Sprat —worthless dead but priceless alive

Posted on: 20th January, 2015

Category: Features

Contributor: West Cork People

There is a growing issue concerning the demise of local sprat stocks and the impact on large whales and marine eco tourism in West Cork. Colin Barnes, Cork Whale Watch, observes the damage already done and the importance of these little silvery fish in Irish waters.

Pic above: Fin whale feeding on sprat          Pic: Pádraig Whooley


Sprats are currently being overfished in a reckless and unsustainable manner, as they have been for the last decade or two. They are being taken from the sea, in huge amounts, not by foreign vessels, but the biggest and most powerful of Irish trawlers, engaged in the technique of mid-water trawling, where two of these vessels together, pull a single huge trawl, and supported with a sophisticated array of electronics, skillfully aim the net at dense shoals of fish. Mackerel, herring, tuna and horse mackerel are all taken by this method of fishing.

It is now high season for sprats to be schooling together, inshore, with their spawning time approaching. The damage done over the last few seasons is now all too apparent. There are no large shoals to be seen, just small scraps, here and there. I have seen the mid-water trawlers out searching for them, and finding nothing, in all the places where sprats congregated in years gone by.  If a shoal does accumulate anywhere, it is swept up like last year, leaving nothing behind to reproduce. The stock is damaged to a point of almost beyond repair.

These little silvery fish are the lifeblood of Irish waters, and alongside sand-eels, feed exclusively on plankton, performing the act of turning tiny planktonic animals into fish proteins, and are thus absolutely vital to the ocean food chain. Almost every fish species, in particular, all the members of the cod family like: whiting, pollock, coalfish, hake, haddock and cod, as well as mackerel, megrim and more, feed heavily on sprats throughout their lives. When there is a lack of prey fish, these species become cannibalistic in order to survive, so less sprat means far less fish, for us and host of other marine species.

Scientifically, very little is known about sprats. This ‘knowledge gap’ is all the more astonishing when you consider the science that has been applied to the more commercial fish species. But there is a simple reason for this. Sprats have always been a very low value fish in monetary terms, and were historically not exploited much at all, until the last couple of decades.

I would think there are very few fishermen, now or at any point back in time, who would claim to make a living from sprat fishing. They are still a ‘low value’ species to this day and hardly any of them are eaten in Ireland. The chances are your local fish shop will not have any, even though they are landed in huge quantities here in West Cork. They are mostly sold very cheap, in bulk, to be turned into fish meal, to manufacture pellet feed for fish farms, and put into all sorts of animal feed to increase the protein content.  With no great value placed upon them, and no real history of fisheries for them until recently, they never had the status to warrant either scientific study or protection.  They are nearly worthless dead on the quay wall, yet priceless alive in the ocean, as a truly vital part in the marine food chain.

I have worked continuously at sea here in West Cork since 1972, commercial fishing up to 2000, before switching to whale watching and angling in 2001. All the time at sea, I have had a good quality fish finder/echo sounder running, and given my current occupation, the movement and distribution of sprats are of intense interest to me. If you want to find large whales, then finding sprat is the key.  I constantly watch for sprat activity, and as a fisherman and a field naturalist for the past 42 years, I feel qualified to comment on this matter.

Based on my observations, I can confirm that the stock of sprats were once abundant, all through the 1970s and 80s, when there was very little fishing pressure on them. There were shoals covering square kilometres at times. As we moved into the 90s, the larger pelagic trawlers began targeting sprats as something to do when their quota of herring or mackerel was caught. Square kilometre shoals rapidly became acres. Over the last few years, shoals covering acres have diminished to less than an acre, and this season, less again. It worries me immensely that the huge stock that once occupied Glandore and Union Hall harbours during the mid-winter, as far back as living memory goes, have shown no sign of returning after being trawled out over a couple of winters, and that’s a few years back now.

I have twice written to our Minister for Fisheries, Simon Coveney, over the last two years, expressing my concern at this unhealthy situation.  The response I received was that under the New Common Fisheries Policy, all fishing activity is to be environmentally sustainable with proper conservation measures and careful management of all fish stocks. This I totally applaud as a big step forward in better fishery management, especially the square mesh panel ruling, but at present, that policy does not apply to sprats at all.

How is it sustainable, to allow the biggest and most powerful trawlers remove the most important forage species we have in our waters, in a completely unrestricted manner? Sprats are not fast swimmers like mackerel and tuna, they crowd together when under threat from predators and huge trawl nets. They are easily overpowered by two huge trawlers and the entire shoal pours hapless into the cod-end of the net.

Most fish species could not be fished to extinction, because they are widespread, but when sprat are spawning, the entire stock tends to be all in one place, making them very vulnerable to overfishing, much the same as herring. Herring, for a good while now, have been well-managed, and are assessed with sensible quotas in place. When it was observed that the herring stocks were crashing under the same pressure that the sprats are now receiving, alarm bells were raised and counter measures taken. The sprat fishery enjoys no such mechanism.

This situation is, as I suspected, now having a detrimental effect on whale watching. October through to December are historically the best months for seeing large whales inshore in West Cork. They have showed up every year in numbers, and move inshore to take advantage of the sprat shoals. During this year’s ‘large whale season’ any fin whales that were in the area were cruising east and west, searching in vain for their favoured prey and finding very little of it. Humpback whales were all but absent in West Cork this year, preferring it seems places like West Kerry, as evidenced by the recent BBC ‘One Show’, which opted to showcase humpbacks in Kerry rather here in West Cork. If the waters here cannot support a handful of large whales, how then can it support a fleet of fishing vessels.

The situation is now critical. It’s not about setting quotas any more, as this sprat fishery needs closing, if the stock is to rebuild. There is so little of it now that they could be lost forever. The local herring stock, that was indigenous to the waters of West Cork, was taken in the same manner, by relentless pressure from large, powerful mid-water trawlers, to the point of extinction. A stock that had been there since time immemorial, and provided a living for a lot of men and vessels over a very long period of West Cork history, is now gone forever. Sprats only live for five years, so keep sweeping up all the mature spawning fish for that period of time and like the local herrings, we will be left with none at all, and we are close to that scenario now.

Marine eco-tourism, charter angling and Whale watching are all key growth areas and are central to the whole Wild Atlantic Way concept which has been a great success story for west Cork, and coastal communities all along the western seaboard of Ireland. But the demise of the diminutive sprat has the potential to undo much of the progress in promoting West Cork as a fantastic place to come and experience our marine wildlife and I hope that the local commercial fishing interests will see the bigger picture before it is too late.

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