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Nobody Asked Me

Sep 04,2007 Johnny Woodcock


(Story and Photos courtesy of Irish Seal Sanctuary )

I have lived in a small fishing town in North County Dublin for all my life.

As a child I spent a lot of time with my friends fishing for Mackerel from the local pier.

There used to be lots of trawlers based at the pier, so much so that it was extended in the early seventies.

These were the classic fifty-foot prawn trawlers mostly, with a few smaller boats fishing the inshore waters for lobsters. I used to be fascinated by the variety of fish landed and got to know some of the fishermen.

Just like farmers they would always tell you that catches were better in previous years.

For about two weeks each year there would be an influx of boats from all around the East Coast, to chase the herring. The pier would look like someone had covered it with sequins for those two weeks with herring scales shining in the sun everywhere. My children will never experience this sight. Why?

Sometimes we would visit the harbour to find the boats had just returned from the fishing grounds and the fishermen were sorting their catch at the harbour.

Well-worn Sheets of plywood would form a sorting table with the crew standing around it pulling the tails from prawns. It was like watching a machine at work.

Both gloved hands would be moving all the time with barely a glance from the operators; the tails would start to cover the empty boxes which in those days were still made of wood.

All the rest of the catch would be swept, together with the prawn heads over the side of the boat to feed the waiting seals and wheeling seagulls.

Occasionally we would arrive at the harbour to find slicks of dead fish covering the sea.

All these fish were too small to sell and when the seals and gulls could eat no more they just floated around, It was an appalling sight.

Even as teenagers we discussed this waste, all these were baby fish that would never grow to be large enough to eat or sell, or reproduce.

We concluded that this could not go on.Or the fishermen would put themselves out of a job.

But even then we realised that the fishermen were caught in a no-win situation.

That was many years ago and it did go on for many years.

As you will see it is still going on.

Only when areas of the Irish Sea were closed to cod fishing in a futile attempt to restore cod stocks did the matter of discarded fish become an issue raised in the papers, why?

Because the fishermen did not want the closures.

A few years ago I was given the opportunity to write and present a paper to the North West Waters Regional Advisory Council (NWWRAC), which was set up by the E.U. to get the opinions of stakeholders into the drawing up of the fisheries policy for the E.U.

I was asked by the Irish Seal Sanctuary to join its Sea Fishery Advisory Group.

Their aim is sustainability of fisheries for the fishermen, coastal communities and the marine environment.

However when I attended my first R.A.C. meeting I realised that we were up against a real problem.

We were an assortment of ex-fishermen, anglers and a salmon netsman and lined up against us were a set of “men in suits”. The fishermen’s representatives.

These guys were paid to be there to represent the interests of their members, who want to catch fish.

What struck me as the odd was how possessive they were about “their” fisheries.

The marine resources of Ireland belong to the people of Ireland.

The fishermen pay nothing to exploit these resources. They have powerful political allies.

It is time the people realised what damage is being done to OUR marine resources.

I did not give permission to anyone to wipe out the cod and herring fishery in the Irish Sea.

If the public do not react we will be facing a position where all our fish will have to be imported, and the inshore fisheries will collapse.

There are sustainable fishing methods,but while they catch quality fish and prawns they might not catch the quantity.

As an angler I remember when I could go out a few miles and catch a load of mackerel, but we had to watch out for Spurdog when fishing because we would also catch these on feathers with the mackerel.

Indeed I must admit that I remember the bad old days when after a fishing competition there would be a heap of dead spurdog left on the harbour because no one wanted to eat them.

Anglers were the first to realise that this could not be allowed, so very quickly killing fish was stopped at competitions, to the extent that now, all major competitions are run on a strict catch and release rule.

Then a market was found for them, and within a few years you could not catch a spurdog on rod and line, they were gone from all the old places.

I have since learnt from talking to charter skippers that they were practically wiped out in several locations around Ireland by targeted fisheries.

Spurdog have a gestation period which is the same as an elephant at twenty-two months, and give birth to a few live young.

They also have a tendency to form gatherings of the same sex and approximate size, so a trawler could catch a big haul of pregnant females.

Despite the fact that all discarding of waste is supposed to be done at sea, it still happens that sometime I can go to my local harbour and find the water surface covered with a slick of juvenile fish.

Mostly whiting and haddock.

While I knew many fishermen and had spoken to them about their experiences, I myself had never been at sea on a trawler, so I resolved to try to get to sea for a fishing trip to see exactly what the story is.

One of our group is an ex-fisherman who is disillusioned by the tricks and “Rule-beaters” he has seen at sea used to catch more fish and get around the laws. 

Anyway I asked him to see if he could get a skipper to bring us out for a day trip.

Eventually the phone call came, “We are going out on Monday”.

We were beside the boat at nine and ready to leave at half past, with twelve hundred litres of fuel loaded aboard to last five days fishing.

I had taken my anti-sea sickness pills but had no idea how long the day would be.

I was told we would be in that night.

Luckily the sea was calm as we headed out and I asked questions about the gear and how many hauls we intended to make.

The plan was to make three three-hour tows of the net.

This meant we had nothing to do until the first haul was aboard so we sat in the galley, read the papers and drank tea.

This might sound easy but you can only read a tabloid so many times, there was also plenty of “slagging” and mocking, after questions about the week-end.

Needless to add that I quickly got called the “Greenhorn”.

The senior deckhand told us of a favourite trick the “Old Salts” used to play on “Greenhorns” when he started fishing.

He said they would tell the new man to throw a worthless black ray overboard. When they tried to do this they would get a “belt” up the arm from the electric ray they had grabbed.

I remember seeing a dead electric ray in the local harbour in the early seventies and no one believing me when I told them about it.

However he also added that he has not seen one in years.

It will probably come as a surprise to many that there used to be electric rays regularly caught just off the coast of North County Dublin.

Are they still there? I have no idea.

But all Sharks and Rays are long lived and reproduce slowly so should be protected from commercial exploitation.

I wandered around taking photos and watching out for dolphins. 

The skipper had told me he had seen a lot around the previous week.

We were trawling what would be considered a small net with a square mesh panel in it to allow juvenile fish to escape.

I said to the skipper that these panels were often put in the net too far forward of the “Cod-end” to be effective.

He said that theirs was right at the end of the net.

I checked before the net was deployed and the panel, known as a T.C.M., technical conservation measure was indeed in the place it should be to be effective.

The fishermen say these will save the fishing industry, but the square mesh panels have been around for nearly twenty years and obviously don`t work well enough.

Remember that fishermen want to catch fish.

After three hours it was time to haul the net.

I have to admit that I found it very exiting as I watched the warps winched in, the otter-boards taken off, and then the “Dan-lenos” slowly pulled aboard as everyone watched to see the net.

The rope around the “Cod-end” was pulled to the side of the trawler then winched up with everyone straining over the side to get the first glimpse of the “Cod-end” containing the catch.

I was ready with the camera and when the catch was pulled from the sea it was gut-wrenching to see all the juvenile flatfish heads sticking out through the meshes all gasping and still alive.

I knew these would all be going back into the sea in a short while dead.

But there were quite a few prawns also, so the catch was unceremoniously dumped onto the deck.

The net was deployed immediately to start the next tow.

I was told then that it was the “Greenhorns” job to shovel the catch into baskets.

I did not mind because I got a chance to see the catch closely, there was a huge amount of small plaice and other flatfish including black sole, there were also a large quantity of juvenile haddock.

The baskets were then poured onto the sorting table where the prawns were either tailed or, if large enough, were put into boxes whole to be sold as “Jumbos”.

Four spurdog were the only large fish we caught in a three-hour trawl, we did catch a lot of lesser-spotted dogfish, one bullhuss, which was referred to as a “Blind Jemmy” and I was told it was worthless, so I got it back while it was still alive.

Everything else, except for  the four spurdog, which were all female, was dumped over the side.

The spurdogs make 40 euros a box.

I don`t think its worth that to wipe out a great sporting fish The lesser spotted dogfish I threw overboard as quickly as I found them, most were still alive.

The juvenile flatfish and round fish, such as haddock whiting and a couple of small codling, all died fairly quickly.

We were trawling in two hundred feet of water. I found the sheer variety of the catch amazing.

Juvenile octopus, sponges, crabs, gurnard and even a solitary scallop were all in the pile at my feet. The scallop was quickly slipped away for me to enjoy.

I saw species of fish I had not seen before such as pogge and I had never seen a live dragonet before. 

I threw a few what I considered decent plaice and haddock into a box, because I thought they would be sold. I was amazed to be told that “We don’t bother with the fish”.

Everything went over the side except prawns and the spurdog.

This would have included a decent turbot and a few nice plaice had I not grabbed them for my own consumption.

The vast majority of the catch was juvenile fish, which were too small to land.

This is the worst thing about it.

The fish cannot be landed because they are undersize but they are dead and must be dumped.

Anyway our day finished at eleven thirty that night when the catch was landed.

I had my bag of fish, which would have been discarded. I was exhausted, and I have no idea how these guys could get up the following day and do the same again.

But they do.

It had been an educational day for me, and I had seen several small groups of porpoises.

Fishing is an odd thing in that you will hear of boats called the Marine Harvest and Sea Reaper, They use farming terms all the time but never sow seed or look after their stock.

Trawling is totally , and is banned in many countries as too destructive.

Yet I looked around from the deck at one point and could see sixteen other trawlers working the same area of sea as us.

Five of these were “Twin-riggers” Large trawlers usually brought in from France and rigged to pull two large nets, Our net was eighteen fathoms wide but these boats pull two nets, each net between, thirty to fifty fathoms wide.

With six feet in a fathom they are huge nets and require huge power to pull them at what I discovered was twice the speed we were towing at.

We had loaded twelve hundred litres of fuel, which would last five days fishing.

These “Twin-riggers” can burn more than sixteen hundred litres of fuel a day.


We landed at least sixty boxes of mixed catch yet we actually kept only eight boxes, thirteen stones of tails and six boxes of “Jumbos”.

I was amazed when I was told that one of the Twin-riggers had landed its catch after ten days at sea, and it had landed twelve hundred stones of prawn tails.

All these tails are dipped into a preservative to prevent them discolouring and allow the boat to stay out longer.

I dread to think of the tons of juvenile fish thrown back dead to make this catch.

At a public meeting in Dublin  in May this year both Joey Murrin and Lorcan O`Cinneide both admitted that boats killing juvenile fish was probably the single biggest reason for the collapse of fish stocks.

Joey Murrin admitted to feeling pangs of conscience at killing all these young fish when he started as a fisherman.

While fishermen’s representatives argue about using TCMs and that we must assess the discard problems.

They know the discard problems, and yet continue to trawl in known spawning and nursery areas.

We are wasting time and juvenile fish continue to die in huge numbers.

We must all demand that all non- selective fishing methods are excluded from spawning and nursery grounds or we will face the prospect of explaining to our children or grandchildren why they can not go fishing in the sea.

There will be no fish left.

At the very least I can say that I tried to do something before it is too late.

The Canadians reacted too late too save the Grand Banks cod fishery. I appeal to everyone.

Contact your government representative and Minister for Natural Resources Eamon Ryan at    eamon.ryan@oireachtas.ie  to get their fingers out now and protect the spawning and nursery areas of your sea.

Ensure the future of your fisheries. We are not anti- fishermen, and one of their representatives offered to co-write a paper with us, but as usual this has been put on the long finger.

We must all act now.

(Copyright) Johnny Woodlock



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