West Cork Fisheries Past and Present
Humans have always had a culture of fishing, relying on the marine environment as a source of food. Now more than ever, there is a growing concern about how current fishing practices can be sustained. The world population continues to rise, and with it comes an increased demand for seafood. This puts pressure on the marine environment in a number of different ways.
Decline in fish stocks
One major issue faced by the worldwide fishing industry is a decline in fish stocks. This is largely caused by over-fishing. West Cork has not escaped this trend – Bantry resident Neil Clarke observes that formerly
‘…the bay was full of fish: mackerel, pollack and salmon, and it’s not full of fish now’.
As Risteard Ó Domhnaill highlighted in his award-winning documentary, Atlantic, a contributing factor to declining fish stocks is the rise of the super-trawler.
Rise of Super-Trawlers
Trawlers have fished the West Cork coastline since the nineteenth century and Neil Clark recalls the trawlers that worked out of Bantry in the 1970s. These were timber boats, between 40 and 60 feet long, with cotton nets. ‘They fished the bay and they fished out around the heads, but a lot of them wouldn’t have gone much further out’, explains Clarke, contrasting them with today’s trawlers:
‘They are huge – they are like mini factories on board the ship and then they sweep everything in front of them. It’s deep trawling. It’s a different world’.
Local historian, Terri Kearney, remembers the first super-trawlers she saw off the West Cork coast: ‘These things were huge’, she says. ‘They obviously were because I could see them miles away and they looked like a city’.
Foreign Fishing Vessels
Foreign fishing vessels have always fished off the West Cork coast. Our research shows that in the eighteenth-century local fishermen complained of French fishermen working in their waters. This is still an issue today. Neil Clark provides the following example:
‘The Spanish fleet…used to come into Bantry. They’d get their diesel and supplies in Bantry and then move round to Castletownbere’.
Today Spanish fishermen still have a big factory in Castletownbere.
Legislation has been put in place to revive fish stocks, but some policies have forced fishing families to seek employment ashore. This is changing the social and cultural fabric of local communities. Local artist Angie Shanahan laments the fact that only fifty years ago, ‘the pier [at Cape Clear] would have been full of boats for the blessing of the boats’. She compares this to today:
‘Fishing is more or less gone…It’s such a shame really and such a tragedy to see that’.
Role of the Government
Neil Clark suggests that there was more that the Irish government could have done for the fishing industry:
‘The pity is that when the fish was there, the government put very little money into it and didn’t really nurture the fishing…there was no investment. It was up to the fishermen themselves to invest’.
This perspective is very similar to that of nineteenth-century commentators who recognised West Cork’s potential as a fishing location. They criticised the government for not investing more heavily in fisheries, and for their reliance on private individuals to establish fishing companies.
Our research suggests that many of the issues faced by today’s fishing communities in West Cork were experienced by those same communities in the past. The main difference is one of scale.
Perhaps a greater understanding of the history, experience and values associated with Cork’s fishing communities could contribute something to the policies of the future?
Find out more
- Read our review of the latest scientific research on environmental priorities associated with fisheries.
- Learn more about the history of fishing in West Cork from 1700.