Irish Examiner, 26 Jan 2015: Priceless sprat stocks must be saved now, minister

Priceless sprat stocks must be saved now, minister

Irish Examiner, by Damien Enright

was outraged as I read an article entitled “Sprat —worthless dead but priceless alive” by Cork Whale Watch skipper Colin Barnes in The West Cork People, my excellent local community newspaper.

I imagine our Minister for Fisheries, Simon Coveney, will have seen it. Now, he must do something. After reading Mr Barnes testimony, how could he not?

“Sprats” Barnes says, “are being taken from the sea in huge amounts, not by foreign vessels, but the biggest and most powerful of Irish trawlers [ . . .] two vessels together pull a single huge trawl, and supported with sophisticated electronics, skillfully aim the net at dense shoals of fish.

It is now high season for sprats schooling together inshore, their spawning time approaching. The damage done over the last few seasons is all too apparent [. . .] no large shoals to be seen, just small scraps here and there.

I have seen the mid-water trawlers [ . . .] finding nothing in places where sprats congregated in years gone by. If a shoal does accumulate, it is swept up, leaving none behind to reproduce.

Most fish species could not be fished to extinction, because they are widespread. But when sprat are spawning, the entire stock tends to be in one place, making them very vulnerable to overfishing [ . . ] When it was observed that the herring stocks were crashing under the same pressure that the sprats are now receiving, [ . . . .] counter measures were taken. The sprat fishery enjoys no such mechanism.

These small, silvery fish [ . . . ] feed on plankton and become vital to the marine food chain. Whiting, pollock, coalfish, hake, haddock and cod, mackerel, megrim [etc.] feed heavily on sprats throughout their lives.”

When no sprat are available, they prey on fellow commercial fish to survive. Less sprat means less fish for us, and higher prices. And this at a time when health gurus advise us to eat more fish.

Science concentrates on fish to feed humans—the fish that feed ‘our’ fish are ignored. With no quota, sprat are lifted from Irish seas in hundreds of thousands of tons, yet any fool or landlubber can see that the fish we take for our nourishment must be nourished themselves.

What blindness is abroad in governments? Worldwide, small fish are taken in billions, leaving the larders of the sea bare.

Is it not obvious that there must, inevitably, be a crash in the marine food chain, that, if this continues, commercial stocks will starve and we will suffer the consequences of destroying the ‘biggest farms on the planet’, the previously sustainable seas?

To feed battery chickens and caged salmon, the rich sprat harvests of Irish waters are ground into fishmeal. Production units thrive; the wild ocean starves. Feed Conversion Ratio is five kilos of meal to produce one kilo of farmed fish.

Sprat fetch €100 per ton — that’s 180,000 sardine-size, perfectly formed (and delicious) fish for €100. Near worthless on shore, how priceless they are in the ocean! But their vital role is ignored by our elected ministers, these fish, our common wealth, warrant no protection.

Colin Barnes began fishing in West Cork in 1972, and switched to whale watching excursions in 2001. “If you want to find large whales, then finding sprat is the key.

I constantly watch for sprat activity, and as a fisherman and a field naturalist for the past 42 years, I feel qualified to comment. [ . . .] I can confirm that sprat stocks were abundant all through the 1970’s and 80’s, when there was little fishing pressure on them.”

Shoals sometimes covered square kilometres. In the 90’s, large pelagic trawlers began targeting sprats when their quota of herring or mackerel was caught. Shoals rapidly reduced to hectares and now never reach an acre in extent.”

After being trawled out over a couple of winters, the huge stocks that traditionally occupied Glandore and Union Hall harbours show no sign of returning.

During this year’s ‘big whale season’, migrating Fin whales searched in vain for sprat; Humpbacks passed the coast without feeding. “If our waters cannot support a handful of whales, how can it support a fishing fleet?

The situation is now critical. It’s not about setting quotas: this sprat fishery needs closing if the stock is to rebuild. Sprats live only five years. Keep sweeping up all the mature spawning fish for that period and [ . . .] we will be left with none at all. We are close to that scenario now.”

I am aware that Mr Coveney has bigger fish to fry but if he doesn’t protect the little fish there will be no bigger fish in the skillet.

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