Gardaí investigate alleged false imprisonment of fisheries officers off Mayo coast

Officers were investigating salmon poaching which has ‘sky-rocketed’ since Covid-19 crisis

Nets are being used ‘in estuaries at the mouths of rivers’ to catch salmon on their way to spawn. File photograph: Getty Images

Nets are being used ‘in estuaries at the mouths of rivers’ to catch salmon on their way to spawn. File photograph: Getty Images

 

Gardaí are investigating the alleged false imprisonment of two inland fisheries staff who were investigating salmon poaching off the Mayo coast.

Salmon poaching in this area has “sky-rocketed” since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, according to Francis O’Donnell, regional director of Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI).

It is understood that in Wednesday night’s incident two fisheries officers, who boarded a boat they suspected of having been involved in poaching, were taken out to sea against their will. Two of their colleagues who were involved in the operation have made allegations of assault.

Mr O’Donnell said that while drift net fishing for salmon had been outlawed in 2007, 1.5km of illegal drift net was seized off Inishbofin in just one case last Wednesday.

Sean Long, another IFI director based in the South Western Regional Basin, said that so far this year his staff had seized 50 per cent more nets than for the whole of 2019.

Underground market

With poached wild salmon fetching anything up to €50 on the underground market, Mr Long pointed out that it was a lucrative trade but he warned that it was posing a serious risk to salmon stocks, already so severely depleted that some rivers are closed to anglers. He stressed that it was illegal for anyone to buy untagged salmon from an unlicensed operator.

IFI bosses believe it is no coincidence that seizures have soared since the coronavirus crisis began, both because their patrols were initially restricted and also because poachers who were not working “had more time on their hands”.

Greg Forde, IFI’s head of operations, explained that as poachers took to the waters, “we were initially nearly on lockdown ourselves and only responding to known threats”. He said staff are still restricted to one person per vehicle but they quickly adapted and have been using a selection of vehicles including bicycles, quads, kayaks and boats as well as cars while patrolling the waterways.

Mr Long explained that in some cases nets were being staked in estuaries at the mouths of rivers, and salmon on their way to spawn were being caught.

As part of the crackdown on poaching, officers were focusing on potential customers including in the hospitality sector, he stressed. “It is illegal to poach and it is also illegal to purchase an untagged salmon,” he said.

In one incident last week fisheries officers in east Cork boarded a boat and seized just under 100kg comprising “30 fine salmon” which could be worth anything from €1,500 to €2,000, he said. “Wild salmon are being sold for €50 a pop at the back door,” he said.

Confronting poachers can be a hazardous job, with 60 “cases of aggression” reported against fisheries officers last year.

Knocked unconscious

In one incident, an officer was struck on the head with the reel of a fishing rod and knocked unconscious after confronting an angler who was fishing illegally.

Mr O’Donnell said he could not elaborate on Wednesday night’s incident in Co Mayo when two of his staff were “detained against their will” as gardaí were investigating, but he described it as serious.

“It was a frightening incident which happened after dark and gardaí are now investigating,” said Mr O’Donnell.

One source said that salmon poaching in the north Mayo area “is worse now than it has been for 30 years” but it is also regarded as a serious issue in Co Donegal where last week one seizure from suspected poachers was valued at €1,400.

Mr Forde said that obviously if poachers using illegal nets caught 30 or 40 salmon at sea, this meant they were not going to get to our rivers to spawn.

A number of hotspots were now being targeted by fisheries officers who were determined to crack down on illegal poaching, he added.

A Garda spokesman confirmed that officers in Ballina were investigating an alleged incident of false imprisonment which occurred on a boat at Belderrig Pier, Belderrig, Co Mayo, at approximately 11pm on Wednesday July 15, 2020.