In the third podcast of the series, Oliver McBride speaks to Pat Close, Chair of the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative
My name is Oliver McBride.
Today I have Pat Close from the Lough Neagh Fisherman’s Cooperative, and he’s here to speak about issues facing the eel fishery on Lough Neagh. Welcome Pat.
Pat Close: Thank you very much, Oliver.
Oliver McBride: So, what’s happening with the fisheries unlocking at the moment?
Pat Close: Well, in relative terms, this is a reasonably quiet time for us.
There are different elements to our operation here I suppose on the on the with regard to the eel sector, it can be divided into the restocking of the lough, fishing for brown eels during the summer months and the fishing for the mature silver eels in the autumn months.
So, at this point in time, we’re just lining up to begin our program of restocking the lock over the next few.
There are two elements to that:
One is what we refer to as a natural recruitment of elvers into this river-based industry and the other is supplementary starting where we try to source glass eels from other areas in Europe where surpluses occur.
So, that’s our, that’s our focus at the moment amongst a number of challenges that we have to address this year arising from Brexit and related issues that are causing I know some concerns just now.
Oliver McBride: And what was the trade like before, pre-Brexit?
Had you any issues or do you think will be facing issues in the future because of the Brexit?
Pat Close: Well, I think undoubtedly, we will be facing issues.
Some of those issues are directly relating to to Brexit, others are as a consequence of Brexit.
If you like to put it that way, and probably that latter category is the one that’s causing most concern at this point in time.
I need to explain that pre-Brexit our main market was in continental Europe. About 80% of our throughput, which it could amount to 280 to 300 tons of eels on an annual basis. 80% of those were going into the Netherlands, some of it would have been sold in northern Germany and Belgium and neighbouring countries but for the most part that we used with in Holland and would retail does a smoked eel product or high-end product, a high-value product.
Lough Neagh, apart from being the largest wildfire in Europe, is renowned for the quality of its produce and that’s not due to anything that we any input we have. It’s the nature of the lake, the ecology of the lake, the biodiversity and the feeding in the lake, all of those things, produce fish of reasonably high value and certainty top quality.
Now, the basic issue here is that a number of years ago with fact in 2007, Europe introduced regulations to address a decline in the stock levels of the European eel, and I should explain that the species of eel found in Lough Neagh, Anguilla anguilla to give it is Latin name, is also known as European eel, is exactly the same space is found throughout Europe, and indeed North Africa as well.
So, the significance of that is that whatever happens in this jurisdiction, for example, is seen to have an impact throughout Europe because it is a single stock fish and, there’s no getting away from the fact that there has been a significant decline in the recruitment of these juvenile face coming back into the system.
Now the eels cannot be bred commercially in activity although the scientists have cracked it to an extent, but that’s decades in the future and whether it’s affordable or not is another issue, but wild fisheries such as this and agriculture units, or eels farms across the continent are depend on recruiting those juvenile fish from the wild.
The European eel breeds in the Saragossa Sea in the Gulf of Mexico, three and a half thousand miles from here and those fish are carried on global currents to the coastlines of Europe, including Ireland and in our case, the Lower River Bann.
And there’s no getting away for the fact that for the last 30 years there’s been significant decline in those, hence the regulations to address that.
Those regulations brought about restrictions in terms of intensity of fishing and where you could import or export to. Now, that was all encapsulated in what are known as Eel Management Plans, and there was something like 115 of these across Europe.
Ours was approved in 2010. That program and in our involved supplementary restocking. In other words, buying an additional face to maintain a certain intensity of fishing and since then we have remained compliant with the requirements of that, if you want to call it a license from Europe to do so. Our trade was primarily with the continental Europe and GB as well, where the balance of the 19/20% of our production went into London. Where these will be eventually retreat retailed as a jellied eel product, which is a very traditional way of presenting eel meat, particularly in the East End of London.
Now, of course things have changed. We are grateful that because of the influence of the North Ireland Protocol that has meant that we retained access to our European market, so we have that 80% outlet if you like.
The problem is that GB is now in European terms, a third country, and as I said earlier, the restrictions on the trade had previously meant that we could only trade within Europe between Member States within Europe.
So therefore, straight away we have lost the potential to market our eels in GB.
That’s one problem.
The additional problem associated with that is that we would rely quite heavily on sourcing supplies of glass eels from the Bristol Channel area in Southwest England and because this restriction in the trade of fields of any life states applies to juvenile fish as well, then as it stands at the moment, we cannot perform our annual restocking program in the same way, by sourcing these supplies from GB and usually that would amount to three or four million fish on an annual basis.
So that’s where we were before. Now the only potential solution to that problem is to source these glass eels from elsewhere within the EU most notably we will be looking towards France.
We have imported from France in the past and we’re doing so negotiating to do so now you over the next few days.
One of the practical issues related to that is that normally that import of these juvenile fish we prefer to keep until about March, April time when water temperatures within our own lake here have risen a little and we were more confidence in in maximizing survival rates and so on.
The French season, on the other hand, tends to happen a bit earlier.
These juvenile fish or less cool hearted juvenile fish would have first been seen in the southern regions of Europe as far back as November, December last year, starting in Spain and Portugal and heading north and now in France.
Eventually they will arrive in GB in the next two or three weeks, but you have to strike while the iron is hot in this case, because there’s a very short season, it’s a matter of few weeks, and if you sit on your hands and wait for things to happen for you, you will miss the boat quite literally.
So, we’re at the moment, we’re going ahead with imports from France next week and one of the issues is that having to go in that direction adds to the cost. We’re seeing a significant increase in the cost, possibly as much as 50% over what we might have expected to pay for the glass eels this year.
So that’s the issue of this exercise is mostly at the moment we are lobbying public representative on both sides of the Irish Sea there you see to look at this problem because there’s a serious issue here with the glass eel fishery on the Severn and River Parrett.
And that the table that particular industry supports a couple of 100 fishermen as well, like ourselves. We have 250 fishermen getting some livelihood from the industry on Lough Neagh.
But equally there are glass eel fishermen within e GB that currently cannot operate either until there’s further clarity in this and aside from that, my opinion on all of this is that the original regulation introduced by Europe and presumably will be transposed into UK law if not already.
But the intention of that regulation was to address the decline and bring about a recovery in stock levels.
It’s nothing to do with trade or commerce, it’s purely and simply about the species, and I would contend that what’s happening this year and potentially will continue to happen in years to come is that these millions of fish which are arriving in the Bristol Channel area have an innate instinct to move from the saltwater environment into freshwater rivers and onwards onto headline lakes and so on further upstream.
My concern is if they’re not being fished for if they’re not been translocated to wild fisheries such as ours
which I would contend is, is the primary destination for them, at least it should be, or to eel farms, then the likelihood is that millions of these fish will perish, and that’s contrary to the intent of the regulation in my opinion.
So basically, we’re lobbying. lot of people have influence to see if something can be looked at in terms of the derogation here, but because it’s not simply a commercial model the influence of the CITES Group, which is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, their influencer is a significant player in this.
The approach taken by the Scientific Review Group in Europe, which advises policymakers says that they because it’s a single stocks basis they cannot look in isolation at a certain jurisdiction or even a Member State, so they can only take a sort of a pan-European approach to this and we feel that in ther interest of the industry on both sides of the Irish Sea that there needs to be consideration given to a solution to this by way of derogation or whatever, but it’s
potentially is going to tell a bad tale for ourselves in the long run if we cannot continue with our restocking program to the level that we regard as satisfactory. And the scientists tell us at the lake the size of Lough Neagh each about 8 to 10 million juvenile eels introduced every year, either by way of natural recruitment or through additional restocking, but yeah, the size the lake can easily sustain that sort of number. We would reckon we need close to that to sustain the current fishing intensity, which we regard as the bare minimum to provide a reasonable livelihood for those who are engaged in it at the moment.
It’s just to put that in context, there are about 100 boats, small inland boats fishing for eels and Lough Neagh.
For quite a few a few of them it is seasonal. Well, it is seasonal anyhow, but a number of them will fish a few weeks during the summer.
All those on the other hand, will fish throughout the season from May to the end of October, and in the course of that they generate, the fishing industry on Lough Neagh, they contribute in excess for £3,000,000 annually to the local rural economy. So, it’s important.
We are deeply concerned about what’s going to happen to us in the long run because of some of these unintended consequences that we’re now confronted with.
Oliver McBride: How many people does the industry employ, if its full-time workers part time workers?
Pat Close: The fishermen themselves are self-employed Oliver, so they’re not employees of the cooperative, so they’re not employees of the cooperative as such.
The cooperative would have, well it varies because of the different needs at certain times that season, but usually between 16 and 20 staff.
Labour staff needs increase in the autumn time where there is silver eel fishing on the river here and we do need to bring in extra help and at that stage we would normally employ a few of our fishermen from the last because of their experience to help us here on site at the cooperative.
But yeah, or typical employment levels around 16 to 20.
Oliver McBride: So, when you recruit young eels from, say, like France, what would be the difference between, price wise, between recruiting for France and recruiting them from like Bristol?
Would it be more expensive or would it be, what would be the extra costs that would be involved?
Pat Close: There are extra costs involved.
The price of glass eels is notoriously volatile and will depend on, I mean the counter variations from season to season and the quantities of these fish are available for purchase, you know, regarding the surpluses in their own jurisdictions.
And there’s always competition from eel farms as well, and that tends to push the price up.
In the past, there would have been competition from interest outside of the particularly in Asia that are in the past, has been responsible for pushing prices literally beyond our reach, but part of the regulations introduced back in 2007 eventually work themselves through too, on a sliding scale, to the point where the export of these glass eels to any jurisdiction outside of Europe is no banned.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been issued for a black market in them, but nevertheless, prices have remained high. And the do vary as the season goes on, depending on how successful a season it is in terms of catches.
As we as as we speak today about it, we’re hoping to import the glass eels next week, and at this point in time there are approximately costing us 50% more than the average price we paid in 2020.
Oliver McBride: So, that’s a big increase in the price.
Pat Close: Or maybe to put that in context Oliver, I should add that our total expenditure, for example in glass eel starting last year was 1/3 of a million or £333,000.
Oliver McBride: And how much would the fisheries generate for the Northern Ireland economy in the year? Would it be a big contributor?
Pat Close: We are significant contributors to the local rural economy certainly. Our annual turnover is three to three and a half million pound per year. Again, because it’s a wild fishery it can fluctuate, you know a few hundred on either side, but on average in the past 10 years we have regularly been around £3 million turnover per annum.
Oliver McBride: And the fisheries on Lough Neagh was very, very big fisheries at one time, a big natural fishery, and that declined some years back. But do you see the reintroduction of young eels into Lake.
Does that benefit the environment?
Does it keep a regulation and in the on the Lake that would be missing after they weren’t brought in?
Pat Close: Absolutely, we regard ourselves a very significant contributor to the Lake and the conservation efforts are made on Lough Neagh.
It is true to say that in the past there would have been more people involved in the eel industry on Lough Neagh. I should add, by the way, that there’s also fishing for other species of fish which we collectively call scale fish or freshwater fish, such as trout, Lough Neagh pollan, bream, roach, pike and perch, but concentrating on eels, in the past, we could have had 150 to 180 books fishing on Lough Neagh for eels. Now that’s down to about 100 to 110.
And there are a number of reasons for that. I think we’re not like, probably like sea-fisheries across the world, we’re not attracting young people into the industry because they have better opportunities and work which is less dangerous, better paid and all of those good things, but I think we’re at a point now where with our restocking program and our very strict conservation measures, which include a limit on the number of licence, we operated a quota system over 40 years ago, before it was fashionable to do so in terms of fisheries. So, we’ve been very proactive throughout the life of
the cooperative, which is, incidentally was which was first established in 1865. We have over 50 years of a track record of being very sound custodians of the fisheries on Lough Neagh and when we acquired the scale fishing rights back in the early 90s that completed the loop for us so to speak.
As I often remained fishermen, without them by the way, we have been and are in a position where in many respects the success of Lough Neagh going into the future, aside from the external influences were discussing at the moment or being challenged with at the moment. The future of the fisheries in in the hands of the fishermen.
That’s where it belongs. They are proper custodians of the lake and if they don’t buy into the ethos of the Coop and the idea of conserving Lough Neagh, we have to acknowledge that it’s a valuable natural resource, but we also must recognize it’s a not finite resource if it’s not properly then there is no future. So, everything that we have done for decades on Lough Neagh is pointing towards sustainability. That’s essentially what we’re about and we have been successful enough, particularly in relation to eels, in the sense that both are management and control.
Management and regulation, I suppose, is the best way to put it, because we do impose restrictions we do impose, particular measures at particular times a year or field status or all of the results, and that we have a proven track record and there’s that.
All of it results in those staying compliant with what the regulation is intended to do, in terms of the escapement of mature face from the system back to the wild to breed and so that the species.
You know I have said in the past that I firmly believe it, were it not for the commercial fishery Lough and the way it’s managed, the species on the industry across the continent would be the poorer for that.
I say that with confidence because the record will show that scientific monitoring and surveying carried out on an annual basis, we consistently meet these escapement targets, which is one of the key issues both in the regulations to bring about a recovery in the stock.
Oliver McBride: And on the banned importing of glass eels from the UK, do you think there should be a solution there?
Or what do you think should be done because it was a valuable source both ways, ecologically?
Pat Close: Yeah, certainly, I firmly believe something should be done because I think the position that we’re facing at the moment is detrimental in so many ways that’s contrary to the intention behind the regulation and bring about this recovery that I’ve spoken about.
Yes, it’s exactly what can be done about it within the confines of The CITES classification, as a list of endangered species, that will be for others to decide, but my argument is that if you stand back and take a common-sense approach, look at the situation as it is at the moment, it’s untenable really because everybody recognizes the value of the juvenile fish, which are approaching European shores as we speak. It just does not make sense under the current situation, to stand by and let those fish basically perish in due course
because we’re talking about millions of fish here. With the potential and system such as ours to perpetuate the species and add value to the industry as a whole.
What can be done?
I think we need to be looking seriously at some sort of derogation to allow us to have access to those surplus glass eels in the Bristol area, for example.
One of the things that that we need to understand is that these surpluses, particularly in the Bristol Channel and the Bay of Biscay area and so on. These surpluses exist because these fish are the cause of perhaps, well, to some extent, certainly are being prevented from making their way upstream due to manmade obstructions such as slush gates, hydroelectric plants, even after occurring, weirs and so on so.
First, small numbers of will be able to navigate some of the rivers, many of them won’t be so.
To my mind it makes sense to fish for these fish and make sure that they are added to systems such as our own, which is a win–win situation for everybody because it’s a positive contribution to the problems with exist there.
Because I would add Oliver, that eels are relatively long lived in fish terms, I mean a
Female mature silver eel migrating out of the system are known to be on average between 18 and 20 years old. So, when we look back at all of the stocks that we’ve put in the lake, I’ve looked at this quite recently, over the past 35-years we have purchased additional 120 million fish in Lough Neagh as part of our restocking program, alongside a lot and together with that we recruited over 110 million fish through natural means. Those fish would have been arriving into our system here anyhow, that’s another aspect of it.
I mean, without the fisheries here generating money to pay wages so, we not even be able to look after that natural process because again we have sluice gates and we have barriers and naturally occurring weir on the river which will prevent these fish making their way into Lough Neagh.
So, in practice what happens is we trap those down at the mouth of the river and we transport them.
The scientists will tell us left to their own devices whatever percentage of a could successfully navigate there ever would take two to three years to do that.
With the system that we operate at considerable expense there so ourselves, we trap them at the river mouth and then transported by road, we can do that within an hour so it’s a lot shorter journey.
It’s short circuit and it’s equally negating the potential for predation and loss through your natural occurring events.
These juvenile fish coming in from the sea carried on global currents, they spend a couple or three weeks and what’s known as Salt Wave. That’s to make our transition from the saltwater to freshwater, and once they’ve done that and begun to feed and grow and develop the party’s remnants, only at that stage do they learn to swim. After that stage, they will claim the various traps and so on that we have there.
It’s only after that, but then we start to harvest those and transport them directly into Lough Neagh.
So, it’s just a repeat. If we didn’t have the commercial setup on Lough Neagh, which involves fishing involves restocking and all of that, we couldn’t afford to contribute in the way that we’re doing to the well-being on the future sustainability of the species.
And let’s not lose sight of the fact that Lough Neagh produces approximately 15 to 16% of wild caught in Europe, so we regard ourselves as a significant player in all of this.
We played our part in that over the last 10 to 15 years when European authorities were considering what to do. We were front and centre if you like in terms of the measures that we had experience of and we encouraged others to do as well and there really is no that is a consequence of Brexit.
We’re now in, they say, looking and all of this.
We’ve invested millions of pounds. Literally, £5 million plus that we have invested in supplementary starting over the last 30 years, you know your question, what does it led to because the life expectancy of the eel, as I said earlier can be up to 20 years. So, in theory investments and restocking that we have made over the last 10/15/20 years are still to be realised.
You know, so that you look back on that and say, well, you know how we arrived at the situation where have invested a lot of money, admittedly in more recent years we have had support under European Maritime and Fisheries Fund. There were many, many years before that when we did it literally out of our own pockets, from profits were retained from the commercial activity on the Lough, so it does leave us with big concerns for the future.
Oliver McBride: Well, Pat, thank you for that, it was very interesting to realise that there’s so much work that goes into looking after the eels on Lough Neagh and we hope that you find a solution for the future and that you can continue on with your good work there.
Thank you very much, Pat.
Pat Close: Thank you Oliver.