“They are special places, islands. People don’t know it until you visit them. It’s not all about numbers or population…. It’s the least isolated place I’ve ever been”, said a resident incomer to one of the Mayo islands to me, a few weeks before I visited them. I was intrigued, given that the islands of Inishturk and Clare Island lie about an hour’s (often choppy) ferry ride off the mainland, with tiny populations of between 40-60 (Inishturk) and approximately 150 (Clare Island). Whenever I ask about island populations and the response is a range, rather than a figure, I know that it is probably because there is no secondary school on the island, as is the case in Clare Island and Inishturk. The populations increase when students return from university and secondary school.
Having spent several days listening to people on Inishturk and Clare Island, the islanders in both places were keen to have a group meeting, so I ran a short (60-90 minute) workshop on each to talk about the challenges they faced and their ideas for better management of their fisheries. As well as fishermen, some of the younger islanders and women from fishing families came to the meetings. The main theme that jumped out from conversations on the Mayo Islands was the decline in lobster stocks and huge concern for stock recovery through effective management measures. It was notable on these islands that there are still a number of fishermen fishing from a currach – micro-scale fishing. One fisherman told me that up to a few years ago he used to collect his pots the day after setting them, but now he waits 2 to 3 days before hauling them to make sure he catches something. Another said that in 1989 he made enough money fishing 40 pots and now he has to fish almost 1000 pots for the same return – the price of fish has not risen, but costs have increased and “people have to catch more now to stay as they were”. While the focus is on lobster, fishermen also catch pollack and mackerel, similar to the Galway islands. Single-handed fishing is now a lot more common, whereas previously, nobody ever fished alone. In the mid-nineties, fishing 300 pots was considered a lot, whereas now many fishermen are fishing three to four times this number. There was a strong desire for an enforceable management system in place to protect the stocks. Weather conditions, lack of infrastructure such as winter piers and the small boat and engine sizes mean that islanders can only fish the season from April to October (or November if the weather holds). In contrast, the mainland boats in Cleggan, which have far more gear and not as susceptible to bad weather, fish all year round, even though they are also small-scale (under 12 metres and using non-towed gear). “It’s all about getting a managed fishery rather than everyone just doing what they like.”
The Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) V-notching initiative for lobster stocks is not compulsory. It has to be voluntary to qualify for funding under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund. Fishermen who engage in V-notching return berried lobsters (females with eggs) to the sea so that they have a chance to spawn. In return, BIM pays them 75% of the market price of each berried lobster returned. There were various ideas on what an effective lobster management scheme would look like: a limited season, a limit on the number of pots per boat. People disagreed, in particular, over whether pot limits were a workable idea: How do you enforce this? Is it fair for older fishermen to be suggesting that younger fishermen limit the number of pots when it is already difficult enough to make ends meet? One fishermen told me that “the sea is for everybody; you cannot stop anyone from using the sea.”
As in the Galway islands, the problem of inadequate infrastructure to support a small-scale fishing industry was much discussed. Neither of the islands has a cold storage facility or a processing facility. Some fishermen were dissatisfied with the buyers for their whitefish and wanted to be able to cut out the middleperson and access the retail markets directly. In contrast to the Galway islands, the Mayo islands pinpointed landings at the mainland pier of Roonagh as a major issue. The pier is not suitable for small-scale boats to land their catch as it’s not safe to tie up to the pier when there is a swell surge in it (this can happen in summer and winter, but is more severe in winter). As a result, one crew member has to stay behind the wheel, with the engine on, while the catch is being unloaded.
The Mayo islands were the first islands where I heard that “education has ruined the fishing”. The young islanders leave their island to go to university, become interested in different careers, and small-scale fishing, even part-time, is simply not viable as a career, even though many of them return home to fish during the summer holidays. Initiatives such as GrowRemote.ie are trying to address this by attracting people with remote-working jobs to rural areas. Several younger islanders told me that they would love to live on their island if they could make a decent living by working there – which would obviously require a proper broadband service. Is flexible remote working combined with small-scale fishing one possible way forward to ensure the islands thrive?
I often hear people (who are not islanders and not from fishing families) ask why don’t fishermen just go into tourism instead of fishing, if fishing is so difficult and expensive for small-scale operators? When I was on Clare and Inishturk, I attended two Fáilte Ireland workshops that happened to be coincide with my visits (Fáilte Ireland kindly let me hitch a lift on the boat they had chartered for the day, from Roonagh to Clare Island, and then on to Inishturk). They were good workshops, well facilitated and inclusive, aimed at finding out what the local visions for tourism development on the islands are, and how Fáilte Ireland’s Service Excellence Programme might support these visions. The Fáilte Ireland team emphasised that the way people interact with the visitor is Ireland’s unique selling point and that it’s about “turning every interaction into a memorable experience” by drawing on the stories that are particular to each place. ‘Slow’ travel and connecting with local people is becoming more and more popular. Tourists want authenticity, to share and experience island life, as what’s ordinary to islanders is probably not ordinary to them. As part of this island experience, they expect to be able to access fresh, local fish, especially if they are self-catering. On Inishturk, a recent survey carried out by the community development office showed that what makes the island special for tourists is that it is a traditional, working island, where locals are noted for their kindness and where tourism isn’t what’s keeping people living on the island. On the Irish islands, small-scale fishing is an integral part of this social fabric.
As one islander reflected: “On the islands, it’s nearly like a jigsaw puzzle, you need so many of everything to make the full picture. You need so many fishermen, you need so many farmers, you need so many in the tourism and catering, whatever, it’s all like in a jigsaw, you need a certain element to keep it healthy and put it all together an then you get your picture and if you take away one bit, the next bit will crumble, and if you take that away, the next bit will fall, and eventually the whole lot will fall. So you need the balance, people in different varieties.” This delicate and dynamic balance of “people in different varieties” means that small-scale island fisheries are complex creatures to govern and manage, as a one-size-fits-all approach simply does not fit.