At the time of writing this piece and its publication, the yearly event that are early spring stock surveys will have come and passed. Countless fish, having made it through a winter dogged with fluctuating levels in water temperatures, barometric pressure and water levels, will converge in the shallows to spawn and lay down the foundations of life so that their cycle may be exactly that; cyclical. This spring, as in many other years, the journey will not end with new life but with horrific suffering, for lying in wait is a trap so fiendish, barbaric and archaic that it truly belongs in medieval times. On lakes such as Conn, Cullin and Ree to name but a few, many of our fish will never have the opportunity to lay their eggs and pass on their genes. Instead, they will become ensnared and suffocated, being subjected to agonising and cruel deaths. All in the name of ‘research’.
As I write gill nets are being deployed in what even the most open minded of anglers are referring to as a cynical cull. These exercises are being passed off as ‘scientific research’ in a public relations exercise akin to that of the Japanese and Norwegian whaling operations. We can do whatever the hell we like just as long as we pretend it is under the guise of ‘scientific research’. As a trainee scientist, albeit not a qualified one but one with strong opinions and a tendency to question what I feel is wrong, let me share my views on the stock surveys that prevail every spring.
First off, I am not going to say that we should stop researching and stop surveying. That would be beyond ridiculous. We need data collated from surveys to build a picture of what is happening in the natural world. Surveys provide this data and I am all for surveying work, I completely understand the need for it to be carried out. Surveying work, from year to year, tells us what fish we have in our lakes and rivers, whether invasive species have gotten in, whether water quality has changed, whether things are continuing as they have been or whether we need to take a closer look at anomalies that have been discovered. Surveying is undoubtedly a good thing and long may it continue.
Where my first major difficulty lies though is with the methods employed in surveying, namely gill nets. For the uninitiated, gill nets are a form of netting that suspend through the water column and are left there for a period of hours to days. Mesh size on gill nets is rather large and this facilitates fish becoming ensnared as their operculum (gill plate) gets caught on the mesh and having swum through to the point of becoming fouled, the fish cannot back away from the net. As a result the fish struggles to pass water over its gills to produce oxygen and essentially suffocates. The more the fish struggle and thrash, the more entwined they become with the net. A horrible death. Some can and do escape from these nets but those that do are generally left horribly disfigured.
The fact that the very method used to produce survey results on the assessment of fish stocks in Irish lakes kills quite a good proportion of the fish that encounter them does not make sense. If you are trying to ascertain stock levels and numbers then surely it is counter-productive to be killing the very thing that you are meant to be surveying? How can dead fish be counted as reliable data in an assessment of stock health and numbers? It just does not add up. Inland Fisheries Ireland released a statement, also through their website, that they release the 30% to 50% of fish that survive the survey method. Can we read into this that 50% to 70% of the fish are killed by the nets? That hardly seems appropriate, especially with that very organisation bringing poaching incidents of far lower mortalities before the courts. Do not get me wrong, poaching is abominable, but is it right to do worse than what you are already punishing others for? I do not think so.
So if surveying needs to be done but the methods are unsound then we must look at other methods. Electro-fishing, acoustic monitoring, seine netting and draft netting are all viable options but why are none of them employed? All of these methods are far more fish-friendly than gill netting, will reduce greatly the number of mortalities and result in a far more accurate picture of fish stocks than counting dead fish in a gill net. So why don’t we use any of these methods? Science has evolved greatly in over the last three decades as have sampling techniques. Indeed, salmon, trout and eel surveys now have little or no impact on the fish that are surveyed because gill nets are not employed. Why should it be any different for coarse fish or pike? It should not be but like I alluded to in my article last month, perhaps we are once again seeing the prevailing attitudes towards species favouritism rearing its antiquated head again.
One theory that goes a long way to backing up this theory is the timing of these ‘surveys’. Just as we emerge from winter and water temperatures are creeping up and triggering pike to move out of the depths and into the shallows to spawn is the time that out fisheries managers decide to set the gill nets. Once the pike have spawned the coarse fish will be in behind them in droves. It guarantees a bonanza for the silent killers that are gill nets. Inland Fisheries Ireland have, through their website, admitted that this is a busy time of year with regards to pike spawning. Imagine the furore if the exact same methodology was employed to survey the Nore in September or the Cong Canal in February! Not on your life would that ever happen. Why? Fish favouritism perhaps and another reason to back up the view that this is nothing but a cynical culling exercise?
If there is a conscious and deliberate attempt to remove pike from a habitat, to what end will it be a success? Pike are the apex predator in Irish freshwater systems and have been genetically proven to be so for a lot longer than any of us have been around. Anybody who looks into biodiversity and ecology will surely come across predator and prey relationships. It is thought that pike are removed from certain lakes in this country in a misguided attempt to create a better environment for brown trout. Pike may have fed exclusively on brown trout before the introduction of the prolific and invasive roach. However long before there were roach, there were rudd, perch and bream present in our waterways. These fish by their nature and biology are a lot slower than brown trout and therefore represent an ‘easier’ catch.
Predator/Prey Relationships and Genetics
Any predator, to be efficient, will try to feed on the prey that takes the least amount of effort to catch in return for the maximum energy gained from consuming it. It is therefore very plausible that if bream and roach are easier to catch then this is what the pike will feed mostly on. I theorise but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Any predator that has to spend more energy chasing its prey than what it gains from eating it will very soon end up dead. That does not make for biological efficiency. I would wager that most of the brown trout that make up any part of a pike’s diet are those that are diseased, stunted and generally an easy catch. Which brings me onto genetics….
I do not profess to be an expert in genetics, far from it, but my meagre understanding is that every animal passes on its genes to the next generation. Good genes determine how strong offspring will be, how fast they will swim, how well they can survive and how adaptable they become to an environment. By having predators in a water picking off the weaker and the slower, it stands to reason that the fish that survive do so because they have better genes than the ones that became prey. As a result the survivors pass on the better genes thus keeping the stock healthy and overall in very good shape. Remove the apex predator and you open the door to a weakening of the genes of the very fish that you are trying to protect. Weakened genes will ultimately result in a much poorer strain of fish in future stock generations. Predators keep eco-systems balanced, keep genetic lines healthy and do far more good than harm to any system. Mixed fisheries do work; just look at Chew in England and Llandegfedd in Wales.
A further point that was made to me and a very valid one too, is the promotion of certain pike captures from certain waters. A fine pike was captured from Lough Conn and was publicised on an Inland Fisheries Ireland website. The same week that the image was put onto the site, gill nets were set on exactly the same water. What type of message does this send out to both indigenous and visiting anglers? Very confusing!
So why are more modern, less invasive surveying methods not employed on some Irish waters? The technology is there, the methods are available, there is just a conscious decision made not to use them. The current method envokes nothing but derision and I’m sure that they are going to have a negative impact on events such as the Lough Ree pike festival and on visitor numbers to Ireland in general. In an age where we need to encourage as many people to come here as is possible, how can we not make moves to change how things are done here for the better?
I do not wish to be nothing but a critic. Inland Fisheries Ireland carries out some fantastic work for the sport here. That is undeniable. Their youth programmes, in particular the Dublin Angling Initiative, are a shining example of what we should all be doing for budding anglers. Programmes like Fisheries Awareness Week raise the profile of the sport here and try to spread the magic of angling to others in a way that few others can. Their development of some waterways and their protection of some areas have to be recognised and applauded. Credit where credit is due, I am a firm believer in that mantra but I have to scratch my head at the surveying methods that are still being employed to carry out stock assessments for certain groups of fish. The general consensus is that Ireland could have the best mixed fisheries in the world and people all around the globe seem to know it. Most are in agreement on this except for those that are charged with looking after them.
The fact that the survey methods are being defended as tried and tested for over three decades is very telling. Science and surveying methods have developed and modernised greatly in that space of time. Inland Fisheries Ireland’s surveying methods need to develop and modernise with them.
If anybody has any comments or queries then please do not hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org