West Cork Fisheries Past and Present

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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.

Fishing in West Cork

Historically, Ireland’s maritime coast had a reputation for an abundance of fish.  It was recognised that this had the potential to develop into a major industry.  In 1673, Sir W. Temple wrote to Lord Essex that:

‘The early fishing in Ireland might prove a mine under water, as rich as any under ground’.

In the early eighteenth century local communities benefited from the fishing industry, as Horatio Townsend commented:

‘[Bantry] Bay abounded with pilchards, the catching and curing of which gave… wealth and employment to numbers.  [

A lack of adequate fish stocks has always been a concern for fishing communities. Horatio Townsend (author of the Statistical Survey of the County of Cork, published in 1810)

But even before 1750] they had deserted the bay.

Declining Fish Stocks

One of the key issues facing the fishing industry currently is the decline in fish stocks in many parts of the world.  Much of this is caused by over-fishing.  This is apparent in West Cork – Neil Clarke,  a resident of Bantry, observes that formerly

…the bay was full of fish: mackerel, pollack and salmon, and it’s not full of fish now.



Supertrawler ‘Margiris’, Image courtesy of S.H. free Photos – KL 749 Margiris Klaipeda IMO 8301187, CC BY 2.0

As Risteard Ó Domhnaill highlighted in his award-winning documentary, Atlantic, one of the key issues in the fishing industry has been the rise of the super-trawler.  Our research shows that historically larger, more technologically-advanced were an issue for Irish fishermen too.  Add quote here]

As Neil Clark explains:

You always had a few trawlers working out of Bantry…big trawlers, 40, 50, 60 feet. They fished the bay and they fished out around the heads, but a lot of them wouldn’t have gone much further out.

However, Clarke contrasts the trawlers of forty years ago, which would have been timber boats with cotton nets, with those of today which he describes as ‘factory boats’ and ‘tank boats’:

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, also remarks on ‘the huge amount of big, big trawlers that you see’.  ‘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.  Neil Clark explains:

The Spanish fleet…used to come into Bantry. They’d get their diesel and supplies in Bantry and then move round to Castletownbere.

He explains that they are still in Castletownbere now: ‘they have a big factory down in Castletownbere’.

Decline in the Fishing Industry

[Insert current image of blessing the boats]

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.  

Neil Clark agrees, and suggests that there was more that the Irish government could have done:

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.

Current situation

There have been some improvements but still not back to what it was like before.

There was a bit of a recovery with salmon, but it’s nothing like it was when I was seine fishing

There are some positive stories though.  As Neil Clarke explains, Keohane’s fish factory in Bantry reopened, ‘so there are 70 more people working out there’.

Keohanes of Bantry
Keohanes of Bantry


Interestingly, many of the issues that West Cork communities are having to deal with in relation to fishing are similar to those they experienced in the past. The main difference is one of scale.   

Perhaps a more detailed understanding of the history, experience and values of Cork’s fishing communities could contribute something to the policies of the future? 

Find out more

  • Learn more about the history of fishing in West Cork between 1700 and 1920.