Inshore fishing representatives have called on the next government to end decades of neglect with respect the issue of seal-fishery interactions – an issue now reaching a crescendo with reports in the national media of fishermen saying they will take matters into their own hands if no action is taken by the State on the implementation of a seal management plan.
The call comes following protests in Dingle on Saturday, February 1st by animal rights activists on the one hand, and fishermen on the other, the former an anti-cull protest staged by the Party for Animal Welfare, the latter a counter-protest organised by local fishermen highlighting the negative impact interactions with seals are having on their livelihoods.
Demonstrating their demands and their plight, the fishermen—whose calls on successive governments for action on the issue have, thus far, fallen on deaf ears—erected ‘Management Plan Now’, ‘No Plan for Future’, ‘Fishermen Extinct’ and ‘Save Our Industry’ placards on their boats.
In a joint statement released Sunday (February 2) following the protests, the National Inshore Fishermen’s Association (NIFA) and the National Inshore Fishermen’s Organisation (NIFO) say the protests demonstrate a clear failure on the part of the State to deal with the issue of seal-fishery interactions.
According to Ireland’s largest dedicated national inshore fishing groupings, both of whom had members at the protest on Saturday, inshore fishing communities, in particular, have been failed on this issue. This, they say, is demonstrated by repeated calls by fishermen for seal culls over the past two decades.
A comment issued to The Skipper by the Party for Animal Welfare—who say “nothing, justifies killing innocent sentient creatures”—suggests that in terms of the issue rather than a cull, Ireland “should renegotiate their fishing rights in Europe, and possibly have our Navy monitor quotas.” Seals, they say, “have NO impact” in reducing fish populations…
However, drawing a line between two issues oftentimes conflated by commentators on the subject— the impact of seals on stocks on the one hand, and the direct physical interaction between seals and a fisherman’s catch in his or her nets on the other—the cause of this problem, highlights NIFA/NIFO, is not super trawlers, a lack of quota, or EU membership, but the damage seals do to fish already caught.
This damage has been studied and documented scientifically in this country with over two decades. (As an aside, regarding the question as to whether seals can have an effect on stocks, scientific studies have, for example, identified seals as a factor in the hampered recovery of cod stocks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.)
Pressed on the separate question of depredation specifically the Party for Animal Welfare say “fisheries have caused the issue of the seals eating from nets” and they “should change their ways to be more sustainable for both fish and the environment”.
Conversely, however, NIFA/NIFO say decades of interactions with seals have already fundamentally changed Ireland’s inshore sector, and not for the better. “Anyone that is objective and familiar with these communities,” they say, “will attest to this.”
NIFA/NIFO highlight that on account of seal-fishery interactions, “Traditional, low impact fishing methods, such as fishing with small static nets and hooks and lines are no longer economically viable to many operators.”
“Many operators have diversified out of these fisheries into other fisheries such as potting and dredging, which may indeed be unsustainable, from an economic and environmental perspective, at its current scale.
“Some have diversified out of fishing completely, which in many instances has required them to leave our coastal communities, where year round employment opportunities are limited.”
Regarding recent media reports of fishermen threatening illegal culls which the Party for Animal Welfare have noted, NIFA/NIFO state: “It is unfortunate that it took these threats to get mainstream media attention.
“While we certainly do not condone these threats, (or any illegal activity for that matter), we do empathise with the frustration behind them. This frustration is borne out of decades of failure, failure to look at the issue in an open and pragmatic manner.”
Alongside failures by the State and various elected representatives, the inshore groups say that “various interests have tried to dominate the issue to further their own agenda” and these, they say, are also failing both the seals and fishing communities. “They do nothing but distract from the real issues regarding Seal Fisheries Interactions.”
Highlighting the complexity of the issue, which is so often lost in the mainstream narrative, while also crediting “the handful of politicians that have tried to highlight the issue”, NIFA/NIFO state that in terms of seal-fishery interactions there are many sperate issues involved, though some are interconnected.
“They include the impact an increasing seal population is having on fish stocks and biodiversity, but separately, and more importantly to our members, the direct impact seal depredation on fish already caught in nets and on lines, is having on the economic viability of our members.
“These issues need to be considered separately and pragmatically if the failure described above is to end.”
A framework for action
In terms of a potential way forward they say: “In 2015, the State developed “Deer Management in Ireland – A framework for Action” and have implementing the same since. Our members ask why similar can’t be done for Seals?
“If the protected status of Seals prohibits this, why can’t that protected status be reviewed? It was granted under conditions that have long since changed. To those that would oppose such a review, we would ask what have you to fear? If protected status is still warranted then any review will demonstrate that.
“If it is because the seal population is migratory, and does not respect terrestrial borders, then why can’t the State seek a transnational management approach? We understand from our fellow small scale fishers around Europe, indeed even around the North Atlantic, that they now find themselves in a similar situation, to that which our members do.
“The State has a responsibility to its citizens and the environment, a responsibility towards both fishing communities and seals. If we are to end this failure described above, we need to look at the issues that led to these protests openly and pragmatically.
“Despite doing so for years previous, it seems seals and inshore fishing communities, can no longer co-exist. We feel management might correct that. We feel it’s the only way of achieving a balance that might allow that co-existence.
“If the State can’t entertain that idea then it has a responsibility to our fishing communities to explain why, and offer a solution to those in that sector that can no longer sustain a livelihood.
“With the formation of a new government imminent we call on whoever will be involved to end this failure and put a process in place to allow these issues be addressed.
“Live up to your responsibilities and have the decency to allow them be addressed in a manner that doesn’t frustrate hard working people to an extent that they must openly threaten to take the law into their own hands.”