When Gary Gregg started competitive sea angling at the age of 19 there used to be as many as 400 competitors along the vast strands of Downhill or Benone.
Now numbers have plummeted to fewer than 30 at some of the same competitions — and he said the organisers are contemplating removing the minimum size rules as the fish have become so small.
“There was good prize money and it generated quite a lot of economic activity for the immediate area,” he said. “What was mostly available then was flat fish like turbot, plaice, flounder. The minimum size for weighing was about a foot — anything less would go straight back.
“Now some of the competitions are under 30 people, simply because the fish are not there. They’ve had to reduce and still further reduce the minimum size, down to 20cm — that’s a very small fish indeed. They’re talking about doing away with all the size limits. Up our coast there are very few fish at all.”
Gary, who represents the Irish Federation of Sea Anglers, blames commercial pressure for the lack of fish. “I no longer shore fish as there is no point, there’s nothing there. I had a small boat to fish from; there are days you’d go out, you’d be fishing all day and literally you’d catch nothing,” he said.
“We’ve been blessed with a very good mixed fishery due to the confluence of the oceans coming together with cold and warm water, but we've taken too much.”
The trawler fleets are constantly increasing in efficiency, which is bad news for fish stocks.
“There is nothing that the commercials can’t catch. Some of these species will be theoretically fished to extinction within two years,” added Gary.
The average person looks at the sea and pictures a rich undersea vista like something from an Attenborough documentary.
“But if Moses could roll back the sea at our coast, all he would see is a series of ploughed fields,” said Gary. “It’s dredging that destroys the whole ecosystem. It doesn’t get time to recover, because it’s being trawled and trawled again so there is not even the basis left for recovery. It’s untenable.”
Some vessels under 15 metres can even trawl right to the bare sand, Gary explained.
“The prawn makes up 97% of the catch in our waters. What if the prawns catch a bacterial disease and the whole industry is based on a prawn?” he said.
“Prawns are thriving, lobsters are thriving and they’re holding that up as a successful model. The reason they are doing well is that the cod are gone, the haddock are gone, the plaice are gone — all the fish that delivered a high revenue are gone.
“The predators have all been removed out of the food chain. The dogfish are thriving as they’re scavengers and there’s more food for them. But you’ll end up with a sea full of lobsters and prawns and dogfish and no fin fish. Our entire marine environment is out of balance as far as fin fish go.”