I have had a hectic couple of weeks. The end of the college exams signal a bit of a slowdown for most while they put their feet up, kick back and relax but it seems that the semester finishing up was the signal of stepping up a gear for me! The summer is a time for projects to be carried out and I have plenty planned. The most important thing for me to do as a student is to try to gain as much experience as I can in as many different fields possible to give myself a good overall view of the many differing faucets of freshwater and marine biology. Indeed, I am still unsure of where I would like to specialise; freshwater or saltwater. I have always had a huge affinity towards freshwater. My first fishing trips, my first fish and my first interactions with aquatic environments were with fresh water. Having grown up in a seaside town that features a river meeting the coast, I was always more drawn towards the fresh stuff. I would cycle inland to fish high up in the river valley and that was always where I felt at home. Occasionally and for a change I would go and fish in the salt or explore rock pools or traverse the nearby cliffs but I always preferred the river. The last few years has seen an ever increasing fondness for the saline environment though. Torn between the two!
So not being able to make my mind up has seen me come to the resolve that I should try to get experience in as many aspects of both before settling for one or the other. Or maybe I will just do both? One thing that lies very close to my heart, be it in fresh or salt water, is the protection of fisheries and biodiversity. With this in mind one of my personal summer projects is to see what can be done to try and enforce a better policy of looking after our inland waterways that results in a fair and balanced ecosystem where all species are encouraged to cohabit and biodiversity is allowed to thrive. Maybe I live in a dreamland but I do not think that such a situation is unattainable and I think will be achievable with just a bit of dedication and hard work.
Now that the water temperatures are creeping up again it is also time for this amateur underwater videographer to start getting back under the surface. I really wanted to try and get some footage of our freshwater species spawning this year but a heavy workload at the time did not allow it. I will settle for some good shots of tench and bream shoals feeding during the summer. I did apply for a position on the Inland Fisheries Ireland survey team for the Water Framework Directive to try and gain a better insight into sampling and the processing of results but the application was turned down! Ah well…..
Trying to keep things balanced, there are also a few marine based projects on the horizon. By the time of publication of this piece I will be bobbing around in the waters north of here as I participate as a member of the team for the North West Acoustic Herring Survey. The goal is to use acoustic monitoring to try and assess the health of the herring stocks in the waters north of Ireland and Scotland. Another three weeks out to sea and with all the herring around there should be the distinct possibility of whale and dolphin sightings galore with the outside chance of spotting Orca, better known as killer whales. A misnomer, Orcas are in fact the largest dolphin species on the planet and not whales at all but it is funny how something that is not true becomes ingrained in the public psyche. Very similar to what has happened here with the poor pike, Esox lucius. Decades of misinformation have seen it become unfairly and unjustly vilified for the benefit of a few.
There is an aquaculture project in college that another student and I are trying to get off the ground but more about that one later. All of the above are exciting opportunities and I am extremely grateful and enthusiastic about them all but the icing on the cake for me is a placement with the Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation. Based in Kilrush, Co. Clare on the banks of the Shannon estuary, the foundation and its staff work tirelessly and relentlessly to gather as much information about the Shannon dolphins as they can to better understand their habits and the estuary as an ecosystem. For those that are unaware of the Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation and their work, they are responsible for researching the pod of resident bottlenose dolphins that have claimed the estuary as their home. This next sentence may come as a surprise to many readers but stick with it. Dingle and Doolin have a bottlenose dolphin each; Fungi and Dusty respectively, the Shannon estuary is home to at least 120 bottlenose dolphins and in truth that total may be closer to two hundred, only more research will tell us.
The foundation has a visitor centre opposite the marina building in Kilrush. Admission is free and there is plenty in there to occupy and entertain young and old alike. The incredibly friendly, approachable and enthusiastic staff are more than willing to guide you through the exhibits and a visit there would provide a fantastic opportunity to experience first-hand the different activities that the research team are involved in. The centre is open seven days a week, all summer long. There are also local companies that offer dolphin watching tours on the estuary. Some of the activities that will keep me occupied over the course of the summer months will be helping to run the busy centre and heading out onto the estuary to do some more practical work with the dolphins.
One of the tasks that I will assist the team to carry out is the photo identification of dolphins. Individual dolphins are distinguishable through their dorsal fin. Each fin has an arrangement of notches, cuts and scars that are unique to each animal, much the same way in which our fingerprints are one of our identifying features. Photo identification research involves capturing clear, crisp images of the dorsal fins as they break the surface, uploading the images to a computer and then comparing them with the extensive collection of images in the SDWF’s database. Any fins that match up can be identified as a known individual, any that do not can be placed to the side as an ‘unknown’ animal. By doing this it allows us to build up a picture of how many dolphins are in the estuary.
Another task that we carry out is to place and monitor hydrophones in the estuary. These underwater microphones allow us to listen in to the sounds that the dolphins make. Dolphins emit a series of high pitched clicks and whistles as a means of echo-location for finding prey and navigating through the water. The Shannon estuary lies at the end of Ireland’s longest river and the Irish weather being what it is results in rain washing a lot of sediment off the land into the water course. This sediment gets suspended through the water column and the result is that more often than not the visibility underwater is incredibly poor. Echo-location is the best bet for the dolphins and it allows them to travel through their environment without having to rely on sight alone. We also monitor the noise from more man based activities along the estuary such as shipping, industry and seismic works to try and assess what impact these activities have on the dolphins, if any at all.
Some of you may be wondering why I am banging on about dolphins and what it has got to do with fishing. Some of you have probably realised that a pod of 120+ dolphins in one small area is quite a number. Why have they become resident in the estuary? To me, a resident pod of dolphins of this size would indicate an area that is rich in food for the dolphins; fish. If there was not enough food to sustain the creatures then they would not be there. Every mammal needs a food source and these dolphins are no different. The shoals of fish present to sustain a pod of dolphins must be staggeringly large. I am yet to fish the area due to a rather hectic training week and not having the right gear with me but I have paddled the kayak a couple of times on the river and I have had a look at a few of the surrounding areas. I have been astounded by the fact that I have not yet seen a single angler in the area. I think the angling potential here is possibly ‘off the charts’ and at the time of writing I am up in Galway for a few days. I will return to the estuary with baits and I have very high hopes for the fishing that the area can potentially produce.
If you do happen to give the estuary a go access is relatively straightforward and most of the fishing will be from a rocky or shingle shoreline. The gradient of the river bed sees deep water within a few metres from the bank and the areas that I have paddled over seem to be relatively flat and snag free. I assume the force of the river has scoured the bottom over time resulting in what appears to be a relatively flat substrate which I am sure will produce excellent ray fishing. While you are in the area feel free to drop into the SDWF visitor centre to experience the work that the team are engaged in. One word about the fishing in the area; if you do decide to try it please fish responsibly. It should not need to be said but bait packets and fishing tackle should not be discarded anywhere in the country. Please bring home any plastic and other rubbish that you have in your possession. You are merely a visitor to the river, there are countless creatures in it that call it home.
It has not been all work, work, work for me. I have managed a couple of trips out in Galway. A recent trip out from a pier in Connemara saw me get amongst the wrasse and pollack. No monsters were caught but on appropriate gear great fun was had. There has been a push recently that has seen a lot of commentators articulate that the best catches are the big fish, a sentiment with which I disagree very strongly. The best fishing anybody can have is that which gets them outside into the fresh air, interacting with nature, allowing them to take in and reflect on the beauty of the natural world and which, at the end of the day, sees them travel home with a smile on their face. Whether this is derived from catching monsters or tiddlers is a personal thing, the most important thing is that the magic of youngsters catching their first small fish is not lost in a world where increasingly there is a general consensus that the biggest fish is the best and all others pale in comparison.
Against that backdrop, I managed a dozen or so wrasse and small pollack on soft sandeel and worm imitations. None of the fish were big but I gained immense pleasure from each bite and fight. Watching them all swim away was even better. Some may turn their nose up at these smaller catches and not consider them worthy, each to their own. They gave me a very refreshing hour on the water and it was so enjoyable that after I finish this piece I will be headed out to the mark for a little bit more of the same. Sure catching small fish is better than catching nothing, the big ones are just a bonus!