Fifteen years after drift-nets were outlawed, salmon are still being caught along the coast of West Kerry to supply a lucrative black market trade, according to fisheries officers who are putting ‘considerable resources’ into an annual cat-and-mouse game on the sea.
From the 1970s to the early years of this century salmon fishing was a vital part of the economy of rural West Kerry and many families and small communities were sustained by the sometimes huge earnings that could be made. The drift-net ban of 2007 ended all that, and in villages such as Baile na nGall the local fishing fleet was wiped out as a result.
But salmon fishing hasn’t gone away.
“It is difficult to quantify the level of illegal salmon fishing [but] it’s a considerable problem and we expend considerable resources tackling it on the Dingle Peninsula,” Seán Long of Inland Fisheries Ireland told The Kerryman.
Seán, who is the Director of the South Western River Basin District, said Illegal salmon fishing is driven by the scarcity of wild salmon, which gives them a premium value on the black market. “They can get over €50 for a decent sized fish… but hopefully people will weigh up the risk against the gain and decide it’s not worthwhile,” he added.
In West Kerry, illegal salmon fishing is concentrated in the area from around Smerwick Harbour to Brandon Bay on the northern side of the peninsula. This was also the richest salmon ground in the 1970s and ‘80s and the fishing skills still exist there.
Seán said fisheries officers have seized ‘stake nets’, which stretch up to 100m out to sea, at beaches from Castlegregory to Brandon. However, illegal salmon fishing at sea, often using anchored nets, “has the potential to take more fish” and is very difficult to detect, even though the SWRBD has two 7.8m RIBS (fast inflatable boats) which operate out of Tralee. Fisheries officers also use land-based surveillance methods, but Seán wasn’t willing to elaborate on what exactly that entails.
Last year the SWRBD put in over 2,000 ‘man hours’ at sea off the coast of Cork and Kerry and conducted over 50 RIB patrols in West Kerry. Their work focuses on the annual salmon run along the west coast from early to mid-June into late summer and “it requires a significant amount of our personnel, using covert and overt patrol methods,” said Seán. The result of their efforts included the confiscation of 16 nets along the coast from Smerwick to Brandon Bay.
Some of those who now fish illegally were once legal salmon fishermen, others are commercial fishermen who legally fish for other species but sometimes risk putting out a salmon net. And there are new recruits as well.
“A lot of this is tradition handed down through the generations. People say, ‘what’s the harm in taking a few fish?’… but people trying to make a quick buck can cause huge damage to salmon stocks returning to rivers. This isn’t a victimless crime, particularly when stocks are under such pressure,” said Seán.
Despite the drift-net ban it is still possible to legally fish commercially for salmon, using draft nets or snap nets. In Kerry draft nets are used under license in the Laune River estuary in Castlemaine where the season runs from May 12 to the end of July and the catch is strictly limited by quotas. There is also a small legal commercial salmon fishery around the Owenmore River estuary in Brandon Bay.