A torrent of little silvery sprats was spilling in panic out of the sea, chased ashore by mackerel, and people were scooping them up with buckets, gleeful and shin-deep at the very edge of the tide. It’s a childhood memory from Brighton beach, the pebbles hot and summery.
Sprattus sprattus is a species of its own, not the young of anything else. It feeds on plankton and in less than five years the female spawns repeatedly, producing up to 14,000 eggs. Shimmering schools of sprat are a basic takeaway in the ocean chain; they spend the night, for safety, in the depths.
Brighton’s sprats always tasted marvellous fried – a now forgotten flavour. But a project at the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology aims to make a special “west of Ireland gourmet seafood” of this “overlooked and under-utilised resource”.
How “overlooked” sprats are depends on who’s talking. Ocean-going Irish trawlers have been invading western and southern bays between October and Christmas – the non-spawning season – for a huge, unregulated catch of sprats, some 30-40 per cent ending up in fishmeal.
In a massive increase since 2018, from some 4,700 tonnes to 15.000 tonnes last year, it reached five times the catch levels advised by the Marine Institute.
At the beginning, in the 1990s, shoals of sprats in two west Cork bays could sometimes cover "square kilometres", according to veteran whale-watch skipper Colin Barnes. Shoals rapidly reduced to hectares have now vanished, he says, and the whales now pass without feeding.
Research by the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group suggests that humpback whales, on summer migration past Ireland, rely on sprats for 70 per cent of their food. They also feed the bottlenose dolphins of the Shannon estuary, a prime sprat trawling destination. Birdwatch Ireland finds sprats vital to a dozen kinds of seabird breeding in the southwest , such as gannets.
All the conservation NGOs (a formidable list, including groups for seals, dolphins and salmon) had joined with local inshore fishers in calls for government control. In 2018, then minister for the marine Michael Creed announced a ban on sprat fishing inside six nautical miles of the coast by trawlers bigger than 18m. This had the support of the Marine Institute, Bord Iascaigh Mhara and the bulk of more than 900 submissions to the minister's consultative review. It also allowed a three-year transition period for "adjustment" by the trawler skippers.
The ban, which Creed said was aimed at supporting small-scale and island fishermen and protecting the inshore ecosystem, was challenged in the High Court by two trawler skippers seeking judicial review. They were backed by the Irish South and West Fish Producers' Organisation, which has a membership of 53 vessels.
The judgment in October 2020 found the ban was in breach of fair procedures and had no legal value, lacking proper consultation with trawler owners.
A joint letter to the present Minister, Charlie McConalogue, by a coalition of ban supporters, reflected its wide public support and urged him to take “urgent action”. He subsequently failed in attempts to get a stay on the court ruling and continue the ban. An appeal heard in June awaits, as I write, a final ruling.
This struggle to find “fair” law in defence of the inshore ecosystem is part of a changing view of the ocean, dismally overdue.
Bord Iascaigh Mhara, the State agency for fishery development, once treated small fishermen and their world of half-deckers as a mere stepping-stone to bigger offshore trawlers. Its current strategy document sees the inshore sector as "in a very different space" from that of 20 years ago. Four years of consultation with the fishermen and processors through local groups and the National Inshore Fisheries Forum have, it says, allowed them to "take ownership of the process and the final product".
For inshore fishermen, sprat are now seen as an alternative catch to the lost abundance of skate, ray, plaice and other inshore species. Even native purple sea urchins, once a prolific delicacy, now have to be farmed ashore.
Among Ireland’s 1,900 inshore vessels, however, “taking ownership” of concern for local marine ecosystems still seems far from general achievement, and conservation can still seem a discipline brought from outside.
The Maritime Area Planning Bill now advancing into law enables an ambitious new network of marine-protected areas around the coast, balanced with the needs of offshore windfarms.