WILDLIFE ORGANISATIONS ARE concerned about the ongoing large number of sprat being caught – a fish important to the marine ecosystem – off the Irish coast.
“There’s very little food left for the other sea creatures, whether it’s whales, dolphins or seabirds,” according to Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust.
Sprat has been fished beyond scientific advice for a number of years in Irish waters. In 2019 and 2020, landings were more than five times greater than the advised catch, with preliminary 2021 figures at similar levels.
The total 2020 sprat catches were worth around €3.3m and were primarily caught in the Irish Sea, according to the latest Marine Institute Stock Book. Most (95%) of this was caught by Ireland, with Scotland landing almost all of the remainder.
By examining historic data on the Celtic Seas Ecoregion in the Stock Book, it can be seen that 2020 was a record year, with landings at similar but not as high levels reached only two other times in over 35 years – in 1999 and 2019.
This small silvery fish is a forage feeder similar to anchovies or sardines. It shoals in big numbers and is eaten by a large number of marine species higher up the food chain. Its fishery – the areas where the species is caught – is concentrated inside the six nautical mile zone.
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Irish vessels are not breaking any laws as, unlike for other similar fish, they are not subject to any quotas for sprat and there is no total allowable catch for them in Irish waters. That effectively means there is no limit on the amount that Irish fishers can land in any one year.
There is a total allowable catch – a limit of landings – in place for sprat in the English Channel and the North Sea.
In terms of management, there are also restrictions on gear used to target the fish as well as exclusion of very large vessels (120ft) from the 12 nautical mile zone, with other vessels (90-120ft) excluded from the three nautical mile zone.
Trawling resumed in inshore waters
One fishery management tool welcomed by a number of environmental groups, including the Irish Wildlife Trust, was the ban on vessels over 18m in length overall from trawling in inshore water within the six mile zone.
“There was no doubt it was the most positive thing that ever happened for conservation in the ocean, which maybe isn’t saying very much, but it was a huge step,” explained Fogarty.
This was to come into effect in January 2020, with a three year transition period to allow for adjustment, but a High Court judgement later that year found “that the Policy Directive was made in breach of fair procedures and is void and/or of no legal effect”, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture , Food and the Marine (DAFM).
“The Minister appealed the decision to the Court of Appeal and a full hearing took place on 22nd June last,” they continued. The judgement on the case is currently pending.
While this was ongoing, the Minister was granted a “stay” on the overturning of the ban last March which effectively reinstated it for a number of months. At the time, Minister Charlie McConalogue said he was pleased and that “this decision will mean that vessels over 18 metres in length are prohibited from trawling inside our six miles zone”.
However, this “stay” was not renewed at the end of September “meaning vessels over 18m in length overall have resumed trawling” in this zone, according to DAFM’s spokesperson. They added:
The Minister is awaiting the decision of the Court of Appeal to inform next steps. As the matter is sub judice, he cannot comment further until the matter can be resolved before the Courts.
With sprat fished primarily in the later quarter of the year, this means large trawlers can catch it this winter without any restrictions or authorisations.
‘Game over’ for small boats
Many inshore fishers did not welcome this news. Jerry Early is a part-time fisherman on Arranmore and chair of Irish Islands Marine Resource Organisation (IIMRO).
“We’re disappointed it’s been overturned. Inshore fisheries like that would have traditionally been the main source of fishery for a lot of small boats. When the big boats come into it, it’s game over.”
Early said that there’s a “real tradition of sprat fisheries” in areas such as Donegal Bay and Inver Bay where a lot of families are supported by smaller inshore boats.
He added that “the only chance they have is to have areas cordoned off rather than open it up to bigger boats”. This is particularly true for vessels that can’t go outside inshore waters for safety reasons “and depend on fish coming to shore”, he explained.
However, Patrick Murphy, chief executive of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation (IS&WFPO), does not support the ban. The two fishers taking this court case are both members of his producer organisation.
“If we are going to do that, we should apply it to all avenues and environments in our country – bigger farmers, producers.”
He added that he tries to be fair “to every fisherman – where’s he’s a big boat or small boat”, but added that “people go to a resource”, so when “fish move inshore, they go and catch them inshore”.
He argued that without bigger boats, small boats may go in and replace them, so questioned whether the sustainability of the stock would improve.
This is a point that both Fogarty and Early strongly disagree, with Fogarty saying that “the inshore area should be protected for small boats”, though adding that controls and limits need to be in place.
Large boats with large landings
All agree that management is needed, though disagree on how this should be done, with Murphy saying sustainability could only be achieved if the fishery was managed but added that this shouldn’t “discriminate”.
“There has been thousands of tons caught, not by big boats but by the small boats,” he added.
Noteworthy asked the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) for fish landing data broken down by boat length and more than half of all Irish sprat landings to Irish ports since 2019 were by large vessels greater than 18m in length.
These large vessels landed 80% of the 12,800 tonnes of sprat in 2019 but this dropped to 43% last year and 45% this year up to 20 December.
There are 190 vessels more than 18m in length in the latest Irish fleet register as of this month, making up under 10% of the fleet. However, 50 of these are excluded from parts of the waters near the coast due to their large size (more than 27.43m / 90ft).
However, not all large vessels take part in the sprat fishery, with the Stock Book stating that on average 25 vessels over 10m participated in it annually from 2016-2020.
‘An appalling waste of marine life’
Another concern of wildlife groups that spoke to Noteworthy was the volume of sprat being caught that was not being used for human consumption.
The SFPA provided the investigation team with the figures they had, though product destination was not known for all landings or years.
The amount designated for fishmeal has grown year-on-year recently. Half of the almost 40,000 tonnes of sprat landed in Irish ports by Irish vessels since 2019 was used for fishmeal. This grew to 63% for landings in 2021 (to 20 December).
Dr Simon Berrow, chief executive of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group said that since sprat supports so much marine life, “it makes no sense to us at all to fish it and dry it for fishmeal to make into salmon food.” He added:
If we overfish sprat, what are we going to fish after that? Zooplankton? That’s the next level down. A healthy forage fish population will lead to a healthy commercial fish population. Fish from cod to hake feed on sprat.
The Irish Wildlife Trust’s Fogarty felt that using sprat for fishmeal “was an appalling waste of marine life” and said “we shouldn’t be catching fish to be churned up to be fed to cattle and farmed fish”.
IS&WFPO’s Murphy said that “fish goes wherever the market is”. To him, “what’s important is food that’s taken and harvested is sustainable. The people who produce it should be applauded, not demonised.”