Inshore pair-trawling threatens Ireland’s coastal wildlife

Pair-trawling involves two fishing vessels dragging between them a single large net with a small mesh. It is an activity which has lately been going on in sheltered inshore bays and estuaries along the Irish west coast, such as Cork Harbour and Kenmare Bay. Many of these areas are designated under the EU’s Habitats Directive for their unique wildlife. However, this is no barrier to damaging fishing practices – of which pair-trawling is only one (dredging for scallops, mussels and razor clams, the use of tangle nets or the cultivation of Pacific oysters, an alien invasive species, are others).

Pair-trawling in Cork harbour, Ireland.

Pair-trawling targets sprat, a small fish which forms large shoals and is a keystone of the marine ecosystem. It is food for larger fish such as cod and pollock, as well as seabirds, particularly terns but also shearwaters, shags, puffins, razorbills and guillemots. Sprat is a key component of the diets of whales, and the south coast of Ireland is an especially important feeding ground for fin whales, the second largest whale in the sea. The humble sprat therefore not only underpins the marine food web in these areas but also supports small-scale coastal businesses such as whale-watching, sea angling and low-impact commercial fishing. Scooping up whole shoals of the fish, while they are spawning close to the shore, is an insane act of environmental destruction. Indeed, the use of the tiny fish – ground up for fishmeal for a couple of hundred euro a tonne – is as wasteful as it is damaging. Sieving the water in this way also has the potential to catch seals, dolphins, migrating salmon or juvenile sea bass. Meanwhile there is very little information about the status of the sprat stock itself, it is not monitored by scientists and it is subject to no regulations as to how much is caught.

This issue goes to the heart of the appalling mismanagement of the seas around Ireland – something the government in Dublin has yet to take seriously. Ireland has only one small area which could be considered a Marine Protected Area (Lough Hyne in Cork which is inaccessible to fishing boats). Marine fish and invertebrates are excluded from the official definition of wildlife under conservation legislation and some species, such as the angel shark and white skate, are in imminent threat of extinction. Yet nothing is being done to address these issues.

The IWT is supportive of small-scale fishing using low-impact gear, and we think fishermen have an important role to play in protecting coastal areas for wildlife and communities. These communities are fast disappearing and are just as threatened by pair-trawling as our wildlife. We need a radical change in how we manage our seas in Ireland and as part of this we would like to see all destructive fishing practices, including trawling and dredging, prohibited within the coastal zone (i.e. within the so-called 6-mile limit).

The Irish Wildlife Trust is a national conservation charity whose aim is to raise awareness of the importance of nature. Since 2010 we have been actively promoting better management of our marine and coastal waters. Follow The IWT on Twitter and Facebook.