UPDATED- IWDG very concerned about pair trawling in the Shannon Estuary

20th Dec 2017

20 December 2017

After a number of requests from the IWDG we have finally secured acces to the risk assessment of commercial fishiong in marine SACs. IWDG will review the basis of the MI and Deptartment opinion on risk and respond as appropriate


IWDG were very happy to receive a long letter from long standing IWDG member and premier whalewatching skipper, Colin Barnes about his perspective of inshore sprat fishing. Colin fished for many years off west Cork and his opinion is basaed on years of experience which is invaluable to those of us trying to understand this complex issue. Please read below Colins perspective: 


The Plight of West Cork Sprat Stocks

You might think it would be impossible to bring about the extinction of an abundant species of fish in the Atlantic, by fishing pressure from humanity, for the simple fact that most of them are so widespread, you could never catch every last one. However, there are a few species that are not so widespread, but indigenous to a particular place or area. Good examples of this are herring and sprats.

Because of their abundance and commercial importance, herrings have been the subject of much study, science and research, their lives are understood, but sprats, because of their small size, were never exploited commercially at any time back in history, (other than a few small scale fisheries) so have never been studied properly and there is surprisingly little known about them or their lifestyle, and there should be. As an abundant and prolific plankton feeding forage fish, sprats are the vital link in ocean ecology in providing in themselves, a food supply for almost every other species of fish in the Atlantic, all oceanic birds, whales and dolphins. For this reason they are the most important of all fishes, the prey of all predators.

In the last few decades, a fishery targeting sprats has developed that has brought them from great abundance to near extinction. The biggest of Ireland's trawlers catch them using a huge mid water trawl, pulled by two vessels together. Supported with an array of sophisticated fish detecting electronics, it is a deadly effective way of catching fish. Mackerel and herring are harvested by the same vessels using the same technique. Sprats are landed in bulk, for very low prices, and mostly processed into fish-meal. Very little of the catch goes for human consumption. This fishery is unregulated, there is no restriction on how much can be taken, no quota in place on sprats, nothing to prevent overfishing.

It is the spawning behaviour of sprats that makes them so vulnerable to overfishing,  the same as herrings. Throughout most of the year they are found at any depth in the water column, spread out over a wide area in local coastal waters, in much smaller shoals, grazing on zoo-plankton, and are far too scattered to be economically targeted by mid-water trawlers.But in late September and into October they begin to move inshore and assemble into large aggregations in preparation for spawning. With receding hours of daylight and the sea temperature falling, the production of plankton slows right down, and the sprats stop feeding, just as herring do.

Plankton feeding fish like sprat, herring and mackerel use the winter months to carry out their spawning activity, when there is very little food available for them. Their digestive tract shrivels up and production of enzymes ceases. This is to maximize the space in the body cavity for the production of roe in the females and milt in the males. This happens with many other species of fish. The sprat shoals loiter in the general area of their chosen spawning place whilst the roe and milt develop rapidly until all is ready for action, again, just like herrings. The shoals merge together until there is usually just one or two huge gatherings of them in each spawning place.                                                   

Finally, triggered by the turn of the tide, usually around a full moon in November or December,  they pack together until there is hardly any water left between them, In great excitement,  eggs stream continuously out of the females whilst the males eject their white milt in such quantity that the sea looks milky. This is the only point where they differ from herring in that the eggs are scattered loose in mid water, whilst herring choose to stick theirs to the sea bed. A full moon ensures a big spring tide and plenty of water movement to scatter their eggs far and wide, making them less available to predation. When their spawning is done, the shoals disperse quickly and move back out to sea spent and hungry, as do herring. They are only targeted by the trawlers when they form into these very large, dense shoals directly prior to spawning. They return to the same locations, year upon year to reproduce, just as herrings do, so are easily found and will not leave the area until they have done so. At spawning time the entire stock of sprat are inshore, in bays, harbours and close to the landmass, in super-dense slow moving shoals, - sitting duck targets for mid water pair trawlers. There are no more sprats offshore or at any other place, even the immature stock, not yet reproductive, assemble with all the adult fish.

Persistent trawling of the shoaling adults every season has reduced the huge shoals to an all-time low with just scattered fragments of immature fish this year, and not a sign of any spawning adults. In most of their favoured places there is no stock left at all. They are close to extinction It is now a desperate situation. What makes rich fishing grounds is a good supply of plankton and the forage fish that feed on it. A sea full of plankton and no forage fish can only lead to disaster for the fishing industry.

As a fisherman, angler and ardent observer of all things aquatic, I have watched with anguish and dismay, the process of sprats being squeezed out of existence by a relatively small number of large trawlers over the last 30 years or so. I began fishing in West Cork waters in 1973, and at that time, or any time gone by, sprats were not subjected to any fishing pressure and consequently very abundant. In the autumn and early winter, every bay and harbour held vast amounts of them. By the end of the 70's, mid water trawling was firmly established as a successful technique for catching herring. Then, as the herring became scarce and subject to quotas, as a result of fishing pressure, the trawlers turned their attention to sprats and discovered how easily caught they were. The local indigenous herring stock that spawned off Toe head, was fished to extinction by the 1990's after receiving the same pressure from mid water trawlers over twenty years or so. That was a stock that had survived there for centuries of recorded fishing history, and presumably for millenniums before that.

It is sad to witness the ever decreasing sprats, year by year, decade upon decade, to the point they are at now – almost gone. Equally sad too, see how the fin and humpback whales that graced the waters of West Cork in such impressive numbers in years gone by, to gorge on this seasonal bonanza, have dwindled down to very small numbers, in proportion to the disappearing sprats.This season, just a single fin whale showed up now and again and a brief appearance from just one humpback for the tiny amount of prey fish that was present for 2017. All the fish species in coastal waters that prey upon sprat have decreased in numbers as well. With no prey around, fish drift away in search of food elsewhere, some will starve to death, many become cannibalistic, eating their own larva or smaller siblings, rather than starve. Without a doubt and not surprisingly, there are far less fish around in West Cork's coastal waters since the sprats were thinned out. I have endeavoured to raise concern with the powers that be about this situation over a number of years now, to no avail. 

I wrote repeatedly to Simon Coveney as the former minister of fisheries, about this issue, and the current minister Michael Creed.  Nobody shows the slightest concern that there is a problem here or that anything should be done about it. In one reply I was informed that sprats were only being fished after spawning had taken place- a complete lie, and that all fishing activity in Irish waters in the future will be sensible and sustainable fisheries. There is nothing sensible or sustainable about this fishery- sweeping up every last shoal of sprats as soon as they assemble to spawn.  The conclusion is inevitable, they are close to extinction. America has a number of regional fishery management councils, and in recent years through good oceanic study and science, they have recognised the importance of forage fishes and taken steps to control or stop the exploitation of such species. They are well ahead of Europe in this regard. Here we have the European Common Fisheries Policy, that is more about sharing out the fish stocks available than developing sensible conservation measures. It has done very little to improve fish stocks, just made a lot of headaches for fishermen and the fishing industry in general.  Marine fishery management in Europe has been pitiful, pathetic and ineffective up to this point in time. The right and wrongs of forage fish exploitation hasn't even been an issue worthy of discussion in Europe as far as I am aware. There is plenty that could be done to improve fish stocks, starting with a full stop on the removal of forage fishes like sprats and sandeels.

Colin Barnes,

December  2017.


16 November 2017

The IWDG received a letter from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine following receipt of our email expressing our concerns. In it they state that "A risk assessment was undertaken by the Marine Institute of fisheries interactions in Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) included the risk posed by fishing for sprat in the Shannon Estuary to the resident bottlenose dolphin population. The assessment concluded that the infrequent sprat fishery along the Clare and Kerry coasts is unlikely to significantly affect Shannon Estuary bottlenose dolphin population. Local resident populations of this species do not rely on the food subsidy provided by immigration of pelagic fish. Also, they do not specialise in feeding on shoaling fish and take individual prey that are larger than sprat (16cm)". 

 Bottlenose dolphin feeding on pelagic prey in the Shannon Estuary. Photo Isabel Baker/SDWF

The IWDG have a number of issues with the content in this letter and have requested a copy of the risk assessment was undertaken by the Marine Institute of fisheries interactions in Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) to review the supprting evidence behind these statements. The IWDG also look forward to working with the Regional Inshore Fishermens Forum both in the west and southwest to explore options for sustainable fisheries management that is the interests of all stakeholders.  


9th November 2017

Despite a week of intense social media, interviews on local radio and copy in local papers, we have had no response from either the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine or the National Parks and Wildlife Service, to our legitimate concerns over sprat fishing in the estuary. The pair trawlers have now left the Lower River Shannon SAC and are now fishing off West Cork.

How many fish did they remove from the Shannon Estuary ?

Will this removal of highly valuable prey have an impact on the dolphins condition over the winter ?

Will the dolphins have to travel further now in search of food ?

We don't know and neither do the National Parks and Wildlife Service, who are charged with ensuring this small (numbers recently estimated by the SDWF at only 121 individuals), genetically discrete population is maintained at Favourable Conservation Status. It is the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine who are responsible for managing our fish resources. We have requested information on how many tonnes of sprat were removed, destined for grinding into  fish meal, in just a few days fishing. 

A piece was broadcast on TV3 news this Monday (13th November) to highlight the issue and continue to pressure our managers to respond to real, legitimate concerns. 






30 October 2017

The Irish Whale and Dolphin Group through it's Shannon Dolphin Project have writen to the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, expressing concern about current pair trawling in the Lower River Shannon SAC. At least two trawlers are fishing in the estuary and have been photographed as far upriver as Moneypoint Power Station.

While we fully recognise that the fishermen are not doing anything illegal and sprat are currently a non-quota species, we would have serious concerns about the impact removal of forage fish such as sprat, could have on the food supply of the qualifying interests within the SAC, especially bottlenose dolphins. We consider this activity can compromise the Conservation Objectives of the SAC and therefore should be subject to a full Appropriate Assessment prior to any extraction of prey resources. While the IWDG understands the Marine Institute were tasked with this process, it is our understanding that this has not been carried out to date.

The IWDG have requested that under the precautionary principle these vessels should cease fishing immediately within the SAC until a full assessment, including consultation has been carried out. It is the responsibility of the government to task the relevant government agencies/departments, to work together to manage this potentially damaging activity.

Photos courtesy of Cllr. Ian Lynch


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