Endangered fish thrown away and dead whales on our shores: Fishing's ocean impact

Noteworthy reveals over 30 tonnes of threatened fish were discarded in one year, including the endangered basking shark and critically endangered skates.

By Maria Delaney

VIDEOS OF THE iconic basking shark flood our social media every summer. The peaceful plankton-feeding fish started to arrive off our shores last week.

However, prospects for this giant fish and its smaller relatives are not good. Research earlier this year found that three-quarters of sharks and rays that live in our oceans are threatened with extinction.

Over the past 40 years, the global abundance of these sea species has declined by over 70% due to, the scientists say, “an 18-fold increase in relative fishing pressure”. To help their recovery, strict fishing controls were recommended and “urgently needed to avert population collapse”.

Irish law offers little protection to sharks and rays, or most other marine fish and invertebrate species. They are not covered by the Wildlife Acts here, though the Wildlife Order in Northern Ireland offers protection for one skate and two shark species – one of which is the basking shark – out to six nautical miles.

Of the 58 cartilaginous fish – which includes sharks, rays and skates (similar, but often smaller than rays) – assessed in our waters, almost 30% (17) are threatened with extinction.

The European Common Fisheries Policy prevents the targeted fishing of some of the more vulnerable sharks and ray, but many are still caught – as bycatch – in the nets and hooks of vessels while fishing for commercial fish.

When this happens, they must be thrown back overboard (discarded) immediately, but even though many sharks and rays are reputed to be tough creatures, some may not survive this ordeal.

But, is this a common occurrence in Ireland?

Basking Shark The iconic basking shark is endangered, yet receives little protection in Irish waters.
Source: Martin Prochazkacz via Shutterstock

Over the past number of months, Noteworthy has investigated the impact of fishing on wildlife in Irish waters. We submitted Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to multiple Government departments as well as State bodies and talked to numerous experts in both the fishing and environmental sectors. We can now reveal:

  • A total of 340 tonnes of fish were discarded by Irish vessels in 2019, which includes over 30 tonnes of threatened fish – 11.5 tonnes of which are critically endangered.
  • Most were discarded in the fishing zones near Ireland, though this did not completely match the areas where the most volumes of fish were caught.
  • A reported increase in discards should be viewed as “a good thing” according to a fishing industry representative, as, if the industry is vilified, they “just won’t report them”.
  • Plans are in place to test measures to minimise the interaction of seals and fishers but there is no progress on a compensation scheme proposed by Heritage Minister Malcolm Noonan.
  • Almost 50 emails and letters were received from the public by the Department of Heritage who issue cull licences following the mooting of a pilot seal cull last year.

Also in this series, part two investigates issues relating to the enforcement of fishery policy in Ireland and part three examines the lack of transparency in much of the decision-making in the fishing sector.


Discarded by the tonne

As part of the Common Fisheries Policy, fishers are required to log the fish they catch and then throw back overboard. The type of fish they are allowed to discard in this way is also limited by the landing obligation, which is often called the discard ban.

This ban only applies to species which are subject to quotas – measures which limit the amount of that particular stock which can be landed at port. There are lots of different exemptions to this rule so many fish continue to be discarded at sea.

Part two of this series will delve more deeply into how the landing obligation is working – or not – in practice and reveal issues with the enforcement of it, both in our waters and across the EU.

Through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, Noteworthy obtained a report that Ireland sent to the Commission in February 2020 as part of the EU body’s assessment of the implementation of the landing obligation. An attachment to this report gave a breakdown of the discards by Irish vessels in 2019.

A total of 340 tonnes of fish from a large number of species were discarded by Irish vessels in 2019. There were 195,000 tonnes of fish landed by Irish vessels that year so that is equivalent to 0.2% of the total catch, if all discards were recorded by fishers. The full dataset can be explored in a searchable table here.

However, over 30 tonnes of threatened fish were discarded, with over half of this group made up of sharks, skates and rays. Overall, over 65 tonnes of sharks and 23 tonnes of skates and rays were discarded, with many of these not identified specifically by species, so it is unclear whether that may also be threatened.

In addition to these discarded skates and rays, some species are allowed to be caught and landed in ports by fisheries. Last year, over 1,000 tonnes of skates and rays were landed by Irish fishing vessels with an industry value of almost €1.2m.

To view an interactive version of this graph, click here

Two critically endangered species were on this list: common – also known as blue – skates (8.4 tonnes) and white skates (3.1 tonnes). Almost all of these were caught in the Celtic Sea.

The common skate, which can grow almost 1.5m in length, was one of the most abundant skates in the past but its numbers have declined since the early 1900s. By the 1970s it was considered to be extinct locally in the Irish Sea. The white skate is also large and “is especially vulnerable to coastal fisheries using static nets”, according to the National Parks and Wildlife Service Red List.

Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust said that these discard figures are “absolutely shocking”. The ecologist and environmental scientist said they “highlight how flawed our system of management of the ocean is”. The common (blue) skate and white skate populations have been reduced by over 90% but “this is still happening”.

Shark species are not like other fish, explained Fogarty. They can live for decades, some up to over 100 years, and have very few offspring. “When you take those species out, their numbers can’t recover [as] they can’t withstand that level of pressure.”

He added that “it is well recognised that fishing has the biggest impact on our water and has led to the collapse of our ecosystems”. The “near disappearance of shark populations”, which are “such important parts of the marine ecosystem”, is just one area where this is evident.

According to the Marine Stewardship Council, the non-profit which certifies sustainable fisheries, the three key factors contributing to the decline of marine populations are overfishing, illegal and destructive fishing, and climate change.

Fishing also contributes substantially to plastic pollution in the oceans with ‘ghost’ nets, lines, pots and traps estimated to make up 10% of the plastic waste in the oceans. This is accidentally lost at sea or deliberately abandoned and can entangle marine life. Some initiatives have been implemented to address this as part of the recent EU Directive on single-use plastics.

‘You’re in trouble’ if discards drop

Noteworthy asked the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) if the Minister intends to review the impact of bycatch on the marine ecosystem or take any action to reduce bycatch of these threatened and protected species.

A spokesperson stated that last June “Ireland established a new environmental target related to the incidental by-catch of a wide range of non-commercial marine species”.

This is a binding target under the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) and requires the establishment of monitoring programmes – a draft of which will be open for public consultation later this year, according to DAFM. The spokesperson added:

This is in order to ensure that bycatch rates are below levels which threaten the species, so that their long-term viability is ensured.

You can’t avoid catching certain fish, Patrick Murphy, chief executive of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation (IS&WFPO), told Noteworthy, but you have to return fish back to the seas in a manner that the fish “has the best possible chance of survival”. He added that it is down to education and training of fishers.

Instead of criticising fishers for bycatch, they should be rewarded for reporting them, he added. Higher figures for discards mean more are being reported and put back in the sea, according to the industry rep.

“Don’t say ‘you’re discarding the fish, you’re killing them’, as what will they do? They’ll stop recording them.” He added that if the number of reported discards “starts to go down, then you’re in trouble”.

Dead in the water

Each year, the European Commission Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) examines what can continue to be discarded in the various fishing areas in Europe. In their latest report, they noted that “skate and ray survival rates can be highly variable between species and fisheries”.

For instance, smaller rays and skates were associated with lower survival after discarding, as well as being found to be pulled by nets for longer periods. The report also states that “for some fisheries and species combinations the survival may be close to zero”.

This variability can be found in some of the species discarded in 2019. STECF estimates that 67-86% of blonde rays will survive being caught and discarded. Over five tonnes of this species was discarded, mainly in the Irish Sea.

But, for the spotted ray, which is a smaller species, less than 30% are predicted to live. Over two tonnes of this species were discarded in 2019, the majority in the Celtic Sea.

One ray that is estimated to have very poor survival is the cuckoo ray. This is a vulnerable species in our waters with an overall decline of about 45% since the 1990s. Half a tonne of it was discarded in 2019 – mostly in the Celtic Sea.

This equates to over 200 fully grown rays at their maximum weight, so realistically the number of rays discarded was much higher.

However, it is most likely that most of these rays died as, according to STECF, “cuckoo rays display lower survival than larger ray species and there could be zero survival in some fisheries”. STECF does state, however, that more observations – which are currently being undertaken – are needed for reliable estimates on this species.

In addition to not knowing whether a fish will survive, the Irish Wildlife Trust’s Fogarty said another issue with shark species is that “pregnant females typically abort when they are stressed and you’ve lost a whole generation”.

Net Loss - Killybegs - Maria Delaney9 Survival rates of discarded fish are dependent on the species as well as the type of fishing gear being used.
Source: Maria Delaney via Noteworthy

Close to home

By far the most discarded family of fish are the bottom-feeding gurnards or sea robins. Over 155 tonnes of these fish were thrown overboard in 2019. The Norway lobster was the next highest discard at over 30 tonnes. A graph of the top ten discards can be viewed here.

Most fish were discarded by Irish vessels in fishing areas near to our island rather than far offshore. Vessels fishing in the West of Ireland and Celtic Sea both discarded over 100 tonnes, more than twice as much as the next highest fishing area – the Irish Sea. Discard figures for all fishing areas are listed here.

The same year, the Celtic Sea also had the most catch tonnage by Irish vessels (28% of total landings) and the West of Ireland had the third highest (13%), according to figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO).

However, the South-West of Ireland fishing area was the second highest in terms of fish caught (23%) but vessels discarded over 70 tonnes less fish than either the Celtic Sea or the West of Ireland areas.

It is unclear why more tonnage of fish being caught would not be associated with an increase in discards. There could be less bycatch associated with the fisheries in the South-West of Ireland or perhaps discards were recorded more accurately by vessels in the other areas.

This interactive map gives a detailed breakdown of the volume of discards as well as the most commonly discarded fish in each fishing area:

To view an interactive version of this map, click here.

Plan to reduce bycatch

A proposed management plan for Ireland’s largest crayfish fishery – off the south west coast between Loop Head and Mizen Head – states there is “significant bycatch in the fishery of endangered and critically endangered species” including skates, angel sharks, seals and porpoises.

From the 2019 data, the endangered basking shark (0.6 tonnes) and critically endangered white skate (0.4 tonnes) were discarded in the South-West of Ireland fishing area, as well as a small number of critically endangered common skates. But there is no mention anywhere in the data of angel sharks, seals or porpoises.

The proposal was published in a document detailing the Marine Institute’s intention to tender for work related to the management plan. This tender will contract fishers who will help oversee the implementation of the scientific work involved, such as tagging experiments, skate and ray surveys, and recovery of lost fishing nets.

Measures include the prohibition of tangle nets – loose nets held on the seafloor with weights – as well as the landing of crayfish by any fishing vessel. Our native white-clawed crayfish – which looks similar to a lobster – is an endangered freshwater species and Ireland holds one of the largest surviving populations.

The Irish Wildlife Trust called for a ban on the use of these nets in the past due to their “indiscriminate capture of marine life” as well as their potential to become ‘ghost nets’ if dislodged during stormy weather.

Fogarty from the Irish Wildlife Trust hoped that the new crayfish fishery management plan will get political support as “the crawfish population has collapsed”.

A DAFM spokesperson said that because “crayfish stocks are at a historical low and that there have been long standing concerns about the environmental impacts of tangle nets in particular, the Minister has signalled that he would welcome proposals to put the fishery on a long term sustainable footing”.

“Accordingly, the Department is preparing a consultation paper to seek views on how best to support this objective.”

However, there is some pushback from fishers. The National Inshore Fishermen’s Association (NIFA) and the National Inshore Fishermen’s Organisation (NIFO) have 49 members in the relevant area and recently made a submission on the plan.

It states there is “widespread concern about the proposal” but a “similar level of support for trying to improve the fishery through better management”. The permanent ban of tangle nets was “unacceptable” and voluntary restrictions were suggested.

Enforcement was another concern with the submission stating: “Resources and commitment from the SFPA [Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority] to enforce any legislation in a fair and effective manner will be required.” However, it noted that “there is a great deal of scepticism, based on past experience in this regard”.

Net Loss - Killybegs - Maria Delaney7 Not all fishing gear is equal when it comes to impact on wildlife at sea.
Source: Maria Delaney via Noteworthy

Alex Crowley, Secretary General of NIFA said a lot of fishers were saying that “the nets are doing some level of damage and there are probably better ways of doing things, but there are no alternatives”. He said the only viable option at the moment would be to “go potting for lobster and crabs”.

There is already too much fishing effort in the lobster and crab fisheries, he added, so if you ban the nets without a lot of thought, “you’re going to put too much effort into the other viable fisheries, and, in turn, could end up causing them to collapse”.

The plan also states there is a “high level of negative interaction between set net fisheries and seals in the area leading to economic losses due to scavenging of fish by seals”. It continues:

Resolving this issue is seen as central to the future implementation of the proposed management plan.

The Marine Institute hopes to do this – according to the plan – by working with fishers to research measures to reduce “seal depredation in the pollack gill net fishery”.

When the State agency was asked for more detail on these measures, a spokesperson told Noteworthy that “acoustic deterrents are to be trialled on fishing gear” and added these would be deterrents that are safe for whales, dolphins and porpoises. “No culls and no sterilisation of seals will be part of this project.”

‘European Capital of Cruelty’

There has been backlash over a potential seal cull every couple of years when fishers raise the issue of seals damaging their catch.

Last year, this issue once again caused controversy when, in answering a question on the “seal population problem” by Kerry TD Michael Healy-Rae, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O’Brien mooted a pilot scheme where the seals would be shot from boats to “determine its efficacy in protecting fishermen’s catches”.

From ‘Leaders Question Notes’ for Minister of State for Heritage, Malcolm Noonan, obtained through FOI, this pilot was proposed after the Department received two licence applications to shoot seals from boats. The notes state that “the Department has not issued these licences and is instead considering whether a carefully controlled pilot study might be worthwhile”.

Noonan’s Department issues a small number of these licenses annually to remove “rogue” seals, according to these notes. The Department defined these seals to Noteworthy as “an individual which has learned to avoid or ignore deterrents which normally work to reduce seal damage”.

The NPWS received six applications for such licences in 2020, with one being refused and five pending decision. These decisions “will be made shortly”, according to a spokesperson.

In 1914, grey seals became the world’s first officially protected species after they were almost hunted to population collapse. In Ireland, our 8,000-10,000 grey seals and 4,000 harbour seals are protected both under the EU Habitats Directive and our Wildlife Acts. Both populations have grown over the past 15 years.

After outcry in the Dáil chambers and on the airwaves, the Minister soon distanced himself from this scheme. He received almost 50 letters and emails from members of the public over a period of two weeks, obtained by Noteworthy through FOI.

Almost all were opposed to a seal cull, with many expressing their ‘anger’, ‘disgust’, ‘shock’ and ‘horror’ at the idea. One asked the Minister to “get a grip” of himself, another wondered if “the Government [was] hell bent on destroying our wildlife one by one” while a third asked if the Minister was “trying to win us the title of ‘European Capital of Cruelty’”.

Many blamed the interaction of seals and fishers on overfishing, environmental pollution and climate change.

Grey Seals - Blaskets Grey seal colony on the Great Blasket Island in Co Kerry.
Source: David O'Brien via Shutterstock

Lack of fish is not the reason for fishers’ interaction with seals, according to NIFA’s Alex Crowley. “It was just a case that it was an easy meal for them” with seals taking fish from their nets. This had led to some types of fisheries in the area not being viable anymore, he added.

“Inshore fishermen have been complaining about the impact of seals on their livelihoods for years, and no-one has ever taken them seriously.” Instead, Crowley said “they have been ridiculed”. When fishers raised the issue, he explained, the only option they were given was to apply for cull licences.

An NPWS briefing at the start of October 2020 suggests financial support as one potential solution, with an internal email from Noonan stating “a compensation scheme would be a better approach”.

Crowley, who is an inshore fisherman himself, said that he would support this – with some reservations – if fishers have to get out of certain fisheries due to seals.

However, when asked for an update on this, a spokesperson for the Department of Heritage told Noteworthy that “the NPWS is not aware that a compensation scheme is currently under consideration”. A Department of the Marine spokesperson said that “seal management is a matter for the NPWS” when asked about such a scheme.

Dead whales and dolphins on our shores

One of the benefits of the State agency’s fishery plan is to not only help prevent seals taking fish from fishers’ nets, but prevent them from getting caught in them. They also hope this will reduce harbour porpoises and bottlenose dolphins from dying in this way.

There was a large increase in the number of dead whales and dolphins washing up on the Irish coast this year, with the highest ever peak of strandings recorded in January and February. The numbers rose from 70 in the first two months of 2020 to 93 this year, with a significant increase in reports in counties Cork and Kerry.

On one day at the end of March, the IWDG reported two deep-diving whales had washed up on the West coast – a sperm whale in Connemara and a long-finned pilot whale in Clare. 

Vinnie Hyland 3 Pilot whale found in mid-March on the Dingle peninsula with its tail cut off and a portion of rope attached to it which the IWDG say is evidence of bycatch.
Source: Vinnie Hyland

Simon Berrow, chief science officer and acting CEO of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG), said that they have been recording stranding for 30 years and have identified a peak in winter strandings since 2011, increasing year-on-year. “We’ve been flagging this for years.”

In terms of who is responsible, Berrow said “the obvious finger to point is the offshore pelagic boats fishing to the West”. Pelagic boats fish for mackerel and herring off Ireland as well as horse mackerel (scad), blue whiting and Norwegian herring.

He puts the increase since 2011 down to the large Dutch pelagic trawlers fishing off Ireland as well as an increasing evidence of dolphins moving more inshore which could result in more of those that die from natural causes washing up on beaches.

However, “there is no doubt that some of it is fishing bycatch”, he added, as “some dolphins and pilot whales have signs of this such as broken or cut off tails”.

Berrow is looking for more drift modelling to be done where the tides and wind are examined to discover where a stranded whale or dolphin was originally caught. “That might help identify if there’s a particular area where the interaction [with vessels] is greater”.

Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation’s Murphy agreed that work needs to be done to find out who is responsible as “there’s no question that it’s being done”, though he also does not blame Irish vessels for this increase.

More protected areas promised 

Fintan Kelly, policy officer with BirdWatch Ireland has written numerous reports on EU fisheries policy and wants to make Irish fisheries more sustainable for wildlife. He told Noteworthy that one solution to the issue of discards and bycatch is marine protected areas (MPAs).

In addition to animals that live beneath the waves, BirdLife International estimates that every year at least 300,000 seabirds die as a result of becoming entangled as bycatch.

Kelly proposes that no disruptive fisheries should be allowed “if we know that certain areas are really important nursery grounds, or there’s a lot of bycatch of fish like anglesharks”. In order to do this, he suggested that fishers should be helped to fish in different ways or given quotas to target different species.

One activity that the Irish Wildlife Trust’s Fogarty felt should be excluded from MPAs is bottom trawling – where a weighted net is dragged across the sea floor. These protected areas “have to be put in the right place and be properly protected” with no industrial fishing activity, he added.

Researchers revealed that commercial bottom trawling occurs in almost 60% of the EU’s existing MPAs and, last month, a large study found that, by disturbing the marine sediment, this activity could result in the release of as much carbon as the aviation industry on a global scale.

A public consultation is currently being run by the Department of Heritage in relation to expanding Ireland’s network of marine protected areas from 2.13% to 30% of our maritime area by 2030.

When this consultation was launched, Minister Noonan said that the proposed increase “will give vital protection to vulnerable marine species and habitats, and also support the functioning of these ecosystems”. In terms of fisheries, he said it would enhance “resilience for fisheries into the future”.

NIFA’s Crowley “cautiously welcomes” this plan for more MPAs “as we do need a healthy marine environment”, as long as there is “a solid scientific rationale” behind their implementation.

It is essential that MPAs are used to rebuild struggling fish stocks and manage them sustainably, according to Kelly. It is important that the MPAs being introduced in Ireland “are not just paper parks, but they actually do exist in practice and have real meaningful protection”.


Keep an eye out for the remaining parts of the series during the week. Part two reveals continued issues with enforcement in the industry and part three delves into the lack of transparency in much of the decision-making in the fishing sector.

This investigation was carried out by Maria Delaney of Noteworthy, the investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers with support from the Noteworthy general fund to cover additional costs.

You may be interested in a proposed investigation we recently launched – SHORED UP – where we want to investigate if our laws can catch up with the commercial use of our coasts.

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