Bass stocks face annihilation as FIF seek u-turn

ANGLERS and conservationists are mounting strong opposition to moves to change a law that has imposed a complete ban on commercial fishing for sea bass over the past 20 years.

Last May the Federation of Irish Fishermen (FIF), which represents four major fish producer organisations, lodged a proposal with the then Fisheries Minister Tony Killeen to amend the current bass protection legislation. Commercial fishermen want to be allowed land sea bass caught in offshore waters in Irish ports. The 1990 ban was brought in to conserve stocks that had fallen to dramatically low levels, but the FIF now says stocks have improved sufficiently to enable commercial exploitation of bass to resume.

Just like his predecessor, new Fisheries Minister Sean Connick will come under pressure from FIF and those in favour of retaining the ban.

Wild bass fishing in Ireland is said to be among the best to be found anywhere – at least some influential UK angling journals say that – and anglers from across Europe are coming here to avail of what is a highly valuable resource.

The Irish Bass group, which is leading the campaign to retain the ban, claims the offshore bass fishery has not been assessed for its sustainability and that fishing in this area has dropped off significantly in recent years due to over-exploitation and changing bass movements.

Irish Bass chairman John Quinlan further claims any change made to the Irish bass protection legislation will facilitate the easy movement and sale of illegally caught inshore sea bass and put further pressure on a valuable resource.

“Evidence already exists of a substantial illegal sea bass fishery and this is one of the main reasons why tourist businesses have not got more involved in reaping the benefits of Irish bass protection legislation,” he says.

An Irish Bass group report also opposes what it describes as Marine Institute (MI) support for the change in the legislation sought by the FIF. The group claims the MI recommendations are based on another study which now has no relevance to this situation.

Mr Quinlan, who compiled the Irish Bass report, also says people and businesses involved in the bass angling sector have not been consulted in the decision making process.

Latest estimates put the value of sports bass fishing in Ireland at €8 million a year. But, the Irish Bass group report claims this is very much on the low side and maintains there’s a far greater return to the economy by using sea bass for sports angling purposes rather than commercial fishing.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, Central Fisheries Board staff identified a growing sea angling tourism sector based on Irish marine fishery resources that were then far superior to stocks in most other European countries.

The key species for attracting shore anglers was bass. However, Irish bass stocks were subjected to increased commercial fishing and, as bass are a slow growing and a late maturing species, stocks rapidly declined.

In 1990, a package of conservation measures was introduced, effectively banning commercial fishing of bass and also placing restrictions on sports angling for bass, confining each angler to two fish in a 24-hour period, with a closed season and size limits.

Restoration appears to have been very slow, but there are now reports Irish bass stocks are beginning to show signs of recovery. At the same time, reports from anglers in UK, Holland, France, Italy and Spain suggest much of their bass angling has deteriorated over recent decades and Ireland is now beginning to witness a resurgence of anglers being lured to our shores for bass.

The old argument relating to the conflict of interest between recreational anglers/tourism and commercial fishermen again arises. It arose a few short ago during the long controversy that led, eventually, to the ban on drift netting for salmon.

While commercial fishermen make an understandable case for their right to earn a living, the case on the other side is that every fish caught by an angler, or tourist, is worth much more to the economy, with accommodation providers, restaurants, public houses and many others benefiting. “Even with unlimited access to our inshore stocks, commercial fishermen could never achieve a fraction of the return given to the economy of Ireland by utilising sea bass as a recreational resource,” says Mr Quinlan.

“And with commercial access to our stocks we would very soon end up like we did in the 1980’s, with virtually no resource left for anybody to make a living from.”

Bass can be taken from estuaries, storm beaches, rocky shorelines, piers and harbours. They appeal to the widest possible range of anglers.

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