea. Unnatural conditions that the salmon have been subjected to are intensifying the problem. It would be very much my opinion that the problem is not a phenomenon that ‘just happens’ because we have experienced warmer sea temperatures over the past few years, this is very much a problem introduced by unnatural farming practices and bad husbandry. As such, to call it an emergency is disingenuous but to those who know no better, that is exactly what it seems to be.
I hear the argument that the farming introduces revenue into an area and generates a standard of living locally but at what cost? AGD is a disease that is created by farming salmon but it is transferrable to wild stocks such as bass, bream, sea urchins and crabs which in turn has a potential knock on effect for other local industries, namely tourism fishing and accommodation. Regardless, European Union SAC’s are very important habitat sites that contain unique pockets of biodiversity and the decision to disregard this status for commercial profit is depressing at best; short term gain for long term implications.
Going hand in hand with plundering the environment for a few figures in a bank account is the practice of illegal fishing which is widespread in this country. A very sad case was brought to my attention where a male bottlenose dolphin was brought ashore in County Clare after becoming ensnared in a drifting gill net. Whether set for salmon or bass, this type of floating killer is completely illegal in the marine environment, as it should be for freshwater sampling but that is another matter altogether. Gill nets are destructive killers that entangle almost everything that they come across. I have written many times about this barbaric and archaic way of fishing and some of the photos shown with this article prove just what sort of damage this practice can be responsible for.
Some of the accompanying images feature a male bottlenose dolphin almost three metres in length that was brought ashore. These creatures are protected by Irish law and EU law. Although not present at the gruesome discovery site, I have been very reliably informed that the mesh had cut deeply through the thick skin of the dolphin which bore many signs of cuts and abrasions from the gill net. The unfortunate animal’s trachea, or windpipe, was caked in foamy deposits. The condition of the corpse and the markings on it indicate that it had been drifting, entangled in the net, for at least a couple of days. All these features point conclusively to a slow, agonising, incredibly distressing, needless and completely illegal death. Such a scene must indeed have been harrowing for anybody that encountered it.
Drifting gill nets are not only destructive to the larger mammals at the top of the food web, they collect and kill many of their prey items. These prey items are made up of many different species of fish and other invertebrates which all contribute towards the overall health and wealth of our inshore waters. To remove them is to remove revenue from local towns and villages. Removing the fish that visitors come to fish for will benefit few and as the visiting anglers start to realise that the product being advertised is very different to the product being delivered, it will only be a matter of time before the visiting anglers start to vote with their feet. It is common knowledge that there are illegal netsmen operating in most counties of the country and the revenue that they will remove from local economies over time in the form of loss of earnings for local hotels, B and B’s, pubs, restaurants, shops and other local amenities is incredibly damaging. This is not only destructive to local economies but to local families also who experience younger members leaving to find work elsewhere, work that could have been provided by fish stocks had they not been plundered by a greedy few. Gill netting in the marine environment is totally illegal on an Irish and EU level and it is everybody’s civic duty to report instances of this whenever they are encountered. Turning a blind eye is not good enough.
Illegal netting is not exclusively a marine based activity. It not restricted to gill nets either. Another tale of woe made its way to me this week (it has been quite a week for it and I am out at sea on a research vessel but the stories still made their way to me). While not quite as barbaric as gill nets, the fyke netting in the next case was being used for reasons just as unscrupulous. A few anglers contacted me to say that they had been fishing a small lake in the vicinity of Lough Ree. In the shallows it was discovered that there were a pair of fyke nets that were in excellent condition and appeared to be expertly laid out in about four feet of water. For the uninitiated, fyke nets were the weapon of choice for commercial eel fishermen. Comprised of netting and a series of diminishing hoops that are staked out in the substrate, the eels entered the wide end of the net and progressed along the series of hoops until they entered a purse like section at the end from which they cannot escape.
What gill nets and fyke nets do have in common is that they do not exclusively catch their intended target. Indeed this was the case with the couple of nets staked out in this midland lough, reports tell me that it was bulging with jack pike, hybrids, perch, eels (also under stringent EU protection), tench and bream. Some of the bream were running to specimen size. Who staked out the nets and the purpose for them being staked out can only be speculative. Were the fish intended for ethic stores in Ireland, are they being exported as food or to be processed into fishmeal? Who knows? What is certain is that once again, one party is profiteering from what should be a shared resource for the localities.
What Can We Do?
People reading this piece who have an interest in our environment and its well being may be quick to ask what the anglers who made this discovery did about it, as would be my immediate reaction. Truth be told, they contacted the Inland Fisheries Ireland’s 24 hour poaching and pollution hotline. Their first call was not answered, they were immediately put on hold when the second call was connected where they remained for a considerable amount of time before the call was terminated. Not exactly the type of service that one would expect from a dedicated poaching and pollution ‘hotline’. The anglers felt hard done by in the situation and who can blame them?
The action or, more accurately, the inaction taken in a lot of incidents that involve the public and the bodies charged with looking after our natural resources speak volumes about our attitudes towards our environment. Turning a blind eye is never going to solve anything and a problem ignored is not a problem solved; it is a problem intensified further down the line. Recently I have taken my own concerns about various environmental issues and tried to raise awareness through the national media broadsheets, through State bodies, through local politicians and through writing letters to Ministers. I have been met with ignorance, apathy and the age old Irish trait of saying ‘Ah sure we don’t look after that we’ll pass it on to ……… Department’, before passing the buck so they can finish up early for the day and not have to worry about anything too taxing.
The three examples above are actions that will impact in some way or another on angling practices in Ireland. They just merely scratch the surface of a myriad of environmental abuses carried out every week in this country. Attitudes need to change, incidents need to be reported and everybody needs to pull together before some sections are plundered beyond the point of feasible regeneration. You only realise how good something was once it is gone……..
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And as I sit here, the above piece finished, yet more stories of illegal fishing are making their way to me. Another fyke net was removed from the waters in Roscommon by visiting Dutch anglers. It held a lot of good fish and an otter, most of which were dead. I am sure that made a good impression on them. There is a video of the incident on Irish Bait and Tackle Limited’s Facebook page for anybody interested in disgusting themselves. Salmon poaching has also been rife in the lower Shannon region with a large find of grilse remains discovered in the water. The word in the area is that there are never any fisheries officials responding to calls and reports of illegal fishing possibly because of limited staff numbers? Less time gill netting would mean more time for officers on the banks, surely a higher priority given the scale of salmon poaching in Connemara, the Shannon region and other areas?
A quick and final note to say that last month’s images were kindly supplied to me by Isabelle Baker, a researcher with a fantastic eye and camera skills. Apologies for not mentioning that at the time.