FISH LANDINGS WERE systematically recorded in Ireland from the end of the nineteenth century when collection of statistics was confined to the most valuable categories of marine produce: three pelagic, eight demersal and twelve shellfish species. The figures should not be regarded as a comprehensive account of everything that was caught and sold. We can assume, from historical sources, that others were consumed although, in the early twentieth century Ireland did not have a sizeable appetite for fish.
Gradually, as the years progressed, the list lengthened as additional species became acceptable and popular but it was not until the 1980s that the catalogue extended to anything like its current size of more than one hundred. Several factors contributed to this. One is the phenomenon of sizeable landed volumes resulting from unselective fishing techniques fuelling markets for constituent species which, had landings been lower, would not have attracted trade. Another is the growing scientific interest and knowledge which contributed to the recording of diversity. Many of the species which are currently logged make up a very low proportion of the total tonnage.
The volume of landings did not begin to rise until the late 1950s when Ireland became part of an international movement towards the adoption of industrial fishing techniques. Membership of the European Economic Community in 1973 brought investment through the Commission (civil service of the EEC) leading to the construction of a fleet which is currently too large for the resource. Total landings peaked in 1995 and they have declined to approximately half that volume since. The pattern of a gradual increase in landings during the early twentieth century, followed by an accelerated rise then a rapid decline is replicated in the statistics of individual species, like plaice, which have been reported throughout.
So much for the official figures but one has to ask whether the story they tell is accurate. Fisheries statistics are, after all, notoriously unreliable. Indeed, the term IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fisheries is universally understood and such activities occur virtually everywhere.
Unfortunately, quantifying the extent of illegal activities is fraught because they are just that. An unusual ray of light penetrated the industry in the early years of the twenty first century when a police investigation examined the extent of irregular landings along the west coast of Ireland. It concluded that multiples of quota were being landed (quota species making up some 60% of the total volume) but not reported. Additionally non-quota species were being mis-reported also for two main reasons: to explain why large volumes of fish were passing through auction halls and to manufacture “track record” so that, in the event of such species becoming regulated by quota at a later stage, the industry could claim a share of those landings. Despite the findings of the police inquiry, no retrospective adjustment was made to the official landings statistics.
A hard question that must be asked is whether the landings statistics mean anything useful and, if so, what. We know that some are reliable because there is an independent check of their veracity. What they probably reflect most truthfully is the volume of quota available to the nation. Quota species constitute some 90% of landing volume and care is exercised not to over-record permitted legal landings (“black fish”). Not to do so could result in sanctions against a member state of the EU and Ireland has, in the past, been required to “repay” over-quota landings – by having later quotas reduced.