Follies and frauds that set science at naught

Edible crab: just one costal species lost in a "frantic rush". illustration: michael viney

Edible crab: just one costal species lost in a "frantic rush". illustration: michael viney


ANOTHER LIFE:Winter hides the rising sun behind the mountain, so that, in a fine piece of theatre, its first blaze is held from us, caroming instead down the steep-walled fjord of Killary to spotlight the islands offshore – Inishbofin, Inishturk – and enamel the white crests of surf around sundry islets and reefs. The other morning it also found a little trawler, out from Connemara in a calm between gales, glinting in its cabin window and burnishing the bright new paint.

This solitary small craft may be joined in high summer by a couple of others, pair trawling for whatever there is, and one or two currachs on a Sunday may ride out from their niches in the rocks. A neighbour with a big rib brings mackerel to our door, still keen to construct an ultimate living from the sea.

For most of the year, however, the bay is spectacularly empty of any fishing craft at all. One has to go back a century – even two – to picture anything much different. That was when now-vanished shoals of herring could cram this coast with boats.

The herring were a lengthy bonanza; mackerel have been another, commanding extravagant bank loans and subsidies for ever more deadly and fuel-hungry vessels. Any modest promise small-scale inshore fishing may have offered has long been eclipsed in the wider plunder of the seas.

“The story of a reckless rush to riches which degenerated to bankruptcy and fraud, and a marine environment damaged, possibly beyond repair.” Thus Dr Edward Fahy’s summary of his new book Overkill!: The Euphoric Rush to Industrialise Ireland’s Sea Fisheries and Its Unravelling Sequel, a self-published paperback (from Amazon, at £10.45).

From a veteran marine scientist, now retired from the Marine Institute, it is an ultimate outburst of frustration with follies and frauds that set science at naught.

Worthwhile harvest

Over the years, I have followed Fahy’s work especially for his studies of the biology of inshore fauna, the creatures of coast and shallow seabed. One after another, they have become targets of Klondike exploitation, without the prior science and tight regulation that might have maintained a worthwhile harvest. This closely referenced book follows the shifts in policy and politicking that brought so many promises to ruin.

A classic episode was the rise and fall of the fishery for the edible brown crab from the coast of Co Donegal. Its biological engine lay in the crabs’ reproduction habits. The male edible crab sticks to the coastal waters, but the females, once mated, make long migrations to the edge of the continental shelf, carrying and incubating their eggs. When these hatch, the prevailing current carries the larvae back to make a landfall along the Donegal coast. The females, too, must return to the coast to mate, and the traditional inshore fishery was for these mature crabs in summer and autumn.

In the 1980s, however, in the quest for nonquota species, the migrating females were pursued to the shelf edge by offshore “supercrabbers”, fishing year-round with large seawater tanks. Most of the inshore fishermen invested in bigger boats to join in. But even as the catch per pot was falling, in 2005, Bord Iscaigh Mhara (BIM), the State’s fishery development agency, sought EU approval for more fishing power in the offshore crab fleet.

By 2010, says Fahy, the northwest fishery had collapsed. “BIM had behaved true to form,” he writes, “ the agency allowed policy to be dictated by money. . .” The comment typifies his savage critique of BIM’s role, notably in the late 20th century, and “the frantic rush to construct a grossly disproportionate fleet to devour everything that swam, slithered or crawled through the water column. . .”

The edible crab is just one of the coastal species whose minor fates have gone unnoticed. There was the purple sea urchin, a delicacy for France, given “the illusion of protection” 50 years ago by prohibition of harvesting by scuba divers, but now largely stripped from the rocks of the western coast.

Or the palourde, a large clam prized in Mediterranean cooking but confined in Ireland to western inlets, notably those of Galway Bay and Killybegs Bay. “Within BIM,” Fahy relates, “two officers were deputed to visit newly discovered populations of the species and encourage local people to dig them out.” In the 1970s, hundreds of people took to the shores with spades and forks, and the palourde, naturally long-lived and slow to reproduce, has still to recover from the fishery’s dramatic collapse.

On the east coast, it was whelks, suddenly more abundant as their whitefish predators were fished out. BIM helped develop the fishery for export but failed to enforce control on the size of whelks kept for processing – a crucial measure for conservation.

Among the shameful discards of the Irish fishing industry, it seems, has been the best and wisest scientific advice. Fahy’s disgust must speak for generations of his profession.

Eye on Nature Your notes and queries

I watched a rook in the garden kill a goldfinch, take it up into the trees and start to eat it. I thought birds only eat seeds and worms.

Susan Carrick Camolin, Co Wexford

Rooks are also carnivores and sometimes eat small birds.

While walking on Carrowniskey beach I found a live Manx shearwater which tried to take protection from the wind behind my leg. I moved him behind a dune to see would he recover.

Denis Harte Louisburgh, Co Mayo

In winter Manx shearwaters stay far out in the Atlantic. This one was probably battered by the recent storms and blown on to the shore. They return to burrows on coastal islands to breed in late March and April. As they cannot walk on land they have to drag themselves over the ground to their burrows.

While cycling in the Phoenix Park I saw three buzzards flying quite low over the grounds of Áras an Uachtaráin. Could one of them be a juvenile from the last brood?

Colman Carroll Navan Road, Dublin


Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or by email at Please include a postal address

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