Sea bass: the latest fashion in ecological genocide

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The summer-run fish should be here at Ardmore by now. By mid-July the shoals of bass should be patrolling the West Waterford beaches from Ballyquinn in the east to Caliso Bay in the west. But if the evidence of the past few nights is anything to go by, the bass are not there. It isn't just my own experience. Talk to most shore fishermen along the coast and they tell a similar tale. The great silver fighter -
Dicentrarchus labrax - is getting harder and harder to find. True, there isn't much surf about at the moment, nothing to churn up the sand and deliver worms and crabs to a hungry bass. But the absence of strong tides is only a small part of the reason. Greed and short-sightedness are the main culprits.

The summer-run fish should be here at Ardmore by now. By mid-July the shoals of bass should be patrolling the West Waterford beaches from Ballyquinn in the east to Caliso Bay in the west. But if the evidence of the past few nights is anything to go by, the bass are not there. It isn't just my own experience. Talk to most shore fishermen along the coast and they tell a similar tale. The great silver fighter - Dicentrarchus labrax - is getting harder and harder to find. True, there isn't much surf about at the moment, nothing to churn up the sand and deliver worms and crabs to a hungry bass. But the absence of strong tides is only a small part of the reason. Greed and short-sightedness are the main culprits.

In this, the week that the critical state of some cod stocks have been highlighted, we have to admit that the sea bass may not be far behind. To most of you I suspect the sea bass represents nothing much more than an ultimate symbol of trendy cuisine. Steamed sea bass. Expensive and exclusive, the fish with cachet. It is not hard to trace the upsurge in the popularity of sea bass as a gourmet dish. The seafood market is fiercely fashion-conscious. When salmon farming made that fish widely available, the restaurateurs discovered the lure of monkfish; when monkfish became ever so slightly passé, the sea bass emerged to become the favoured fish of the well-heeled professional.

In the past, the bass was a fish anglers treasured and diners ignored. To those of us who remember the days when the sea bass moved in thick shoals off the coast - and in these parts I am talking of only 20 years ago - the famine of these present days signals an ecological disaster. In 10 more years we may well have seen the last of the sea bass. My friend and neighbour John King is a marine biologist who has fished the waters around here all of his life. A bad night's fishing was when you caught three or four fish. "In those days the gourmet hadn't discovered the taste for bass and the commercial fishermen hadn't discovered monofilament nets to catch them. We had it all to ourselves. We never took more than we needed."

Indeed I remember one epic night on Ballyquinn beach, famous for its surf on a spring tide, when some 70 fish were caught. They were measured and weighed and most were returned alive to the water. In those pre-green days, we were taught the value of conservation by older anglers. These days you would be lucky to catch three or four bass in an entire summer season.

My memory of bass fishing begins in the early Seventies. The daily ritual began with the digging of lugworm on the ebb tide. It was back-breaking work, digging hole after hole in the wet sand until we had amassed enough worms for a night's fishing. Over the years I learned the best places to fish and the best tactics for different places: an offering of lugworm or soft peeler crab from the shore at Ballyquinn, a strip of mackerel from the rocks behind Goat Island, a sand-eel float fished from therock beneath Father O'Donnell's well.

Fishermen are attuned to the secret geography of the coast, the landscape beneath the seascape. They will know the places where the incline of the beach offers deep water close to the shore, the places where rocky ground will draw the bass in to feed on the crabs and smaller fish, the beaches prone to heavy drifts of seaweed which can consume vast amounts of expensive tackle. I suspect the only time I am ever truly relaxed is standing on a beach before a spring tide, waiting for the tell-tale knock on the end of the line. The bass is a fierce fighter, a fish who tests the skill and strength of the sea angler in the same way that the salmon challenges the river fisherman. The bass is also - according to the latest research - a highly territorial fish, living out its life along the same stretch of coastline.

Thus, when you get commercial fishermen using monofilament nets (invisible curtains of nylon hanging in the water) across a limited stretch of water, it is possible to wipe out an entire local stock. When this kind of fishing is replicated up and down the coast - as is happening in Britain - the long-term future of the fish is threatened. In the English Channel there are an estimated 40 French boats and 12 British boats engaged in what is called "pair trawling". A net with a circumference of a mile is hauled through the water by a pair of powerful boats, scooping up the fish as they spawn. According to a chilling and well-researched article in the latest Sea Angler magazine, the pair trawlers landed 196 tonnes of bass last year. There is no figure for what the larger French fleet brought home to its ports.

By contrast, the angler returns most of his catch. There is a high level of ecological awareness in the sea-angling community: we know that if the small fish are not returned the species will vanish. The female sea bass takes eight years to reach sexual maturity (roughly twice the length of time it takes for a cod). The lengthy breeding cycle means a slow replenishment of stock.

British bass anglers spend an average of £19m per annum pursuing their sport. That money is pumped directly into the local economies of coastal towns and villages, many in disadvantaged areas such as Cornwall. The angling industry has the potential to grow and grow; with conservation of fish stocks it is possible to preserve a resource that brings both enjoyment and profit. The problem with commercial fishing is that it concentrates entirely on profit, hoovering up everything in its path with no thought for the future.

The crisis in the Irish sea became so great that the bass fishery was closed down for the best part of a year. In some American states they have resorted to drastic measures to save their fish. In Connecticut, for example, there is no commercial fishing allowed. The commercial fishermen will say that closing fisheries will mean job losses; the restaurateurs will complain that a cherished dish will disappear.

The trawlermen must face the fact that if they keep fishing bass at the current rate, there will be nothing left to catch in 10 years' time. And the chefs will have to depend on the farmed bass of Europe. Perhaps in a decade we can think of reopening the fishery, but only under the strictest conditions with limited quotas for each boat. Lest you think I exempt the angler from all responsibility, I believe it is time we got around to licensing rod fishing for bass. The money raised through the licence can be invested in badly needed research into the bass and its life cycle.

Closing down fisheries for an extended period can have a remarkably rejuvenating effect on stock levels. Consider what happened during the Second World War, when naval action closed the fisheries around the coast of Britain and Ireland. When peace came and the fisheries were reopened, stocks had returned to healthy levels.

It is not too late for the bass to be saved. But the Government needs to take the matter in hand. Part of the process will involve engaging with the commercial fishing lobby and considering compensating commercial fishermen for the loss of part of their livelihood. This will stick in the craw of many anglers, but persuading the industry to abandon the destruction of the bass stocks solely on ecological grounds seems doomed to failure. In the meantime, I will keep fishing and hoping.

 

The writer is a BBC special correspondent

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