Irish inshore fishermen welcome the ICES recommendation to reopen the spurdog fishery and call on MInister McConalogue to fight for a decent share of the quota. Photo: EU Commission

Irish inshore fishermen welcome the ICES recommendation to reopen the spurdog fishery and call on MInister McConalogue to fight for a decent share of the quota. Photo: EU Commission

The recommendation by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) for the return of spurdog fishing in 2023 and 2024 has been welcomed by Irish inshore fishermen but how much quota Irish fishermen will be allocated remains a concern. 

The ICES released its advice for spurdog in subareas 1–10, 12, and 14 (the Northeast Atlantic and adjacent waters) that recommended total allowable catches in 2023 and 2024 to be set at 17,353 tonnes and 17,855 tonnes, respectively.

This will be the first time Irish boats will be able to target spurdog since 2009 when EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki passed a regulation outlawing the catching of sharks, to which spurdogs are a member. The decision by the Commissioner has caused many issues including a massive population explosion of the fish stock and hardship for inshore boats.

The massive population of spurdog on the coasts of Ireland and the UK have been eating other species of fish and shellfish, including juvenile and fry, without prejudice, impacting those fish stocks ability to recover.

Speaking to the fishermen of Leenan, Inishowen in July 2021, they expressed serious concerns over the impact of spurdogs on the general health of the marine ecosystem.

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Skipper of the Atlantic Grace, Robert Kearney told The Fishing Daily they were marking shoals of spurdog seven to eight fathoms deep, not just in places, but on a consistent basis.

“These predators eat everything from mackerel to small crab. Everything that comes inshore, they’re eating. We’ve never seen them as deep. Years ago, when we could fish them, we would mark them on the sounder, they would be a small dot and you would shoot your gillnets on that. Now they are everywhere” explained Robert.

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The Atlantic Grace unloading crab in Leenan, Inishowen, Co Donegal

So much so that they are interfering with the fishing boats capability to make a living from crab fishing or other species they are targeting, because not alone are they targeting fish of all sizes right down to fry and juvenile ages, they also thrash fishing gear. Instead of being able to profit from this fish stock, fishermen are trying to avoid them.

Robert says, “We drop our tangle nets for bait, there’s a good chance when we go out there could be a tonne of spurdog in the nets. A tonne of spurdog is worth between two to three thousand (euros) and we are throwing them back alive into the sea. We are throwing out the valuable fish and bringing in the scraps. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Robert like many inshore fishermen on the coast of Donegal have been left to depend heavily on crab fishing and he believes that there are both financial and environmental benefits to fishing spudog.

He said, “If we could fish a small percentage of them, it would help us and it would help all the small-fish stocks all round. It would mean we would reduce the number of spurdogs, which would give other fish stocks a chance to get a foothold again.”

For other inshore fishermen like Edward Gallagher of the 50-foot Ros Ard from Arranmore Island, Co Donegal, the past thirteen-years have seen them eke out a living on seasonal fishing of herring and pollock.

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The Ros Ard in Killybegs unloading a catch of herring in 2020

He told how they are also experiencing regular encounters with huge shoals of spurdog. They had tried fishing pots for crabs with the Ros Ard, but like Robert, were often finding huge catches of spurdog in their bait nets. Something that was affecting the profitability of the fishery as bait nets were often destroyed. He said:

“At the moment, they are in the bays here everywhere. There are boats fishing bait for the crabs using tangle nets. They are catching that much spurdog, they have to take the gear ashore to clear they nets. It’s only a fine mesh they use, and it destroys the gear on them.”

In order for there to be any rewards in the spurdog fishery, Edward says a boat like theirs would need between two to three tonnes of quota per month. If the this was combined with a decent quota for the North Western herring, inshore boats would begin to see some light at the end of a long dark tunnel of winter fishing. He believes spurdog should be kept as a valuable fishery by not allowing overfishing.

He says, “There’s no point starting off with a heap of quota and getting no money for it, it will take time to build the market. Going forward we can improve the market and improve the pricing if the fishery is handled properly.”

Developing a new market is an issue facing the reopening of the fishery because the marketplace for spurdog has either dried up or been replaced in the intervening years, and inshore fishermen will be looking to Bord Iascaigh Mhara to find it.

But the more pressing issue now is getting a quota share that will make the fishery viable. Edward says that he hopes Minister McConalogue will put their points across and get the Irish inshore boats a good percentage of the allocated quota.

When Minister McConalogue was asked if he will be working to ensure a high share of spurdog quota for the Irish fleet he replied:

“Under EU Regulation, it is currently prohibited to target, retain on board, tranship or land spurdog (also known as picked dogfish) in the waters around Ireland.  While there is a very limited quota available for use only in pilot schemes designed to reduce by-catches, any such schemes are subject to European Commission approval and must relate to reducing by-catches of dogfish in other fisheries, i.e. the targeting of dogfish would remain prohibited. 

The stock was subject to high harvest rates for more than four decades, and fisheries were not managed during this time.  The species is a long-lived, slow growing and late maturing species and is, therefore, particularly vulnerable to over-fishing. Conservation measures in recent years have reduced mortality significantly. 

The recent ICES scientific assessment gives a new perspective on the development of the stock and shows an increase in the biomass. As this stock is shared with the UK, the issue of removing spurdog from the list of prohibited species and setting a Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for the stock would have to be considered in the context of the upcoming EU-UK consultations on 2023 fishing opportunities for shared stocks. 

I am of the opinion that, following the positive scientific advice for the stock, this stock should be removed from the list of prohibited species. In the event that a TAC is set for spurdog, I will consider the management of Ireland’s quota for this stock in consultation with the Quota Management Advisory Committee (QMAC).”

by Oliver McBride

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