Every time Stephen McHale catches an egg-bearing female lobster, he makes a mark on the tail flipper to warn other fishers not to harvest it. It is a practice known as v-notching to protect local stocks and typical of the sustainable way McHale operates. “We fish to the market in that our seller, who just lives a few miles down the coast, knows what demand there is and we fish to satisfy that. So the market isn’t flooded with unwanted fish,” he explains.
It is a balmy April afternoon and McHale’s last fishing job of the day is to lift a brace of lobster and crab pots before hauling his boat up the ancient slipway because of a bad forecast that will leave this little inlet foaming and hissing with swell.
For more than 40 years he has fished for migratory mackerel, crab and lobster out of a tiny little harbour in one of the remotest coastal areas of the European Union, situated half way between the Stags of Broadhaven and Downpatrick Head on the wild west coast of County Mayo, in Ireland.
In his time as a fisherman he has seen a lot of change, especially since Ireland joined the EU: “The availability of markets throughout the EU where we can sell our fish has always been the big advantage for us here and it gives us security. Before Ireland joined the EEC (European Economic Community) back in 1973 we didn’t have any markets at all. At that time fish was not a major part of the Irish diet or of restaurant menus, so we would often be giving crab away free.”
Like many inshore fishermen along this rugged Atlantic coastline, McHale fishes from May to October in his nine-metre (30-foot) boat Eileen’s Pride, named after his wife who runs a Bed and Breakfast from their nearby home.
McHale has adapted his boat to use traditional and sustainable methods for his passive fishery where traceability is a priority. He uses a jigging line for hooking each mackerel individually, ensuring a low impact.
A key aim of the reformed EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), established in January 2014, after a long and exhaustive consultative process with member states, is to ensure that fishing will in future be sustainable environmentally, economically and socially, as well as culturally.
McHale fully supports the ideas behind it: “I welcome the fact that the new conservation measures allow more input from our [national] government, our representative groups [the Erris Inshore Fishermen’s Association) as well as ourselves. After all, we will know an awful lot sooner than Brussels, or some scientists that live far from here, when stocks are getting low or the quality is decreasing in a fishery. This means I can make decisions based on up-to-date knowledge and move around the fishing grounds so that no fishery is overfished.”
Meanwhile McHale continues to take out his boat each day. “We hauled 20 pots just now this afternoon and got nine lobsters and a load of crabs. Many of these are sold live on the continent [of Europe] or if the crab are cut they go to the processors here for the home market. We have a grader on the boat and any fish that is undersized we thrown back in and we also conserve the lobsters by v-notching them,” he explains as his boat slips back into the harbour.