Damien Enright: Over-fishing of sprat in bays is destroying fish stocks

If you take away the sprat and sand eels all the larger fish that rely on them will starve
Damien Enright: Over-fishing of sprat in bays is destroying fish stocks

A Fin whale 'lunge-feeding' on sprat off the west Cork coast.

Do we all know that recently our government again failed to outlaw the stripping of bays of sprat, the basic food of the fish that feed us? It’s only the environment, of course, and Irish governments have never taken that seriously. Readers know the implications but does the Government?

Bays act as nurseries for juvenile fish and all sprat, including the still immature are being extracted to be ground into dogfood, mink-food, pig-food and fishmeal. Sprat are fit for human consumption, even tasty, some would say, but we prefer the larger fish that feed on them.

Is it not as clear as day, as plain as a pikestaff, that if you take away the sprat and sand eels (the base of the marine food chain) all the larger fish that rely on them will starve? Sprat are caught by the ton, each ton being over one million fish, in shallow bays by pair trawling, two boats hauling a vast net between them. The result is bays and estuaries becoming as lifeless as deserts beneath the surface. It’s a horrendous thought. And here is
another. The sprat, scooped up in truckloads, fetch €130 per ton. The resultant dog food is sold at €5 per kilo. All this could be stopped by government legislation overnight.

Damien Enright: 'For some years now, no mackerel are to be caught in my local bay. Inshore fishermen must go farther out to sea for cod, hake, ling and pollock.'
Damien Enright: 'For some years now, no mackerel are to be caught in my local bay. Inshore fishermen must go farther out to sea for cod, hake, ling and pollock.'

In 2020, Green Party senator Pauline O’Reilly called on the Minister of the Marine, Charlie McConalogue, to reinstate the six-mile ban on fishing vessels over 18m, which was overturned during that summer by the High Court. In the Irish Fishing News in November, 2020, she said: “I am hearing reports of up to 200 tonnes coming out of an area in a single day, per fishing pair. That’s the equivalent of 52 million fish.”

She called for the outlawing of sprat fishing as it is a vital food source for other sea life. The outlawing hasn’t happened. This year, calls for a ban have again failed.

For some years now, no mackerel are to be caught in my local bay. Inshore fishermen must go farther out to sea for cod, hake, ling and pollock. Fifteen years ago, so dense were the shoals around the pier that local boys could dive bomb them, and bring a few to the surface, fresh for supper.

Haven’t the politicians who holiday here every summer noticed this change? They must know as much about the cycle that maintains nature and ourselves as we do. So, why was an outright ban not imposed when the opportunity recently arose? Was the protection of the few hundred sprat-catchers’ livelihoods more important than conserving stocks to sustain Ireland’s entire inshore fishery industry and the essential food of the larger fish that we humans rely on? The sprat-catchers have trawlers: let them fish other species, like the local communities who have quotas. There are no quotas for sprat!

With no ‘total allowable catch’, winter sprat catching in the Marine Protected Area of Waterford estuary took place day and night in 2020, the fish pumped into waiting lorries. In October 2020, a pair of trawlers landed 200 tons of ‘sprat’ in Castletownbere after an afternoon’s trawling in Glengarriff harbour. To quote a West Cork fisherman: “All unsustainable fishing must be stopped”. Starving our food fish to feed pet dogs is madness. Fish sustain us; dogs do not. Harvesting the oceans beyond sustainable levels further risks the annihilation of our own species.

Together, we worry for the future of our grandchildren as we further devastate nature every day. I found some hope the other night, watching David Attenborough’s autobiography A Life on Our Planet. He is 93. He ends with the most important and inspiring narrative I have heard in years. “We can solve the problems we now face. If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us.” Demonstrably, the planet took care of itself, and us, until we began to over-exploit it. Stop the over-exploitation and it will recover.

David Attenborough: “We can solve the problems we now face. If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us.”
David Attenborough: “We can solve the problems we now face. If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us.”

On a Pacific island where the fish stocks, the islanders’ primary food source, ran out, the islanders banned fishing over one-third of the reef. Within a few years, so fruitfully had the fish within the zone reproduced that new stock, seeking space, emerged and re-populated the entire reef.

Attenborough says, “no-fishing zones over a third of our seas would be sufficient to provide us with all the fish we would ever need.”

Similarly, by conserving a third of the land and a third of the forests we would save the planet for our children. By sensible management of the two thirds of natural systems remaining, we can survive. World populations
are falling. It is predicted that global population will stabilise by the year 2100 at 10.9 billion. The new planetary management Attenborough proposes, and which we should all aspire to, will save us from self-annihilation.

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