Anglers have warned that emergency measures may have to be introduced to protect plummeting stocks of the world famous and unique dollaghan trout, which is only found in the Lough Neagh system.
They fear that despite a breeding programme that introduces a million-and-a-half young dollaghan into the wild each year, the plunge in numbers returning to spawn is linked to the recession as people turn to illegal fishing to earn extra money.
The Ulster Angling Federation is warning that tighter curbs may have to be placed on the activities of legitimate commercial fishermen to give trout and salmon stocks a chance to recover to previous levels.
The warning comes as it emerged poachers are trying to dupe bailiffs from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure by giving them false tip-offs about illegal fishing on Lough Neagh.
The criminals are contacting Fisheries Protection Officers employed by the department to warn them of illegal fishing activities. Once the DCAL officers set off to investigate, the poachers attempt to carry out their illegal fishing at a different part of the lough, sometimes 30 miles away.
In July, Fisheries Protection Officers carried out 31 patrols on Lough Neagh, covering areas such as river mouths. They have also checked boats and fishing gear.
Between April 1 last year and the end of March this year, they seized 91 fyke and panel nets (used to catch eels), most of them on Lough Neagh. The panel nets totalled more than 48km in length.
Now DCAL is appealing to water users giving genuine tip-offs to do so directly to DCAL or through the Northern Ireland Environment Agency pollution hotline outside office hours (freephone 0800 80 70 60).
The Ulster Angling Federation is calling for emergency action as its members are reporting an increase in illegal fishing and net-marked fish being caught in rivers.
“It’s destroying the trout stocks and salmon stocks and we need to get it stopped. But how we do that is very difficult to know,” development officer Robbie Marshall said.
“DCAL has only 11 bailiffs on the ground to cover the whole of the DCAL area, which is not just Lough Neagh. They are spread too thin. I think the big change is that given the current economic conditions, quite a lot of people around Lough Neagh would have been in the building trades and because there are no jobs they turn to other things to get money.”
The Ulster Angling Federation says a number of illegal nets have been set in the Lurgan/Craigavon area of Lough Neagh, all of them monofilament, by fishermen trawling for bait fish and taking adults in the process. The nets are being set in late afternoon and lifted at 3am. In July DCAL bailiffs carried out 24 boat patrols and seven shore patrols. Between April 1, 2011 and March 31, 2012 they seized 91 fyke and panel nets.