There is little appetite for managing wild capture fisheries in Ireland because the political establishment and responsible government department dislike confrontation with the industry. Token regulation conforms to one of three models:

  • The rules are clear and sound but they are poorly enforced or not enforced at all.
  • The legislation is deficient because it is incompetently drafted, which allows the administration to maintain that regulations exist even though they are unfit for purpose. The industry is not troubled by the need to modify its activities. The Sea Fisheries (Common Fisheries Policy Community Control System) Regulations 2011 (Statutory Instrument [S.I.] No. 490 of 2011) made in exercise of powers granted to the Minister by the Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act of 2006, may well be the latest addition to this list.
  • Unnecessary regulations are contrived to give an impression that the industry is “highly regulated”, words which are used to introduce the latest Statutory Instrument (S.I.). This analysis of S.I. 31/2016 drafted by the Department of Agriculture Food and Marine (DAFM) is a case in point.


Large crustaceans (edible or brown crab, lobster, spider crab, velvet crab and crawfish) are captured by a variety of methods ranging from mobile gears (like trawls and dredges) to static nets and pots (also known as creels or traps). In common with the majority of commercial species, fishing pressure has intensified on all of these. Demands to curtail the expansion of gears have been variously expressed for half a century but, when the administration failed to respond it was each and every fisherman for himself and numbers of pots have risen exponentially.

In August 2015 Minister Simon Coveney launched a consultation on a novel approach to the problem. Claiming he had heard “concerns and strong views expressed about the potential volume of illegal sales of catch from non-commercial fishing boats” and this justified their regulation. Selling fish caught by a vessel which did not have a fishing licence was already illegal so that this pretext for a new regulation was weak. What data supported the need for such an initiative? We still do not know. Submissions generated by the public consultation which closed on 21 August have not been revealed and are not accessible by the public. Unlike other departments and agencies which justify the reasons for decision taking, DAFM is obsessively secretive about any facts that can be concealed. All we know is that the National Inshore Fisheries Forum which is managed by Bord Iascaigh Mhara and is heavily biased towards commercial fishermen – who would not necessarily be enthusiastic about competition from recreational fishermen for the crabs on lobsters on which their livelihoods depend – and fish processors – whose raw materials are provided by those same commercial fishermen, is the only source of information cited by the minister. We do not know at this stage, to what extent recreational fishermen compete with commercial fisheries or even whether a recreational pot fishery of any size exists at all. This is a deplorable lack of precedent for any regulatory activity.

The non-commercial pot fishing (lobster and crab) regulations 2016 published as S.I. No 31 of 2016 on 29 January 2016 which emerged from the farcical “consultation” make the following new provisions: a vessel which does not have a commercial fishing licence is not entitled to fish for lobster or crab outside a five month season, May to September inclusive; within this period such a vessel can fish only six pots; can retain only one lobster and five crabs per day and cannot hold in a storage box or tank any crab or lobster which had been prepared for this retention (had a claw banded or “nicked” to prevent it damaging others enclosed with it).

The new measure was justified on the grounds that it ensured that crustacean stocks are not over-fished but it does nothing of the kind. It was also promoted by DAFM as bringing regulations in the Republic into line with those in Northern Ireland but that is equally untrue. These mis-representations will be explained in detail under the following headings:

  • The nature and extent of the problem of crustacean over-fishing in the Republic of Ireland
  • Previous failed attempts to regulate the industry
  • Northern Ireland’s attempts to regulate its fisheries compared with those of the Republic
  • The product of the exercise
  • The nature and extent of the problem of crustacean pot over-fishing in the Republic of Ireland

Several species of large crustaceans are regularly captured in pots, the most abundant of them being brown crab which will be used as a proxy for all species in this account.

Fig 1 shows the distribution of brown crab landings to Ireland in 2003; certain areas were more productive than others and two, Cos Wexford and Donegal, provided the heaviest concentrations of landings per km of coastline.[i] There is no comprehensive register of pot numbers and, even if there were, there are several designs in use which may be fished for different immersion (soak) periods, so that standardisation and quantification of effort is not feasible. However, several local assessments exist and these demonstrate the expanding intensity of commercial fishing effort: 

Fig 1. Landings of brown crab to the Republic of Ireland in 2003 - from Fahy and Meredith (2005), ref i.

Fig 1. Landings of brown crab to the Republic of Ireland in 2003 – from Fahy and Meredith (2005), ref i.

Fifty years ago the total fishing effort amounted to 5,000 pots in Co Wexford. Thirty years later, in 1995, the numbers had doubled[ii] and seven years later, more than doubled again.[iii] Measured in another way, by the number of pots hauled, the increase in effort in the offshore Donegal fishery had increased dramatically over the 14 years from 1990: by almost 500 fold; this increase had been at the expense of the traditional inshore fishery in Co Donegal which had at the same time declined considerably.

Accompanying the increase in fishing effort, annual landings of brown crab to Ireland expanded between 1990 and 2004 from 3,500 to 14,000 tonnes (t); thereafter they declined to 6,500 t nine years later (Fig 2).[iv] There is no reason to believe that any reduction in pot numbers has occurred since. Thus, while fishing effort has continued to expand, landings have declined, a classic scenario where a reduction in fishing effort is urgently required.

Fig 2. Landings of brown crab to the Republic of Ireland, 1990 - 2014

Fig 2. Landings of brown crab to the Republic of Ireland, 1990 – 2014

  • Previous failed attempts to regulate the industry

Ireland’s accession to the E.E.C. had been accompanied by an insistent national demand for a 50 n mile exclusive fishery limit which was not granted. The prospect of Spain and Portugal entering the EEC in 1986 raised a frightening prospect of Ireland’s fishing grounds being invaded by the most powerful fleet in Europe and, to assuage fears, a rectangular “conservation area” (known as the Irish box) was put in place in 1985, to provide a decade in which the home fleet could adjust. Access to it by Spanish and Portuguese vessels was controlled;[v] initially they were excluded and, after 1996, up to 40 were allowed simultaneous access. Landings of marine fish by the Irish fleet increased steeply until 1995 after which they swiftly declined and there is little evidence of the “conservation box” having served any such purpose.

Attempts to extend the life of the Irish box beyond 1995 met with little enthusiasm from other member states. However, in 2003, a Biologically Sensitive Area (BSA) was substituted for it; one third the area of the conservation box, it came into effect in 2004 (Fig 3).[vi] Within its boundaries there would be conservation measures for demersal fish species and regulation of fishing effort for, among other species, brown and spider crabs. The BSA did not receive support from all other member states and, no doubt, that fact that it came into existence imposed some pressure to introduce regulatory measures to justify its creation. However, little urgency was displayed in doing so. In 2005 attempts were made to grasp the nettle and impose some kind of control on the situation and inhibit, if not definitively stop, the rise in fishing effort for crab.

On 11 November 2005, the Minister signed S.I. No. 705 of 2005[vii] which prohibited an Irish fishing boat of 10 metres overall length (oal) or greater, to fish for, have on board or tranship brown or spider crab within the BSA and to similarly regulate boats of 15 m oal or greater within the Celtic Seas (ICES sub-area VII). The regulation was weak enough because it did not prohibit the use of suitable gear which, it could be argued, targeted other large crustaceans, such as lobster or velvet crab. And it was a stated defence, printed on the S.I., that should the animals be discovered on board their presence might be explained as having originated outside the restricted areas. Boats less than 15 m oal, were permitted to target crab in the Celtic Seas and those under 10 m oal inside the BSA so there was no prohibition on the landing and sale of brown or spider crab species.

Nonetheless, weak and all as was the S.I., eleven days after it was published, another (S.I. No. 728/2005)[viii] was issued allowing larger vessels (those greater than 15 m oal) to fish for both crab species between 25 November and 9 December 2005 in the Celtic Seas. Already, official resolve was crumbling.

Departmental efforts at controlling these fisheries collapsed completely on 9 December 2005 when S.I. No. 789/2005 was signed into existence,[ix] 28 days after the first S.I. in the suite made its appearance. The latest regulation revoked S.I. 728, thus removing all restrictions on vessels of greater than 15 m oal and it specifically lifted restrictions on vessels of greater than 10 m oal fishing within the BSA after 1 January 2006, 23 days later.

One further Regulation completed this series: S.I. No. 790/2005[x] announced a prohibition on fishing for, having on board or transhipping brown and spider crab by vessels of 15 m oal or greater in ICES sub-areas V and VI (off the north-west coast of Ireland) between 16 December 2005 and 1 January 2006, a period of a fortnight.

These were the only gestures made by the fisheries administration towards stemming Ireland’s diminishing tonnage and value of brown crab landings. The individual regulations could be explained by incompetence, loss of nerve or deviousness. In its review of pot fishing in Northern Ireland the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) listed all or the statutory provisions which, at a superficial glance, look as though something was being done.[xi]

Fig 3. The Irish Box ( rectangular green) and the Biologically Sensitive Area (BSA) adjoining south west Ireland. Source of map: BSA2_ICESreport.jpg

Fig 3. The Irish Box ( rectangular green) and the Biologically Sensitive Area (BSA) adjoining south west Ireland. Source of map: BSA2_ICESreport.jpg

Effort controls were not welcomed by the industry and the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation, whose fleet membership included super-crabber tank-boats, the largest vessels targeting brown crab, was not slow in saying so in print as late as 2009.[xii] A year later, the North West crab fishery, from which those same boats had made substantial landings – in the 1990s 75% of all brown crab landed into Ireland were sourced there – collapsed as a result of over-fishing.[xiii] 


A press release issued by DAFM on 22 January 2016[xiv] described the latest pot regulations as “similar to restrictions that apply in Northern Ireland under the Unlicensed Fishing for Crabs and Lobster Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008”[xv]; however, they differ in several details and in one very significant provision. The Northern Ireland regulation stipulates that recreational pots must be clearly marked with a buoy which identifies their owner. There is no such regulation in the Republic and one can only speculate why. If gear is unmarked, then it is not feasible to identify its owner and this would be very much in the DAFM tradition of devising unworkable regulations. Alternatively, it might be construed that marking such gear would demonstrate its rarity, compared with the amount of effort exerted by the commercial sector and, hence, expose the futility of this gesture at curtailing effort in a fishery that has been out of control from many years.

This question prompts a comparison between the crustacean fisheries of Northern Ireland and the Republic. In both pot fisheries are sporadically documented, some of the more important fishing areas being described in greater detail than others. The dramatic increase in the numbers of pots set in the Republic has already been referred to and a similar phenomenon appears to be a fact in Northern Ireland, although the types of pots are not distinguished (numbers of crab/lobster, shrimp and whelk pots are amalgamated) and pot hauls more than doubled there between 2006 and 2010.[xvi]  But Northern Ireland, in contrast to the Republic, recognized that a problem exists.

In 2003 the UK Restrictive Shellfish Licensing Scheme capped levels of crab and lobster fishing and thus froze fishing effort. Only vessels with track record were permitted to operate pots and any new entrants to this sector had to obtain an existing licence. Coincidentally, the Republic introduced a “Scheme for the Licensing of Traditional Pot Fishing Boats” which was due to close on 18 June 2003; in fact it was completed in August 2006.[xvii] This measure added 492 extra boats to 950 which were already licensed to use pots by virtue of having a “polyvalent general licence”. In 2010 some 1,665 vessels were legally entitled to fish these gears commercially in the Republic,[xviii] amounting to13 times greater than in Northern Ireland where, in the same year, 129 vessels reported landings from pots. Potting is considered an inshore activity although some crab harvesting extends to the shelf edge, so it is relevant to compare boat numbers in relation to lengths of coastline. The coastline of the Republic is eight times longer than that of Northern Ireland (5,800 as opposed to 700 km)[xix]; the Republic supports, in a currently open-ended licencing regime, 1.6 times per km the number of potting vessels based in Northern Ireland.   

In other respects, size limits for crab species and the V-notching regulations for lobster, the rules for the management of crab and lobster fisheries in Northern Ireland and the Republic approximate; how rigidly they are enforced may reveal disparities.

  • What has the latest gesture towards crustacean pot regulation achieved?

S.I. 31/2016, whose purpose is the regulation of the recreational pot fishery for crabs and lobsters, was issued to coincide with the announcement that €240 million from the European Commission (the European Maritime Fisheries Fund, EMFF), much of it generously donated by the Irish taxpayer in matching funds, will be injected into the over-capitalised fishing industry during the period up to 2020. The S.I. is a gesture towards regulating a fishery, the commercial sector of which is in dire need of reducing fishing effort.

Other than generating some favourable comment by acknowledging the need for management without incurring the wrath of an industry that does not take kindly to being regulated, the S.I. achieves nothing of practical benefit. Its design mitigates against it being effective. The existence of a recreational fishery is unquantified and, if it exists at all, does not amount to more than a tiny fraction of commercial fishing effort, hence the need for its regulation is unproven.

The formulation of any regulation without just cause undermines good practice. Concealing information and data relevant to prudent decision taking is unacceptable.

Constraining pot-fishing effort within the terms of S.I. No. 31 of 2016 has no justification of its stated purpose, for the “sustainability” of resources. It is a stunt, with no obvious purpose other than appeasing the only identified interest-body consulted and broadcasting the impression that some desirable conservation objective was being pursued, thus reflecting favourably on the department (DAFM) and the responsible minister, Mr Simon Coveney. The regulation does not confront or ameliorate the problem of over-fishing.

Other likely consequences include the diversion of inspection time and effort by the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority into checking recreational fisheries, away from the more pressing needs of containing commercial over-fishing. It also discourages a legitimate recreational public participation in marine activities which is desirable and, on the evidence available, not excessive.  

18 February 2016


[i]David Meredith and Edward Fahy (2005) The status of the inshore component of the norther brown crab Cancer pagurus fishery, assessed from a time series of LPUE constructed from historical sources Marine Institute: Irish Fisheries Bulletin (23): 44 Pp 14.

[ii] The Marine Institute (2001). The Stock Book: Annual review of fish stocks in 2000 with management advice for 2001: 34.

[iii] Oliver Tully, Martin Robinson, Ronan Cosgrove, Eimear O’Keeffe, Owen Doyle and Bridget Lehane (2006) The brown crab (Cancer pagurus L.) Fishery: Analysis of the resource in 2004-2005 Bord Iascaigh Mhara, Fisheries Resource Series No 4 Pp 48.

[iv] Marine Institute and Bord Iascaigh Mhara (2014) Shellfish stocks and fisheries review. Pp 68.

[v] The Law of the Sea: The European Union and Its Member States (eds Tullio Treves and Laura Pineschi) Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. Consulted on 8 February 2016.

[vi] Conservation area to replace Irish Box 14 October 2003. Accessed on 8 February 2016.

[vii] S.I. No. 705/2005 – Crab (Fisheries Management and Conservation) (No.2) regulations 2005, 11 November 2005.

[viii] S.I. No. 728/2005 – Crab (Fisheries Management and Conservation) (No.3) regulations 2005, 22 November 2005

[ix] S.I. No. 789/2005 – Crab (Fisheries Management and Conservation) (No.4) regulations 2005, 9 December 2005

[x] S.I. No. 790/2005 – Crab (Fisheries Management and Conservation) (No.6) regulations 2005, 12 December 2005

[xi] DARD Pot fishing in Northern Ireland – prepared by AFBI Fisheries and Aquatic Ecosystems Branch for DARD Fisheries and Environment Division. Pp 37.

[xii] Proposal from KFO to manage crab effort in the Biologically Sensitive Area. Dated 24 March 2009.

[xiii] Fahy, E (2010) The fate of the North West crab fishery indicts both management and research The Skipper November 2010: 30

[xiv] Minister Coveney introduces management measures for non-commercial pot fishing. Press release from issued 22 January 2016

[xv] Statutory Rules of Northern Ireland 2008 No. 185.

[xvi] DARD Pot fishing in Northern Ireland – prepared by AFBI Fisheries and Aquatic Ecosystems Branch for DARD Fisheries and Environment Division. Pp 37.

[xvii] Written answers to Dail questions, Parliamentary question No. 167; ref No. 12318/14

[xviii] Marine Institute and Bord Iascaigh Mhara (2014) Shellfish Stocks and Fisheries Review Pp 68

[xix] A.M. O’Hagan and J. Andrew G. Cooper (2002) Journal of Coastal Research. Special Issue, 36: 544-551. Spatial variability in approaches to coastal protection in Ireland