DONAL HICKEY: Eel fishing is slipping away

Those of us who grew up when the rivers of Ireland were full of fish understood the term, “as slippery as an eel”. Try to catch one and it would slip from your grasp. Now, eels have almost vanished.

In all the talk about rural decline and a disappearing way of life, the voices of fishing communities, which have been badly hit by cuts imposed by the EU and the Irish Governments, are not always heard.

A decline in traditional trawler fishing comes to mind, as do bans on salmon netting, while eel fisheries have been closed for a decade now. A €3m support fund was recently announced to help commercial eel fishermen whose livelihoods have been affected.

Minister Sean Kyne, who has responsibility for inland fisheries, described the fund as a “restitution payment” for people who were working the commercial eel fishery, prior to the drawing-up of the national eel management plans, which led to its closure.

But, Waterford’s Cllr Pat Fitzgerald claims the minister is out of touch with the Waterford Estuary fishing communities, if he believes the package is adequate compensation for the loss of an important source of income for such people.

The amount of money is far too small and the criteria for accessing the compensation package is far too restrictive, as applicants must have held an eel-fishing licence in the year 2007 to apply, he says.

Eel fishing on the Waterford Estuary has taken place since the middle ages and, until the closure of the eel fishery in recent years, it has been a welcome source of income for many estuary families

Cllr Fitzgerald adds.

The closure of the eel fishery came soon after the closure of the salmon fishery and the story, nationally, over the last 40 years, is about the dismantling of both sea and inland fisheries.

In 2008, our eel fisheries were closed to allow for eel-management plans to be drawn up by each member state, on the orders of the EU.

The fisheries have not since been reopened.

The International Council for the Exploration of the Seas says the conservation status of the eel is still critical.

According to research, stocks have fallen by about 90% in the last 40 years. If that figure is correct, the eel’s situation is much worse than the fall in other species. The reasons, however, are much the same: loss of habitat, pollution, predators, and river obstacles.

And, as you might expect these days, many experts see climate change as an additional factor, with the warming of the Atlantic and the Gulf Stream impacting on survival rates of the eel.

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