Leading Journal of the Irish & UK Fishing Industries

write down that the government killed him” – Mike Carney, An Blascaod Mór

by Lia ní Aodha

The mainstream narrative surrounding seals, fishing and fishermen in Ireland (and further) reminds me of a scene from ‘The Islands and the Whales’ — the film that looks at Grindadráp, the annual pilot whale hunt carried out by the Faroese — when international ‘visitors’ Pamela Anderson and Sea Shepherd hold a meeting with members of the Faroese community, and tell them that rather than eat whales they should become vegetarian. The exchange in the scene goes like this:

Pamela: “It’s inhumane to kill a whale. Why would you need to kill a whale? Why would you need to kill anything? I mean you are killing all these whales here for this small…you know, community. How many whales do you need?”

Faroese community member 1: “If we are not eating whale meat maybe…eh…once a month what are we supposed to eat instead? Do you have any ideas?”

Pamela: “Be vegetarian! And protect the whales. Protect the environment. Protect our planet so we have one.”

Faroese community member 1: “You can’t grow many things here in the Faroe Islands!”

Faroese community member 2: “Do you think we should go the supermarket and buy groceries and fruit and vegetables imported from the other side of the world?

Sea Shepherd participant: “You do it already. The supermarkets are full of lamb from New Zealand. Of food from everywhere.”

Faroese community member 2: “Ya. But the killing of whales, it means we eat less imported meat.”

Faroese community member 1: “Let me try to rephrase the question. Let’s say we switch the whale…to give you…you get the whale and we get a cow instead from America or somewhere, for example. Would you leave us alone then?”

Sea Shepherd Participant: “Well we are a marine conservation organisation. We focus on the ocean issues”.

Faroese community member 1: “Are you not obliged to put this question into the real context?”

Over the past months, The Skipper has carried a series of articles and letters from various stakeholders discussing the issue of seal-fishery interactions in Ireland. Gathered with the help of the National Inshore Fishermen’s Association and the National Inshore Fishermen’s Organisation (NIFA/NIFO), here we are sharing the voices of inshore fishermen themselves on the issue. According to those fishermen, the issue of seal depredation is very real and is one that has become worse over time. The issue, say the fishermen, has had several effects on their livelihoods – working to narrow their economic, social and ecological options, over the past decades.

One fisherman, who fishes for pollock, crayfish and monk off the south-west coast told The Skipper that though seals have always been an issue for them, in the last ten years the issue has become particularly bad. Back in 1994, when he began fishing, he said he might have had a problem with one or two seals a day, now he could have an issue with up to twenty following him and feeding from his fishing gear. Seal numbers, he said, have exploded off the south-west coast of Ireland in the past ten years.

On account of this, the fisherman, who jigs and gillnets for pollock and tangle nets for monkfish, stopped fishing for monk altogether five years ago. 95 per cent of his catch was being destroyed by seals. When gillnetting for pollock, the fisherman said, seals take and damage at least 50 per cent of their catch from the net. Of the other 50 per cent hauled in, 30 per cent is damaged by seals. When jigging the seals break the line before the fish come up into the boat and you can lose up to thirty traces a day at a cost of eight euros per day on top of the loss of fish. This, he said, makes this fishery unviable.

Kieran Healy, who fishes single-handed on his 7-metre vessel from Crosshaven also stopped fishing for monkfish on account of seals. Kieran, whose activity is currently limited to the various pot fisheries with the occasional netting for spider crab and line fishing for pollock, began fishing in 1977. Up until the mid-eighties, he said, “there was hardly a seal to be seen” and none had ever bothered them until one particular day, out of the blue, a steady stream of monkfish heads, minus the tails came over the hauler. “To say we were shocked would be an understatement,” he said. “Over the years the losses of monkfish from tangle and trammel nets climbed to a level where we were constantly losing a third of our fish to seals,” he said.

Seal damage to fish. Image by Daragh Devane

According to the Irish Seal Sanctuary (ISS), the problem between seals and fishermen relates to how inshore fishermen fish (or maybe even that they fish). “Pictures of damaged fish,” they say (September issue, The Skipper), “give no context or information on proximity to seal haul-outs or soak times”. Fishermen can provide scientists with this information and records on bycatch in return for redress and transitioning to sustainability, they say. “The quicker their dependency on tangle nets and poorly tended static nets goes the way of drift-nets the better and the more such practice is eschewed, the faster stocks may recover.”

Speaking to fishermen, however, though they may get little credit for it, many have taken measures to adapt their practices over the years, and in more ways than just concerning seals. Kieran (who over the years has taken countless observers out to document his catches and losses to seals) explained how he has tried to deal with the issue by only fishing short strings of trammels and spreading them out. He also reduced soak times to overnight soaks and hauled the gear into the boat as quickly as he could, clearing fish afterwards.

“Finally, four years ago it became impossible to continue, losses of monkfish had climbed to 90 per cent at minimum and oftentimes 100 per cent. Between Ballycotton and Kinsale there were approximately sixteen boats successfully prosecuting this fishery for five months of the year, now none of them do,” he said, highlighting the impact the issue has had not just on individual fishermen, but entire fisheries.

“The same amount of boats are still here but all effort has now been diverted into various pot fisheries, however long that’s going to last,” he said.

A similar story from a fisherman who fishes shellfish in Dingle Bay and off the Blaskets — ‘the Grey Seal capital of Ireland’ — who said that when he began fishing roughly twenty years ago, alongside fishing shellfish they also fished various static nets and hooks and lines, mostly for whitefish but also shellfish and some pelagics. “About a decade ago the netting and lining became no longer economically viable, mainly due to seal depredation,” he said.

“As a result, I altered my business model and method of operation (at considerable cost in terms of capital investment in extra pots) to one where we now fish solely with pots,” he said. “We now work in excess of twice the amount of crab and shrimp pots than we did a decade ago.”

On the one hand, the Kerry fisherman highlighted that, from a business perspective, the move could be described at positive – his profit margins have increased, partly on account of good shellfish prices and a reduction in the costs of having to maintain several types of static nets. He now also employs one more crew.

On the other, he fears for the medium to long term viability of his business model, as he doesn’t see it is sustainable. “The eggs are in too few baskets now so to speak and the business is exposed to a decline in a small number of key shellfish stocks and their respective markets, incidentally with crab, both are showing a decline this year.” Should something now happen to that market, he said, he can’t think of an economically viable fishery alternative to turn to.

For those now operating exclusively in pot fisheries, neither has the decline of nets seen the seal problem disappear.

Existing research indicates seals are highly intelligent and adaptable marine mammals. Studies have reported pingers, once seen as a possible deterrent, actually quickly becomes a dinner bell, when seals learn to associate the acoustic cue with fish. An article published last summer (2019), in the journal Animal Cognition, suggests seals are aware of their own behaviour and can recall it.

Frank Riney, who fishes for shrimp in Kenmare Bay, says seals opening shrimp pots are a big problem for him and one that has worsened over time. Frank said that over the years he might have had three or four pots open in about 100 hauled. In the past two years, however, this number has increased to twenty open in the 100. Though Frank ties covers, seals only break them open. “It’s a big loss of income plus the damage to pots,” he said.

As with gear type, neither is the seal problem confined to a particular part of the country. Loughshinny fisherman, Alan Fanning who fishes from the east coast on his 39’ft boat, Lily Tom III says seals started affecting their gear in shallow water about three years ago. “We never had problems before that,” said Alan. “They started opening the pot doors to release the bait. On one particular day we had 250 pots opened,” he said.

In light of this, one fisherman asked, rather reasonably, whether now it might only be a matter of time before seals also render those fisheries unviable?

Dingle fishermen with damaged stock

2011: Skippers John Paul O’Connor, Atlantic Fisher, Dingle and Michael Flannery, Cu na Mara dump half eaten pollock and ling on Dingle Pier which they said were attacked by seals while being hauled onboard. Also in picture are David O’Neill, Paul Gracea, Tony Brosnan, Brendan Devane, Stephen Mullaly, and Larry Lyler. The fishermen said they lost thousands of euro on that catch alone and if something was not done about the seals they would dump their catch on the tourist office next time. That was almost a decade ago. Picture by Don MacMonagle

Though to date, no solution to the ‘seal issue’ has been forthcoming from the Irish Government, in terms of a way forward, the clear answer from fishermen is some kind of action on the issue is needed, that acknowledges and takes seriously what they are saying. Many point to the need for some form of management, highlighting that when issues occur like this on land that threatens livelihoods (and sometimes not) they are dealt with.

Whichever, the bottom line, says Kieran Healy, is the issue is not going to solve itself. “There is often talk of ‘ecosystem management’ but how can this take place when the apex predator is allowed free run to build up a population far exceeding the ability of the ecosystem to sustain it, creating an imbalance which flies in the face of nature?” he asks.

Last year, after more than thirty wild deer were culled in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, in response to criticism, the Office of Public Works (OPW) stated in an article published in The Irish Times that while the value of wild deer in Phoenix Park must be recognised “this must be balanced with an equal recognition of the potential for deer to impact adversely on a range of other biodiversity values”.

The practice of culling deer was also defended by the Government, as reported in The Irish Examiner in February 2019 when Minister Paschal Donohoe said that culling deer “is considered to be the most appropriate and humane way to sustainably manage the population of deer in the park”.

Highlighting grey seals are no longer an endangered species, though they do prey on other endangered species, Kieran wonders just how much will be sacrificed for seals. Today, both grey and harbour seals are listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as being of least concern. It’s not clear as to whether inshore fishermen enjoy a similarly unendangered status – many would argue otherwise.

“If Norway and Canada can have management plans for seals why can’t the European Union do so?” the Crosshaven fisherman asks.

At the nub of the issue, says another fisherman, is the protected status (both at EU and national level) that seals enjoy. “Reviewing that status including the cost that status has had, must in my view, be a prerequisite to any management attempts,” he says.

Seal interactions with fisheries in Ireland, he reiterates, have fundamentally changed the inshore sector and how it operates. “That change has come at a significant cost which was borne solely by industry with no financial assistance. The result is the sector is now operating a model that is neither economically, socially or environmentally sustainable.”

In Europe, seals are protected under the European Union’s Habitats Directive. Under that Directive, Ireland is legally obliged to designate Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) for Annex II species (which includes grey seals), and ensure listed species are maintained at a ‘Favourable Conservation Status’. Beyond SACs, says the Commission, member states “must take measures to ensure that the taking in the wild of specimens of the species as well as any exploitation of the species is compatible with it being maintained at a favourable conservation status”.

As the species is not strictly protected under the Habitats Directive, says the Commission, beyond the site protection requirements applying to SACs, the provisions of the directive may allow for management of the population as long as this is consistent with the objective of achieving and maintaining favourable conservation status. This is a matter for the Irish authorities to decide on and to ensure, they say. In other words, this is a national issue.

In An tOileánach, Tomás Ó Criomhthain recounts a time when people on the Great Blasket Island would much prefer a seal to a pig. Of course, in Ireland, in the past, seals were hunted for food, for their fat, and for their skins – sometimes, perhaps, destructively. At times in the history of the Irish State, the goal was to eradicate seals entirely to reduce their competition with fisheries. Bounties were paid for each seal killed. Since 1976, however, they have been protected under the Wildlife Act.

Interestingly, the population size of grey and common seals in Ireland was effectively unknown when that 1976 Act was introduced, according to Dr Ciarán Crummey’s 2005 PhD thesis, Physical Interactions between Grey Seals and Selected Fisheries in Ireland. Today, however, and following a broadly similar trend along the coasts of the North Atlantic (ask those fishermen, they’ll tell you the same), we do have a fairly reasonable indication that seal numbers around our coasts are booming.

According to the National Parks and Wildlife’s (NPWS) report, The Status of EU Protected Habitats and Species in Ireland, published late last summer, “the Overall Status is Favourable with an increasing trend.” The Aerial Thermal-Imaging Survey of Seals in Ireland, 2017-2018 published by the NPWS this autumn, states 3,698 grey seals were counted compared with 2,964 counted in 2011/2012 and 1,309 counted in 2003, meaning the count in 2017/2018 was 25 per cent higher than the 2011/2012 count and almost three times higher than the 2003 count.

Seal haul out on Trá Bán, Great Blasket late March 2011, courtesy of Paul Flannery, Dingle

After decades of neglect by successive Irish governments, some fishermen, however, hold little hope that their calls for a management plan will be answered.

“Given the incredibly deep pockets of the so-called ‘enviro-mentalists’ it’s hard to see any common sense solution being given a fair hearing, we’re still living with the legacy of the damage done by Bridget Bardot all those years ago,” says Kieran Healy, referencing the exceptionally successful celebrity-endorsed and eNGO led anti-sealing campaigns of the 1970s, that were so instrumental in elevating the seal to the status of untouchable charismatic megafauna on both sides of the Atlantic.

The implications of that status is borne today, not just by fishermen in Ireland, but by indigenous and coastal communities right along the North Atlantic Rim.

Little to do with seals, the last remaining human inhabitants of the Great Blasket were permanently evacuated to the mainland in 1953. Accepted as a necessity at the time on account of the increasingly harsh life on the island and lack of communications with the mainland, the last straw, writes Diarmuid Ferriter in his history of Ireland’s Off-Shore Islands, On the Edge, was the death of Seán Carney from meningitis in 1947, whose body lay for three days on his father’s bed on account of the telephone on the island not working and bad weather.

Of course, the reality is that life on the Blaskets, as on the mainland or at sea, was and is shaped by policies and politics, as much as the Atlantic. Ferriter cites Séan’s brother, Mike as recording concerning the determination of the cause of Séan’s death once on the mainland: ‘My father told them to write down that the government killed him’.

Considering the above accounts from people who fish and the broader context underpinning the story of the fishermen and the seals, this determination could just as easily be applied to many of Ireland’s inshore fishermen today.


*A version of this article appeared in a previous issue of The Skipper