Local fishermen are highlighting the need for an assessment of the Waterford Estuary to be carried out in order to preserve and promote the area’s assets
Recent episodes of RTÉ’s ‘Nationwide’ brilliantly highlighted the beauty and potential of our Three Sister rivers – The Barrow, The Nore and The Suir. Local fishermen here in Waterford have been continually highlighting the need to protect and promote our maritime assets and, in particular, the need to preserve the fishing traditions of local villages. The decline in the fishing industries of local villages has presented a dramatic change for communities along the Waterford Estuary. The significant reduction in fishing activity has had a hugely detrimental impact on the lives of many in the area. “Anyone who visits Cheekpoint, Passage or Ballyhack, can see that it’s very quiet and that the fishing communities have been destroyed,” says local fisherman Sean Doherty who is Harbour Constable of Cheekpoint.
“Waterford grew around the port and the river but it is one aspect that’s overlooked when it comes to tourism. A lot of our local Councillors have maritime connections, but we’d like to see a Waterford maritime plan and a maritime division within the Council which could work with other agencies.” He is calling for the creation of an Estuary Taskforce which he believes would be a good way to develop and preserve the Estuary and its many assets. In particular, he believes villages like Cheekpoint and Passage East could benefit hugely from the preservation and promotion of traditional fisheries and the development of a heritage fisheries industry.
There have been a number of ongoing issues related to the Estuary which have concerned local fishermen. In 2017, The Munster Express reported on the concerns of locals in the area between Cheekpoint and Passage East, over the increasing amount of dead mussels and periwinkles. At the time, they also highlighted a number of other issues of concern, including a scarcity of lugworms and a large amount of dead crabs. The same problem was also highlighted in the Woodstown/Creaden Strand area. Another cause of concern is that streams which were occupied by elver eels are getting covered with silt and slime.
Michael Fortune has been highlighting issues on an ongoing basis. “I’m after being to every agency in Ireland,” he explained.“Nobody wants to listen to what we have to say.”Both Sean and Michael say there needs to be an environmental assessment on the River Suir and believe there is an element of ‘passing the buck’. “It’s in everybody’s interest that these issues are sorted,” adds Sean.“It’s frustrating that we seem to fall between different stools.”
The future of weirs in the Waterford Estuary has also been a source of concern.A head weir is a method of catching fish which uses the tides to bring the fish to the net.
“The weirs are in peril and we need to do something,” says Sean.
“This generation will, unfortunately, probably see the demise of the weirs. This is at a time when we’re constantly being told about renewables. Everything about the weirs was renewable. They were made of wood, used the tide, and left no carbon footprint whatsoever.”He points out that there was a major salmon weir located at Woodstown.
“Queen Victoria feasted on salmon when she came to Waterford. When Jackie Onassis visited Woodstown, she also had salmon,” he explained. “Fish was a big part of the Vikings’ diet so fish weirs and traps would have been part of their way of life. Waterford has certain things: the Glass, the Blaa, its Viking heritage. People see these poles but many don’t realise their importance. This is the oldest method of commercial and subsistence fishing in Ireland if not Europe. The weirs are now unique to the River Suir as they haven’t survived elsewhere. The Waterford Estuary is the last bastion.”
Sean and Michael believe all these issues further highlight the need for a professional assessment of the Waterford Estuary to be carried out.They believe fishing villages need to play to their strengths. “We need to build on our heritage and tradition,” says Sean.
“You can’t get rid of one section of the community and say ‘they’re gone’. We’re like the Native Americans. We can see industry growing around us and we don’t want to stop it, but we don’t think we should be removed either.”He says an Estuary forum should be developed and is calling for a multi-agency approach involving all the relevant stakeholders.
“It’s important that villages continue as fishing villages but that we also assess the potential for the future,” he says.
“Cultural heritage is very important. We also need social justice groups involved – people advocating on behalf of the local communities.”He believes issues need to be looked at from a more holistic approach and outlined the importance of the concept of heritage fisheries.
Sean looks to fishing villages in the South West of England as an example of what can be achieved by communities similar to Passage East.He cites Cornwall as an example. Although the fishing industry has significantly reduced in Cornish villages, there are still strong links to the industry which have been used to generate a vibrant tourism industry. For example, Cornish villages regularly host popular fishing festivals.
“We have to be realistic about the future,” says Sean. “We all know fishing will never be what it was in terms of numbers. It’s never going to be on the scale it once was, but it can be brought back on a small scale in a sustainable way. There are opportunities, but the powers that be never listened to anyone and never looked at the bigger picture.”He believes there is potential for developing an artisan fishing industry in Passage East and says the entire Estuary area could be designated as a heritage harbour.
While the promotion of tourism would be key to any future developments, Sean says it is imperative to also retain a small scale fishing industry which would nurture activity within the local community. He would like to see somebody explore all these ideas and bring everything together in a cohesive manner.Sean says the success of the Friends of St. John’s River voluntary group is an example of the potential which exists locally.
The Friends of St. John’s River committee has been striving to further improve the area in and around St. John’s River, Kilbarry so that it can be enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.
Since a committee was formed in 2014, remarkable achievements have been made.
The group’s focus is on improving the river itself in order to enhance the opportunities for its use and to enable the city to reap the rewards which the river can bring.
Their efforts include carrying out ongoing maintenance work such as clearing branches which have fallen into the river and removing rubbish.
Popular boat trips along the river have been organised by the group.
John Devereux is a member of this group and is also keen to see the potential of the Estuary realised. He highlights areas in the North of England where salmon fishing is allowed commercially for one month a year – a concept which has proved to be a very successful tourist attraction.
Sean Doherty points out that there were many warnings that closing fisheries would tear the heart out of villages. In a Munster Express article from 2006, local fishermen warned that up to 100 families’ livelihoods in the area would be decimated by the implementation of a proposed Government ban on drift net fishing.
“This will tear the heart out of fishing villages which have a tradition going back hundreds of years,” Sean commented at the time. “This is a way of life for so many people and we feel we are being sold out.” Now, Sean says the problems which locals had warned about have come to pass. Passage has seen fishing activity decline at an alarming rate.The activity which was generated through fishing acted as a huge support for local businesses which benefitted from money being spent locally. While local fisherman may not have made a fortune through the industry, Sean says fishing was much more than a job for them as it was an intrinsic part of their identity.
“There wouldn’t have been an awful lot of money with fishing, but people had a bit and they were able to save it,” he said. “They understood that there were lean times and good times but they always had an opportunity.”Sean believes more young people would become involved in fishing if opportunities were made available.“It’s a cultural thing,” he says. “Young fellas have it in them but their way of life is being denied. They haven’t been properly represented.”
He continued: “If the fishing is in you, you can’t get away from it, it will draw you back. But it’s been taken away from people.”
Public meetings have been taking place around the country to discuss marine spatial planning and the Government’s draft national framework. “I can assure you 90 per cent of individual fishermen won’t have made a submission,” says Sean. “A lot of people wouldn’t have much faith and would see it as another talking shop.” Sean and Michael reference a meeting held at The Tower Hotel designed to address issues involving water and local communities.
“Nothing came out of that. We felt it was a talk shop, a box ticking exercise,” says Sean.
“Rather than just throwing a report on the table, there has to be a blueprint where all of these things can be addressed.”
Sean believes Waterford has “lacked political muscle”. He is hopeful that something may be achieved as a result of the Green Party representation on Waterford City & County Council and the fact there is a Green party MEP from the area, Grace O’Sullivan.
“Now is the time for the Greens to take this on – especially if they are going to be part of a government,” he says. Councillor Eddie Mulligan (FF) has also spoken in the past about the need to promote this artisan food aspect in Waterford.
Cllr Mulligan believes there is huge potential around the concept of heritage fisheries and says there are lessons to be learned from the Nordic countries and Newfoundland in this respect.
“Communities have realised there is less fish to catch but they now have a higher value,” he explained. “By preserving a heritage means of fishing, the sector has become self-policing. People have realised that if they don’t protect what they have, there is no economic future.”
In the meantime, Sean Doherty says he hopes Waterford City & County Council “sits up” and forms a ‘think tank’ on the Estuary – rather than focusing on “irrelevant reports”.