Last month Minister for Marine Michael Creed closed the Celtic Sea herring fishery 48 hours after it opened because the stocks collapsed. Last year the fishery lost international sustainability accreditation awarded by the Marine Stewardship Council. The MSC accredited the fishery in 2012 which increased the value of the stock and, ironically, put it under increased trawler pressure. Scientists predicted this collapse for many years but were ignored.
It is not the only challenge Mr Creed faces. Weeks earlier the European Commission sought a review of our ability to apply EU rules. The request arose from “the severe and significant weaknesses” detected in Killybegs last year. Only the wilfully bewildered can pretend that these “weaknesses” did not contribute to last month’s closure.
Herring is not the only species facing oblivion. The MSC has just suspended North Sea cod sustainability classification after scientists discovered its population is far smaller than imagined. However, the plight of these species pales in comparison with the catastrophic collapse in Atlantic salmon stocks. The situation is so desperate that salmon may become extinct in Irish rivers in our lifetime.
Salmon Watch Ireland holds a conference in Galway today to try to address some of the threats facing this once abundant animal. Time is not on their side and, though this is a tragic and shameful admission, neither is the Government. Successive administrations have evaded issues, ignored scientific warnings, supported schemes that destroyed habitats, and allowed water quality to deteriorate.
Government after government has prioritised salmon farming over wild stocks though, at long last, some action is being taken on this front. Newfoundland is the latest region to suspend salmon farming. Mowi’s Northern Harvest licences have been withdrawn over “mass mortality”. That company is in the same situation in Kerry. Mr Creed “discontinued” a licence held by Mowi to harvest up to 500 tonnes a year, but harvested over 1,100 tonnes in 2016 — over 121% more than permitted.
Salmon farming is just one of many issues making the extinction of wild salmon a possibility. The decline continues apace and the number of adult salmon returning to our rivers is estimated to have fallen from some 2m in the late 1970s to about 250,000 today. Catches are at an all-time low of about 22,000 nationally. In 1975, more than 90,000 were netted between Ballycotton and Skibbereen. Of 144 salmon rivers, only 19% are regarded as “not at risk”.
Salmon are robust and will survive if given half a chance. Surely we can, at this 11th hour, confront the interests decimating stocks and restore the habitats salmon need. After all, if we can’t do that much, it is impossible to see how we might find the gumption needed to try to avert climate catastrophe. This species cannot be lost.