Cross-border efforts increased to tackle salmon poaching

PSNI, Garda Síochána, Loughs Agency unveil new joint initiative

From left to right: Insp Marty Mullan, PSNI Strabane, Lionel Knobbs, Loughs Agency area inspector, Sgt James McLaughlin, PSNI Strabane, John McCartney, Director of Conservation and Protection, Loughs Agency and Garda Supt Martin Walker at Clady Bridge on the border between Co Tyrone and Co Donegal on Tuesday. Photograph: PSNI

In the village of Clady, an old stone bridge connects Co Tyrone to Co Donegal. The border is somewhere beneath, in the shifting waters of the River Finn, and the plentiful stocks of salmon that swim its waters.

On Tuesday, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), An Garda Síochána and the Loughs Agency gathered to announce new cross-border efforts to tackle poaching.

Even with the serious work at hand, there was joking, too, about cross-border incursions by the PSNI heading south, and, just as importantly, trying to determine where the border is.

Such is the difficulty for those trying to combat poaching. Salmon poaching is a "considerable issue", says PSNI Inspector Marty Mullan, in the rivers that flow into Lough Foyle, of which the Finn is a part.

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Here, the existence of the border offered an escape route for poachers, and the knowledge a poacher detected on one side of the river would be safe on the other; now Mullan is clear: “There is no escape.”

“We’ll know exactly when we’re going to mount particular operations, we’ll have specific dates in place, and An Garda Síochána will have their officers on their side of the border and we’ll have our officers on our side of the border,” he explains.

“Previously criminals could just evade capture by crossing the border and there were no colleagues from An Garda Síochána to apprehend them.

“Now they will be in place, and people will not get away with wildlife crime and poaching.”

"The fact that we can approach from both sides of the border means there's no escape route for these individuals," adds Garda Superintendent Martin Walker.

“Previously if you saw individuals operating on the northern side and then they transgressed to the southern side our powers were limited.

“Now we can face them and challenge them robustly and do our work like we’re supposed to do.”

Seized and destroyed

Fishing with nets is illegal in the Foyle and Carlingford river systems, and fishing is restricted to those with a licence. In the last two years, the Loughs Agency – the cross-border body responsible for Foyle and Carlingford Loughs – has seized and destroyed 168 items connected with poaching. These are mainly nets, though it has also seized boats, cars and other items.

Under the terms of Operation Silver Fin, the PSNI, An Garda Síochána and the Loughs Agency have agreed to work in partnership to combat wildlife crime, including poaching; this will include enforcing fishing regulations and increasing awareness of the legislation surrounding fishing, as well as encouraging the public to report suspected poaching.

Plans are in place to construct a memorandum of understanding between the organisations which will deepen their collaboration.

For Loughs Agency area inspector Lionel Knobbs, this is a significant development.

“Poaching has changed,” he says. “Poachers are more transient now - people who might be poaching on this river today could be poaching many miles away tomorrow, so having that support from both the PSNI and An Garda Síochána is absolutely huge for us.”

He gestures towards the river, demonstrating how the poachers spread their nets in the water – “they could be anything from ten metres to hundreds of metres long” – in order to catch salmon.

Poachers, he explains, have also become more significant; they use sophisticated equipment, including night vision equipment, and patrolling the river can be dangerous. One of Knobbs’s staff was assaulted this year.

Coming together

“A lot of the poachers are well kitted out and well-prepared, and there is often an overlap between poaching and other type of criminality,” he says.

“That idea of one or two for the pot, that romantic idea of poaching, that for me just doesn’t fit any more.”

He emphasises that salmon fishing plays a significant role in the rural economy, with many people relying on the rivers for recreation and for tourism.

“There are parties of Americans staying and fishing in this area at the moment, so that’s a huge change in terms of how salmon are being utilised, they’re bringing in a broader spend and that makes them important to more people than they were historically.

“If you have someone travelling here, particularly from abroad, that’s a huge spend within the rural economy so every fish counts.”

The crossing at Clady bridge was once manned by an army checkpoint; Clady had its own roll-call of fatalities during the Troubles. Now Knobbs points out the PSNI and Garda colleagues chatting quietly in the middle of the bridge.

“You can see everybody talking here together on this cross-border bridge,” he says. “We’ve been around for a very long time as a cross border body and we’ve been through difficult times, but to have other people now working together and working with us and tackling a common problem is very welcome to us.”

He is adamant that Brexit will make no difference. “We’ve been here since 1952. Brexit isn’t something we’re concerned about.”

Supt Walker agrees. “It’s all about developing cordial working relationships and partnerships and we’ve done that with the PSNI and An Garda Síochána.

“There’s a lot of speculation about Brexit and how it will impact on it but I think we’ll go forward collaboratively and in a good place.”

“Look at this,” says Knobbs. “It shows people coming together.”