Heed warning on sprat stocks

COLIN BARNES, originally from Sussex, has been fishing in Irish waters for over 30 years.

For as long as I’ve known him — since 1987 — he has been dedicated to marine conservation, his knowledge gained not only from literature but, more importantly, from local observation.

When Mr Barnes sounds the alarm on a potential marine disaster, I take him seriously. I hope Minister of the Marine Simon Coveney does likewise. He only has to look at the man’s record and reputation to realise that his is a voice that must be listened to.

I have mentioned Colin Barnes many times in these columns. Fourteen years ago, he abandoned fishing for marine eco-tourism. Since then, his whale watching excursions out of Reen Pier in west Cork have become legendary. He unerringly finds the whales, dolphins, seals and, sometimes, even turtles. His commentary on these, plus the sea birds and animals, the behaviour of the ocean and the effect of winds and tides has given hundreds of visitors insights to the marine environment they could not have gained from books.

Television companies filming programmes about the natural history of Ireland’s coastline have regularly exploited his knowledge; indeed, I made a programme with him myself. The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group regularly uses his services. Every time I spend an hour aboard his boat, I come back better informed about the marine environment. Other fishermen no doubt have equal knowledge, but Mr Barnes’ business has been about raising awareness of the environmental and economic value of our local seas.

Recently, he sent an open letter to the media and Mr Coveney, alerting him to the over fishing of sprat in west Cork waters and the devastating consequences it was having on local fish stocks.

This letter was occasioned by the fact that his January 2013 letter to Mr Coveney, noting that evidence in west Cork waters indicating the imminent collapse of those stocks, received only a cursory acknowledgement. No questions were asked by the department and no action taken.

Yet, sprat are a vital food source for all our commercial fish. In particular, all members of the cod family feed on sprat. A hugely important ‘processing fish’ in the food chain, they convert plankton into rich, oily proteins. Not only do they ‘grow’ commercial fish but are essential food for the survival of seabirds and marine mammals, including the mighty fin and humpback whales that annually come to feed in our waters.

The fact that sprat ‘aggregate’ (i.e. congregate) inshore to spawn makes them especially vulnerable. They are not victims of foreign vessels; a local species, they do not roam far beyond the coast. If stocks are wiped out, we have only our own boats, which our fishery authorities can control, to blame.

Historically, sprats were not exploited in Irish waters. Now, both the UK and EU have sprat quotas but Ireland has no such arrangement. Persistent mid-water trawling with sophisticated echo sounders have led to the wholesale extraction of shoals, even in difficult areas where previously they survived to spawn. Every shoal that gathers is methodically swept up before any spawning takes place. Already, says Mr Barnes, only scraps remain of this season’s aggregations.

The present unlicensed plunder is surely an example of short-sighted fishery management on a grand scale. Allowing just a handful of trawlers to extract this vital biomass from the commonwealth of our seas makes neither economic nor ecological sense. For our Minister of the Marine to allow this situation to continue suggests official irresponsibility.

It is a curious fact that some of the largest and most powerful of trawlers are landing sprat, the smallest fish that can be legally taken from Irish waters. Hardly any sprat are returned to Ireland, but are sold at a meagre €100 euro per ton on eastern European markets.

Similar fishing pressure was previously directed at the herring stocks in the Celtic Sea. Fished with gill nets, herring had been exploited sustainably for centuries. Then came mid-water trawling. In two decades, the shoals had been fished to near-extinction. The same protection must be provided for sprat. If there is no sprat, Mr Coveney’s herring conservation will be pointless; herring like everything else will starve.

* Pádraig Whooley of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) is delivering a talk at Kinsale Yacht Club on Friday, February 28 at 8pm

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