Home > About Us > Press & News > Press Releases > 2008 – Irish Seal Sanctuary Plays its Part by Johnny Woodlock

When the Irish Seal Sanctuary was set up originally in Skerries Seals were the figurehead animals but our concern was for the health of entire Marine Environment for all. So the Seal Sanctuary was never simply just about Seals. Under Brendan Price the Seal Sanctuary also established the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, and its members served on many of the I.W.D.G.s early committees and sub-committees. Indeed we still attend the International Whaling Commission as environmental N.G.O.s. When the E.U. established the Regional Advisory Councils (RACs) in 2005 to get stakeholder input to the Common Fisheries Policy. The Irish Seal Sanctuary was offered a seat on the Executive committee. Thus the Fishery Advisory Group came into existence. We attend the Working Group 4 meetings and executive meeting of the North West waters R.A.C. (NWWRAC). This Working Group covers the V11a area as defined by ICES, which includes the Irish Sea.

ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea) are the international scientific body, which advises the EU Fisheries Commission of the state of fish stock in its waters. I was asked to join the Fishery Advisory Group in 2006 as an angler and environmental Scientist to write and present a paper about discards in the Irish Sea. I have lived in Skerries all my life I have seen the harbour packed with boats, all making a decent living from fishing, and I have also in the past seen the entire harbour covered with dead small Whiting which were discarded from the Prawn trawlers. Our Group is made up of ex-commercial fishermen with lot of experience in trawling and salmon drift and draft netting, myself, and occasional others invited to give their opinion and or advise in subjects where we may be deficient. We have close ties with the European Anglers Alliance and other Environmental NGOs. Our mission statement is to ensure the sustainability of our Marine resources for all. Bearing in mind the socio-economic effects of any action on our coastal communities. (To the great surprise of many this includes the livelihood of Commercial fishermen). To this end we are trying to encourage selective and sustainable se of our Marine resources. Perhaps you can imagine my surprise and probably theirs also when we arrived into a meeting room full of “Men in Suits” the commercial fishermen’s representatives from all attending countries, and all paid to lobby for their fishermen translation gear and all the pomp of a EU meeting. At first there were quite a few Environmental NGOs present but many thought they were up against an immovable object, but we stuck at it. This year we were proved right to do so. We made a submission to the EU and the RAC early in 2007, that various species of fish receive special treatment. Due to the fact that they are endangered or becoming so, (usually because of commercial pressure). This list included various Shark species and Bluefin Tuna. Last year the Commission released its proposed Community Plan of Action on Sharks and asked for submissions from interested parties. The Fishery Advisory Group of the Irish Seal Sanctuary made the only submission from Ireland. However in February of 2008 the NWWRAC met and on the agenda the commercial interests wanted changes made to the plan of action, part of which intended to stop commercial exploitation of Spurdogs.

The fishermen argued that they rarely caught spurdog and admitted that they were only worth fishing for at certain times. I pointed out that this is because they form spawning aggregations and huge numbers of pregnant females can be caught at once.

Although worldwide Spurdog are fairly common. The population in the East Atlantic is thought to have dropped by 95% over the past number of years. One boat caught two hundred boxes of spurdog in one day near Lambay Island. These fish were landed in Northern Ireland. I remember catching them on Mackerel feathers not far off Skerries in the seventies. The commercial fishermen agreed that they were scarcer than they had been. The World Wildlife Fund and the European Anglers Alliance backed our call that the proposed ban on targeted fisheries is left in place. But we were the main objectors . In its report to the Fishery Commission the RAC stated that commercial interests wanted the proposal changed. We insisted that our objections be included, which they were.

Subsequently, the EU reaffirmed its position on Spurdog and has left in place the 5% limit on landings to allow for any caught while targeting other fish. It is now not allowed to target these fish. As sharks Spurdog are slow to reproduce and in fact are thought to have the longest gestation period of any vertebrate (18-24 months) which can be longer than an elephant. They give birth to live young (in fact their eggs hatch in the female and they feed on unfertilised eggs until they are big enough to survive outside the mother. Known as an ovoviviparous method of reproduction).