The end of the year sees familiar scenes in the south-west of Ireland as large boats enter shallow inlets and estuaries in pursuit of small prey. The end of 2016 was no different. The prey in question is sprat – a small fish in the herring family which gathers in larges shoals late in the autumn to spawn. Despite its small size – only around 15cm when fully grown – it plays an oversized role in marine ecosystems. A recent report by Inland Fisheries Ireland highlighted how the sprat is the main food of the sea trout in the Irish and Celtic seas. BirdWatch Ireland, in a study published last year on the impacts of fisheries on seabirds, listed 12 species which mainly feed on sprat including puffins, shag, terns, gulls and the endangered Manx shearwater. The small, silvery fish are eaten by many of the larger predatory fish in shallow coastal waters such as cod, whiting, hake and haddock. Even the largest animals which frequent our shores, the giant fin and minke whales, will feed on shoaling fish such as sprat. In short the humble sprat is essential food for all manner of other wildlife. In eating small plankton suspended in the water the shoals of sprat are a key link in the whole ocean food web – if we want healthy seas for our wildlife and the people who depend on it for a living, we have to protect the sprat. There can surely be no worse indictment of our inability to wisely manage our marine resources therefore than our failure to protect this small fish.
The large boats entering Kenmare Bay, or Kinsale Harbour late in the autumn drag between them a fine-meshed net that will capture all in its path. Although the authorities will tell us that catches are ‘clean’ there is no way of verifying this. Since the shoals of sprat are such an attraction to hungry seals, dolphins and larger predatory fish such as bass and salmon, it is likely that some level of bycatch is unavoidable. Therefore not only is pair trawling inflicting serious impacts on the wider marine ecosystem by removing the sprats, but it is also sieving our coastal inlets of other marine life. Its hardly any wonder that small-scale inshore fishing has all but disappeared from our coasts. Knowing the damage that is being caused, many local fishermen, anglers and business operators in the Cork and Kerry area have long been calling for pair trawling to be banned.
In 2015, sprat appeared for the first time in the top 10 list of Irish sea fish catches. That year, according to the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, 10,366 tonnes were landed into Ireland. However its value was small, at only €190 per tonne. While sprat are cured and eaten, particularly in Baltic and Scandinavian countries, most of the sprat caught in Ireland are sent for fishmeal and this is reflected in the low prices. If left in the water the sprat are surely worth significantly more than this measly sum, supporting not only our precious marine wildlife but also local marine-based enterprises like angling and whale watching as well as fishing for the larger, more valuable fish.
Compared to the commercially important fish, like mackerel and herring, very little is known about sprat. In the ‘Natural History of British Fishes’ from 1890, the well known fish scientist Frank Buckland described sprat as “..wanderers; the shoals are capricious in their movements, and exceedingly variable in their numbers.” Not much has been added to our store of knowledge since these words were written. In a reply to a parliamentary question put forward my Michael Healey-Rae TD in January of this year, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, told the Dáil: “Available scientific information is that sprat in Ireland spawn from January to June with a fishery normally taking place from October to Christmas. This is a fortuitous situation, allowing some degree of reproductive output as the fishery takes place after the fish have been able to spawn.” However this is incorrect as we have no data to show when or where sprat spawn around our coast. We know they spawn in autumn in the south-west because Colin Barnes of Cork Whale Watch has directly observed this behaviour. The stock is not managed under the ‘total allowable catch’ quota system, scientists have no idea how large the stock is, or whether it is increasing or decreasing. A project currently underway in Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology aims to answer some basic questions about sprat biology but this research is only a first step in helping us to understand the life story of this important fish. There are currently no controls as to when, where or how much sprat is taken from the water. Given our appalling record in managing fish stocks for sustainable exploitation we are right to be concerned that another chapter of ecological ruin is playing out before our eyes. The fact that the catch plummeted from over 10,000 tonnes in 2015 to 4,700 tonnes in 2016 shows we are dealing with a volatile situation. We know from past experience that poor management can wipe out whole stocks which never recover.
Given that we already know how important sprat are in the ocean food web, we do not need to wait for more scientific studies to tell what we need to do. The answer is clear: we need to ban pair trawling from inshore waters. Sprat could continue to be exploited for small-scale artisanal fisheries which are destined for human consumption, but only with low impact gear that does not endanger other marine life. That we should be sending tonnes of sprat to be ground up, destined to become fish pellets for unsustainable fish farming, is a lunatic act of self-destruction.
Banning pair trawling is an important first step in ending the cycle of over-exploitation of our inshore waters, but that’s all it is – a first step. The government has promised that long-overdue legislation to designate marine protected areas (MPAs) will come before the Dáil later this year. If handled wisely, this process could see big benefits for coastal communities and small-scale fishers. It would mean not only the end of pair-trawling, but also other destructive fishing gear such as tangle nets and bottom trawls. Allowing small fish the chance to grow, protecting spawning areas and carefully managing low impact fishing has been proven to create economic opportunity as well as protecting sea life. We can’t give up on fishing as a viable future and assume that aquaculture provides the only path forward. The Irish Wildlife Trust will be working in 2017 to lobby for an end to pair trawling and we encourage those who support us to contact your local TD to do the same.
(this article appeared in the print edition of 'Inshore Ireland' from March 2017.