Another Life: Seals thrive where tangle nets offer easy and meaty takeaways

But the same nets also snare and drown seals, especially inexperienced juveniles

Grey seal: a protected species under EU habitats directive. Illustration: Michael Viney

Grey seal: a protected species under EU habitats directive. Illustration: Michael Viney

Sat, Apr 19, 2014, 01:00

One summer long ago, before Charles Haughey annexed its solitude, I had myself cast away for three weeks on Inishvickillane in the Blaskets, an island then shared by storm petrels, shearwaters, puffins and sheep. Catching fish for food was part of my plan, and the deep crystal waters of the landing cove offered promise of pollack. With camp set up above the cliffs, I had a fish on my hook within minutes. But, reeling it in, a sudden, gleaming shape engulfed it underwater, leaving a limp and empty line.

What worried me more than the theft of the pollack was the grey seal’s consumption of my spinning bait, a heavy twist of silver metal ending in three sharp hooks. This was now somewhere in the animal’s gullet, and while I had a few replacements, feeding them to seals was unthinkable. Enough black labrador heads gazed hopefully up from the water to confirm that fish was off the menu for the rest of my stay.

Even fresh from the sea, pollack is not quite a match for the taste of cod or haddock. But as we empty the ocean of edible fish, even such modest inshore species are in growing demand. Uptake of the Irish pollack quota, currently 1,030 tonnes, remains high. Most of the fish are caught in gill nets set off the west and southwest coasts on difficult, rocky ground or near wrecks, but the risk of net damage is now exceeded by the loss of catch to the powerful jaws of Halichoerus grypus (rón mór or grey seal).

Counting the netted, bitten fish along with those snatched from the meshes, an expert estimate of annual cost reaches up to more than €1 million – almost equal to the catch’s actual value at the quayside. Like colleagues setting gill nets for hake, or tangle nets for monkfish, the pollack fisherman’s enmity for seals, therefore, has never been more bitter. Once it was the toll on inshore gill-netted salmon that dramatised the perennial feud; now, it ranges far into the deeps.

Visible damage
The average visible damage from the seals – 18 per cent of pollack, 10 per cent of hake, 59 per cent of monkfish – is estimated in a survey for Bord Iascaigh Mhara by a seven-strong scientific team drawn also from the Marine Institute and UCC. It spent 91 days at sea to observe 358 hauls of more than 1,000km of gear and while its report uses such headings as “Zero inflated negative binomial model of depredated pollack”, it also offers much practical advice.

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