In Ireland, sometimes things happen quickly. Sometimes they do not. The unpredictability of it all is perhaps what leads outsiders to think of it as one of our ‘charms’ as a race of people.
Just before Christmas I wrote a piece for the Irish Angler’s Digest highlighting what I considered, and still do, a problem that faces Irish angling; illegal fish removals. I had written the piece on the back of the emergence of a number of Facebook pages that had been created to share pictures of poaching incidents in Ireland with the view to making the wider community more alert towards the problem. Things certainly moved quickly on this occasion and it was not long before many of the admittedly antagonistic images had whipped up a frenzy of uproar and disgust. Rightly so, the theft of a national and natural resource is deplorable and everything must be done to try to halt the illegal activities in their tracks.
Having said all that, there is also a right way and a wrong way to go about these issues. At first I commended what these Facebook pages were doing. They were highlighting an issue in a way that had not been done before and using social media to spread the message not only to anglers but to a wider public. Most people familiar with social networking sites will be familiar with the notion that friends of friends can see what others are looking at or commenting on. In this fashion the images of poaching incidents became widespread. So did the disgust, anger and shame but not just towards the poachers and their hauls of eels (EU high priority protected species), tench, bream, pike large and so small they wouldn’t feed a cat, salmon both fresh and spent (I am still trying to figure out why anybody would want to poach and kill a spent salmon) as well as a host of other species and quantities.
Racism and Violence
What really horrified anglers and non-anglers alike was the ability of the Facebook pages’ to expose the nasty underbelly of some Irish anglers and sections of Irish society. It was not long at all before comments that can only be described as nasty, hate-filled, racist, vitriolic, malevolent and downright disgusting. I won’t mention some of the comments here; they probably would not be printed anyway but suffice to say there is a line when it comes to public commenting and they are very much on the wrong side of it. What the public display of behaviour like this is going to eventually do is undermine the efforts that have been made so far. Passionate and regular anglers make up only a small percentage of the population. In a niche with other outdoor enthusiasts, we are the eyes and ears of the countryside and usually the first ones to encounter wrongdoings when we are out and about. We realise the value of our natural resources and we do whatever we can to keep them intact but if we want to make changes then we need public support.
One thing that the wider public will not get behind is what is perceived to be a bunch of violent racists. Granted, the racist and violent comments no doubt originate from a mindless minority but the fact that they are made is cause of great concern. I have had members of the public mention to me, on more than one occasion, their concerns regarding the nature of a lot of comments that find their way onto the anti-poaching pages. The vast majority of comments fall into two camps; racist or inciting hatred/violence. The words of a minority will turn the public off supporting the majority of anglers, wrongly assuming that we are all the same. It’s a fair point and I can see easily how the dozen or so people that have mentioned their concerns had formed them. If we are not careful and do not take a stance against this the public will very soon write us off as a group of thugs and racists. See how much support we get then.
Some members of the public have mentioned to me that these sites are not being used for highlighting poaching problems and that this is just a guise for a platform to spread anti-eastern European sentiment. I don’t think that this is the case but I can see how opinions like this have been formed. There have been many incidents of ‘poachers’ having their image taken with captures and kills that are well within the boundaries of the law. The comments that one photo elicited were nothing short of ridiculous – somebody posing with two dead rainbow trout, a fish bred to be caught and killed for the table. When I pointed this out the image and offending comments were swiftly deleted but this is not the first time that this has happened. Other similar images which show no offences being committed have attracted the same xenophobic messages. I think people looking at these pages need to get a bit of perspective. Fish will be eaten and some are bred for exactly this purpose. Knee-jerk reactions get us nowhere.
Another very worrying trend on these sites appears to be anglers organising their own patrols on waters that the apparent poachers are frequenting. Language used is choice and intentions of what the anglers are considering for what they deem as any threats to Irish angling are nothing but violent. Mob rule will never become rule and the only outcome for vigilantism like this is a very, very bad one.
How do we get the public to support us? I think a by using a campaign to make the members of the public aware of exactly how much fish are worth to local economies then they might be more inclined to go the extra mile to look after them. Having talked with IFI staff recently enough as well as on various occasions throughout the years I know that a common complaint of theirs is that there is a huge culture of under reporting of poaching incidents. Under reporting by the public is probably occurs in part because when the majority of people see a poaching incident they do not recognise it as such. Many more see the removals as ‘just a few fish’ and are unaware of the value of them. How valuable are they? As I have illustrated on previous occasions, the spend that visiting and indigenous anglers bring to many areas of the country by spending money in hotels, pubs, restaurants, shops, garages, tackle shops, etc. can keep small local economies afloat. This spend not only generates euros for local economies, it also provides jobs and opportunities in these areas. I feel a national campaign to highlight the spend from anglers would go a long way to making the public realise the importance of fish stocks and what they can do for their area.
When it comes to under reporting anglers can be just as culpable. I have honestly lost count of the amount of times I have heard somebody moaning to all and sundry about a poaching/pollution/anti-social behavioural incident on the banks but when challenged as to whether they reported the incident they have shrugged their shoulders and declared something along the lines of, “Ah sure, what good would that do?”. Honestly, if I was given a fiver for every time this has happened to me I would not be sitting in near zero temperatures in Galway! On the subject of reporting incidents, I raised with IFI the fact that others as well as myself have experienced difficulties when trying to report incidents to the 24 hour poaching and pollution hotline – 1890 34 74 24. This came as a surprise to them. The nature of call centres means that whoever avails of using one has to pay for the service. IFI is no different to others in this scenario. They pay for the line to be operated and would very much appreciate hearing from people who cannot get through to the hotline. Incidentally, the amount of calls received is disproportionate to the amount of purported poaching incidents. It was the anglers that called for a 24 hour line, please use it and make it successful.
The images of poaching incidents that are circulating are not only having a negative impact on the public’s opinion on anglers, they are having a negative effect on the tackle trade also. I have heard from members of the trade that time and again they are engaging with customers that are sick of the sight of these images. Anglers are becoming disillusioned with the Irish angling scene and a frequent topic of conversation is the contemplation of selling the fishing gear to take up golf. There is a prevailing sense, wrongly, amongst a lot of anglers that there is no point in fishing anymore and that waters have been and are slowly being emptied. The frequency that images are uploaded to the sites compound these sentiments but a lot of the images being uploaded to the sites are very much counterproductive. Only a small percentage of these images can most definitely be claimed to be taken within Ireland and as mentioned earlier, some of them show images that are not even breaching any regulations. Images of nets of fish against a grass background show nothing. I have similar photos of my own and I am sure many other anglers do too.
Having read all this I would just like to clarify my stance on poaching and illegal fish removal; I am against the excessive removal of any fish from any water course. I kill and eat fish myself. I like to eat trout, bass and many other species of fish. I also take roach baits for piking on occasion but any fish that I take is done in a responsible manner. What we all need to do here is take a deep breath and try to look at the situation with a little perspective. The next time you notice a slew of images that ‘prove poaching beyond doubt’, count to ten and make sure for absolute certain that there is an example of Irish fishery laws being broken. Posing with a full keepnet is not an example of breached laws. A haul fish on the grass with no discernible features is potentially a breach of Irish law but what links the image to Ireland? Rainbow trout are bred to be killed; killing them is not a breach of Irish law. Granted, some of the images being circulated do definitely show incidents of poaching in Ireland, a lot of them do not.
I am not saying that there is not a problem with poaching and illegal fish removal in Ireland, there is. What I am saying is that poaching is only one problem that faces us as anglers and we need to put it into perspective of the bigger picture. I think that agricultural fertiliser and faecal runoff is as much of a threat to Irish waterways. As is the threat posed by certain invasive species. There are plenty of waters that are thriving in this country and perhaps the lack of good catches lies with the anglers? Many younger anglers see fishing celebrities land on a water and pull out good numbers of fish. What they don’t see is the amount of hours, in some cases days, that were fished to provide the raw footage that is then cleverly edited to make it look like said angler is catching fish on almost every cast for a twenty minute program. Expecting to have similar results, when they don’t make the impressive haul that is expected the automatic reaction is to blame poaching rather than a fault in the angler’s tackle or presentation. If something doesn’t add up take a minute to think about different reasons as to why it won’t add up. Don’t jump to the first conclusion that springs to mind.
If anglers are witnessing poaching incidents then please report these incidents as soon as you can. Call the poaching line at 1890 34 74 24 and report your concerns. If you get no answer from the poaching line then contact Inland Fisheries Ireland and make them aware of the date and time that the call went unanswered. They will be very interested to log incidents like these and investigate them further and hopefully the result will be one that will benefit everybody in the Irish angling community. There is a way to deal with poaching and leaving messages on social media that can be seen as racist or encouraging violence is not one of them.
Just to finish this piece, all the images I have supplied are personal images. They show examples of exactly the type of images that are going onto Facebook pages and attracting racist and violent comments, in many cases just because the captor is eastern European. I challenge anybody to find breaches of the law in my own personal images. Likewise, look at the Facebook images and with fresh eyes and mind to determine how many of them actually prove a law has been broken in Ireland. Very few of them do.