Virtue reaps rich rewards for fisherman keen to conserve dwindling cod stocks

Fri, Feb 10, 2012, 00:00

AS THE Minister with responsibilities for fisheries, Simon Coveney has the sea in his blood. His father Hugh was a renowned sailor and, as a younger man, Simon spent 12 months on a boat sailing around the world for charity in 1997 and 1998.

Yesterday he returned to the sea to witness a new fish conservation measure that he has championed in principle but had yet to see in practice.

At present cod stocks in the Irish Sea are seriously endangered, mostly because of what the industry calls a “bycatch” of prawn fishing. Because the quotas are limited, most of the cod have to be thrown back dead into the sea.

Skerries-based fisherman Ivan Wilde has been pioneering a low-tech but highly efficient way of allowing cod to escape from prawn fishing nets on his vessel the Syracuse, which fishes out of Howth.

The device is called a Swedish grid and consists of metal bars inserted into nets that allow the cod to escape while retaining the prawn catch.

Yesterday, the Minister watched as the catch was hauled in laden with prawns, a few trapped dogfish, some juvenile cod, but not a single adult cod. “This is what we are trying to preserve,” said the Minister, throwing a juvenile cod back into the sea.

The practice may be efficient, but it is highly unpopular with many fishermen who fish the Irish Sea. They are still able to land a certain quota of cod while fishing for prawns, and cod makes up to 10 per cent of their annual income.

Coveney praised Wilde for showing leadership on the issue and taking a longer-term view of the industry.

“Yes, he’s taken some criticism from people in the industry who don’t want to see a reduction in the cod catch because it represents good cashflow in the immediate term, but I think we need to think longer term than that if we want the Irish Sea to be a very fertile place for a cod fishery,” the Minister said.

Wilde adopted the technique two years ago after watching it being used in Sweden, and also following a successful trial organised by Bord Iascaigh Mhara. He said he wanted his son, who is following him into the industry, to have the opportunity to fish cod in the next five to 10 years, but that prospect is endangered unless others adopt the same technique.

“What can you do? If you keep fishing it, you can fish it out altogether and that is no good to anybody,” he said.

Virtue, though, does have its own rewards, and while most of the rest of the fleet were grounded for the rest of the year in October because they had used up their days at sea, the Syracuse was allowed to fish because it was not harming cod stocks. Other vessels followed that example.

Irish Fish Producers’ Organisation chief executive Lorcan Ó Cinnéide, who was also on the ministerial trip, said it was important for other fishermen not to see devices like the Swedish grid as a threat to their income, but instead as a means to “invest in the future of the stock”.

Ó Cinnéide said Coveney was only the third Minister with responsibilities for fishing who has actually spent time on a trawler during his brief.

The other two were David Andrews, who famously derided the marine portfolio as the “minister for fish and ships” and Charles Haughey back in the 1960s. Coveney said it was important that those in leadership positions “know what they are talking about, which is why it is important to spend some time with people out there who are catching fish”.