IN 2013 I PUBLISHED a book Overkill! recounting the rapid expansion and equally fast but more painful decline of Ireland’s marine fisheries. Until the 1950s the industry languished in the doldrums for want of interest and investment. Then a series of initiatives gradually coaxed market expansion. Ireland’s entry to the European Economic Community in 1973 coincided with the provision of structural funds for fleet and ancillary developments, generously distributed by the Community’s civil service (Commission), to purchase acquiescence with its new Common Fisheries Policy. Indiscriminate trawling on an industrial scale spread to all waters inside and around the territorial sea as the technology evolved to cope with a variety of physical challenges.
For some twenty years, landings expanded along with fleet capacity but around the end of the last century it became apparent that the limits of living marine resources had been reached. The most vulnerable showed the strain fastest: long lived deep sea species had a brief commercial life. Whitefish had been declining for a number of years and the demise of cod in the Irish Sea became a widely recognized disaster. But others suffered too, ranging from demersal through pelagic and most recently shellfish species until virtually all commercial fisheries have developed symptoms of over-exploitation.
The collapse of the biological base for the small but charismatic fishing industry, left vessels to scramble for what was left. It has not been an edifying sight as greed and law-breaking became commonplace and smaller operators, the majority of fishing vessel owners, saw their livelihoods swallowed up by larger boats, the most powerful and prosperous of them belonging to Fish Producer Organisations.
Initially, fisheries stock recovery plans were introduced and administered. Unfortunately the industry chose not to co-operate with them. A fractious and troubled catching sector, inclined to blockade ports when negotiations get tough, earned the respect of government which preferred to let sleeping dogs lie. Regulatory agencies took a similar approach and marine science has fallen into line. Rather than constantly warn about the loss of fish biomass and species, the establishment promotes vague “optimistic” indicators of environmental health. So that while stocks continue to deteriorate, the ordinary citizen is unaware of the unfolding tragedy.
What is taking place in Ireland has particular national characteristics but the circumstances may not differ very dramatically from those further afield, in the EU and more generally throughout the world. This website has been launched to explore these issues and update the story-lines opened in Overkill!