Follies and frauds that set science at naught
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.
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.