The role of Salmon fishing in the estuary communities

I normally try to keep things light on the page. But after listening to the fanfare about a new Government Action plan for rural Ireland  I have to say I was disturbed. The plan is big on numbers; €60 million investment, 135,000 jobs yada yada. While in the same week it appears that there is no funding to maintain buses, a vital link to rural folk. Perhaps it was just the timing of course.  You see February marked the traditional start of the Salmon fishery here in the estuary area, and throughout the country. Generations looked forward to the spring commencement that would span to August 15th and provide a welcome income boost following a long winter. 
Fishermen gather to bless their boats and nets 1930’s

But in 2006 this way of life ceased with the ban on traditional drift netting. It was done without any consultation and no consideration to the local riverine communities, and what the effects might be. Nothing was done to replace the work. Two years later, in 2008, as I completed a five year part time degree, I chose as my final project an analysis of the Salmon closure.                                                                                                

My dissertation called for primary research and to do this I interviewed three fishermen from the locality. Although there were several questions asked, the big issue for me was the social implications of the closure.  The extract below comes directly from the dissertation and what they thought of it all.
From the outset it is worth distinguishing that participants felt that many in the community would think there had been no impact from the recent salmon closure. It is mostly felt by those directly involved in fishing. They agree that as fishermen they are much less affected now than they would have been twenty or thirty years ago. On the occasions where I challenged the men around improvements nationally via the Celtic tiger I was roundly challenged myself with rebuttals such as poor health, stress, commuting, shift work, uncertainty of work, no community spirit, rise in alcohol and drugs and so much more. 

The community has been impacted by the loss of commercial activity and the coming and going of boats and crews. Money was earned and predominantly spent in the community in the past. There was vibrancy about. As one man said “a trip to the post office could have taken from a half hour to a half day in the past. You’d be stopped chatting to people, now it takes five minutes”. 

This lack of people is blamed on factory shift work and people being employed in Waterford. As one man pointed out they are either working or in bed. Shift work patterns really impact on people and the area. Although fishermen often worked through the night, it wasn’t like the factory shifts. “You were working for yourself and could stop when you wanted. In factories there is no such freedom. It gets you into a rut” 

Participants believe that the lack of people about has a negative effect on the community. It impacts on how people feel about their security. Previously, if you were sick or incapacitated there were people to call. They might drop you in a dinner or a feed of fish. Messages would be run, there was someone to talk to. Fishermen in the past were around because the village was their place of work, landing fish, mending nets, repairing boats. 

Other concerns are that young men don’t have the same opportunities to come of age in the ways they did in the past. Although many have jobs through local restaurants which are well paid, clean, safe and “wouldn’t tax you”, it is considered a far cry from the training, challenge and satisfaction young men had in the past through fishing. 
Tom and Michael Ferguson (RIP)  drifting circa 2005

Fishing was a method of schooling in itself. Young men were taught valuable lessons. For example they needed to learn the capabilities of boat and themselves. For example catching a river marker buoy and how to extract yourself, nets and boat. This took common sense skills required, these have to be passed on – boat handling, fishing skills and psychologically – its not the end of the world to make a mistake. Other skills around salmon fishing were more unique and as it was explained would never be found in a book, including the role played by wind, tide, moon, and season. These will all be lost in the future it was felt as there will be no means of passing them on.

Launching a punt for the season circa 1996

Perhaps the greatest loss is the contact with other fishermen on a daily or hourly basis. As a fisherman you were in contact on the quayside, as boats passed each other, or waited for particular drifts. A key factor of this was the swapping of pieces of information vital for knowing how and where the fish were “running”. Men also cooperated around the seasonal activities such as hauling out boats for overwintering or repair and the making and repairing of nets. These were not so much tasks as occasions. There loss, ultimately, engenders isolation as men are more inclined to stay inside if they know there will be no one to see or talk to.

All in all, participants felt that previously the river had a deeper significance for the community. It derived an income, was a source of food, pleasure, challenge. It was a place for regattas where communities competed against each other and was a mode of transport to and from the city, but also to dances and social occasions in other communities around the estuary. The village, it is felt has embraced the car and the city and turned its back almost completely on the river. Though the salmon closure came on the heels of these wider changes, it cements them to a large extent. Without the Salmon fishery, there is little to hold the traditional character of the community in place.
A community event, turning a punt for cleaning

So how does that all fit in with the Rural Action Plan?

Well that was 9 years ago, and I’m sure the situation has only worsened. What was clear to me about the opinions expressed by those fishermen was they could see the value of such work, but not just in terms of finance. Such work held the community together, actually helped create a meaning of community. Announcements of last week ring hollow, because they appear to know nothing of community.  For them it appears rural is about economy, funding, units. If they can’t value the people and the professions that hold rural communities together, how can they ever hope to retain a rural way of life.

If you were interested to know how the political decisions were taken from a critical perspective my full dissertation is here.

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