Fish stocks in Irish seas are reducing. Bridget Ginnity highlights changes we can all make to reverse the situation
CLARE man Ken O’Sullivan brought the wonders of our seas to our living rooms with his film Ireland’s Deep Atlantic (see trailer below), as did David Attenborough with Blue Planet.
Despite the plentiful sea life off west Clare, those who have fished for decades don’t need statistics to know there are a lot fewer fish in the sea nowadays.
Locals talk about salmon leaping up the rivers when they were young, but these stories are becoming a distant memory and wild salmon for dinner is a novelty.
Is there anything we can do to help matters, to have our seas and rivers filled with fish again?
There are a lot of reasons for the decline including pollution and climate change, but most fingers point to industrial scale overfishing.
Are there plenty more fish the sea?
A complex system of quotas governs sea fishing which in theory prevents overfishing. In reality, the fish population has plummeted in the last few decades. For example, there is only one tenth the number of cod now compared with 1980.
A small number of factory ships take about 70% of the catch in Irish waters, but it’s not just the huge quantities.
They also contribute to the decline of the number of species in the sea. It’s not possible to fish selectively for the fish we like to eat and so, all kinds of marine species get caught in the nets.
When bycatch is put back typically less than half survive, including those threatened with extinction.
It’s not as obvious that large scale fishing is also hugely damaging to the climate.
Bottom trawling destroys the sea bed and all that grows there, but when it does that, it releases carbon dioxide (CO2) that has been stored for centuries.
The sea is a very important regulator in climate because of its immense capacity to absorb carbon dioxide.
It’s estimated that bottom trawling releases about one fifth of the amount of carbon the oceans absorb each year, greatly reducing the effectiveness of our most important carbon sink.
This also changes the acidity of the sea with huge impact on marine life especially shell fish.
Plastic waste from fishing vessels is also a problem. Have a look around the waste around our sea shores and you’ll see things like nets, crates, water filters and even wellie boots from fishing vessels account for most of it. Plastic is estimated to kill about 1 million sea birds and 100,000 marine animals every year.
Small scale sustainable fishing has far fewer of the drawbacks of factory fishing. It gives good employment and is kinder to the environment with a much less dramatic impact on fish stocks.
Irish Fishery Improvement Projects have started up which are based on co-operation between all sectors in the fishery chain in collaboration with environmental groups who promote sustainable fisheries.
It is inconceivable that meat would be hunted rather than farmed. In the same way, fish farming has been put forward as a responsible alternative to sea fishing.
In Ireland, about 70% of the fish farmed (by value) is salmon, most of the remainder is shell fish.
The big advantage of fish farms is that rather than taking fish from the sea, the fish are reared. But fish generally eat fish.
It takes 3 kg of fishmeal to produce 1 kg of salmon, and that fishmeal is other fish taken from the sea. Some fish, like carp, are vegetarians.
Eating these has a lower impact on the marine environment but they are not widely available in Clare.
Another issue is infection and lice. The word lice sends shivers down most parents, with the dreaded lice comb and smelly chemicals. But no classroom approaches the lice infestation rates of a typical fish farm.
Fish farms have traditionally used large quantities of chemicals that are damaging for the environment and potentially the consumer.
Safer alternatives are available – although the best control is often through reducing stocking levels.
One non-chemical trend is to use wrasse that are happy to eat the lice from the salmon – they are called clearer fish.
That sounds much more environmentally friendly until you hear that about 400,000 wrasse per year are being taken for this job, with a detrimental effect on the areas where they have been taken from.
Fish are no different to humans in that what goes in must come out.
Faecal contamination can be a significant pollutant, in addition to the chemicals, antibiotics and excess food that all can create dead zones around the farms. With all of these problems, can fish farms be kind to the environment?
Good management can reduce the infection and pollutant levels, and the number of escapees. Escaped fish interbreed with wild fish, which causes genetic and infection problems.
Land based tanks avoid all the pollution issues of sea cages and problems with escapees but are more costly to run and may have a greater carbon footprint.
Another potentially sustainable approach is placing the farms in the ocean, where the dilution effect is greater and fish are generally given more space to move around, which reduces their stress.
A combination of farmed and sea fishing is also used, with smolts released to develop in the ocean. The obvious disadvantage is that there is no guarantee they will come back to the release point so state investment is key to this.
What should we eat?
Current health advice promotes eating fish for all sorts of reasons – we’ll be healthier, slimmer, cleverer and better looking (not sure about the last bit).
But there is a huge cost in climate change, sea pollution and loss of marine species the way things are done now.
Changing what and how much we eat can make a difference. Choosing less threatened species can help.
A small step is to ask the fishmonger for advice and if the fish has been caught or farmed sustainably. Buying locally caught fish supports small scale, sustainable fishing.
Asking about the fish farm gives important customer feedback. You probably need to pay more and perhaps will be a little bit embarrassed but supporting sustainable fish sources is both better for our nutrition and our environment.
If you can’t buy from sustainable sources, think about reducing your fish consumption.
We have plenty of other ways to improve our diet and do not depend on fish for a healthy lifestyle. But we do depend on a healthy sea.
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)
There are grounds for optimism. It’s been found that marine life recovers quickly in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and a public consultation is ongoing to increase the MPAs in Irish waters from 2% to 30%.
So it may be that future generations can once again throw out a fishing line and the fish hop onto it.
Clear advice on completing the public consultation is given on the Irish Wildlife Trust. By submitting your opinion by the end of July, you can show the government that you support the protection of our seas.
There is a limit to how much we as individuals can do, the important decisions are made at government and EU level. However we can let politicians know that we care, and support activist organisations with our time or money.
Here are some things you can do…
Buy from sustainable sources whenever possible
Accept that you need to pay more for sustainably reared
or caught fish
Broaden the range of fish you eat to include less
Reduce your fish consumption, if sustainable fish is not
available to you
Have your say in the public consultation on MPAs. See
Support activist organisations with your money or time