As I mentioned in my last post, I visited several of the Galway, Mayo and Cork Islands during the months of January and April this year. The next three blog posts will look at each of these island groups, and the issues I heard about that face the small-scale fishing communities there. This one focuses on the Galway islands of Inis Oírr, Inis Meáin and Inishbofin (I haven’t made it to Inis Mór yet but hope to visit and talk to people there before the end of this year). A common theme across all the island groups (Donegal, Galway, Mayo and Cork) is that small-scale fishing doesn’t present an attractive career choice to the younger generation on the islands – it’s prohibitively expensive to buy a boat with licence and gear, and there is no guarantee of a steady income to pay off that debt. In the Galway islands, many of the younger fishermen have left fishing for the more stable work crewing one of the island ferries, which have become increasingly busy with the rise in tourism in this island group over the years. There are only a handful of fishing boats left on the Galway islands, and most of these boats fish part-time. On Inishbofin, three boats fish the full fishing season from April to the end of October and on Inis Oírr, only one boat fishes for the full season. The rest of the boats fish for two or three months during the summer.
The fishing industry on the islands today is virtually unrecognisable compared to just over a century ago. Fishing used to be seasonal in the sense that every season had a purpose: winter was for repairs, spring was for sowing (crops on land) mid-spring and summer were for fishing, up to the end of August or September. Inis Oírr used to have 20 boats fishing for the full season, each with four or five crew and the boats were built in neighbouring Inis Mór. Scottish people were brought over by the Congested Districts Board to demonstrate fishing techniques around 1900. Up to 1912, there was a thriving salt fishing industry on Inis Oírr, with salted mackerel being sold to the American market. Inishbofin had an active herring industry in the 1920s. One Inishbofin islander remembered back to the 1960s when boxes of skate, ray and dab were thrown aside and left to dry out on the pier or were eaten by the birds, as they were not considered to have any value. It was around this time that outboard engines started to be used on the traditional currach, enabling different fishing grounds to be explored. Inishbofin used to have several crews fishing for lobster all around the island, using handmade pots, with a maximum of 50 pots per boat set close to the shore. The pots were usually hauled and reset three times a day. Any crab caught in the pots would get tossed over the side as it was not considered valuable. During the 1970s, some of the islanders invested in boats with wheelhouses and increased the number of pots, but many continued to fish from the traditional currach. You can still find islanders today who fish from a currach, but far fewer than previously.
The fishing that is carried out on the islands today revolves around potting for crab and lobster, and netting and line fishing for pollack. As well as a decline in fishing boats and crew, the fishermen have noticed a huge decline in stocks. On Inis Oírr, I heard that 30 years ago, you could go out and catch a box of pollack in 10 minutes, whereas today it would take you 10 hours to catch the same amount. Crayfish started to be fished with nets around the islands in the late 1970s and were virtually wiped out within a decade. “It’s a lot easier to clean out a place than you think. If you think there’s so many fish there that they’ll be out there forever, you’re on the wrong track”, said one island fisherman to me.
A pressing issue on the Galway islands is the lack of adequate infrastructure to support a local small-scale fishing industry. For example, the existing harbour in Inis Oírr is not sheltered enough to leave the boats in the water. It is impossible to haul boats out of the water at the slip without using a tractor or (for a heavier boat) a teleporter. In Inishbofin there is no cold storage facility on the island and the cold storage that used to be on Cleggan pier on the mainland is no longer there.
An even more pressing issue for the Galway islands is the logistics of transporting fresh catch to the mainland to access the market for whitefish such as pollack, mackerel and wrasse. While shellfish can be stored at sea, the whitefish catch needs to be landed the same evening, as the island boats are too small to have ice on board. These small boats therefore depend on a cargo boat to get their fresh whitefish catch from the island to the market. As well as the extra costs involved in depending on a cargo boat, these island-specific logistics means that island fishers can lose half a day or more in getting their catch to market. There is a need to create different routes to market (for example the targeting the salt fish market) which can work with these logistical difficulties. Iasc Inis Oírr, a small, family run processing business set up in May 2018 is an example of the Joyce family’s attempt to extend the shelf-life of their catch.
The father and son part of the Iasc Inis Oírr family team go fishing in the morning, their catch is processed by the daughter and by the son’s partner and sold the following day. In the small Iasc Inis Oírr kitchen, some of the mackerel and pollack is filleted and sold fresh to the island’s hotel during the summer months, and the rest is vacuum packed and frozen for the mainland market. They also sell their freshly processed catch (mackerel, pollack and crab claws) from a small fish van on the pier in the summer, which has received a great response from tourists and local islanders alike. I was not surprised to hear this. Although I spent a whole month travelling through the Galway, Mayo and Cork islands, it was not easy to find locally caught, fresh fish to eat.
On Inishbofin, a more ambitious island processing initiative for whitefish was trialled in 2014. Despite the best efforts of the island entrepreneur, whose vision included part-time work for several islanders, it was not a workable model because of an inability to source local fish. With just one local boat fishing for the full season, there was not enough volume or consistency of supply of whitefish. According to the local entrepreneur, the picture would have been entirely different had there been 5 local boats fishing the full season instead of just one. An attempt to source the whitefish from nearby mainland boats in Cleggan also failed as these boats mainly fish crab and lobster. Another frustrating factor for the processing plant was lack of a route to market due to the island transport logistics described above. The initiative was shelved after 18 months.
“Will the future be an island of landed people?”, one Galway islander asked me. The challenges faced by the small-scale fishing industry in the Galway islands raises the question of whether there is sufficient local and national government support to improve island infrastructure, support a variety of routes to market and make the small-scale industry more attractive to new entrants from the younger generation. On all three of the Galway islands I visited, I heard that experience has taught islanders that they need to bypass the local and national levels and go straight to Europe for support as there’s no recognition at a national level for the islands and a poor track record of support at local level. More on this in the posts to follow.