In many beautiful locations in Ireland, We are bound from touching, immersing in or interacting with the sea, bound by cliffs too high, seas too big, or histories too tragic. We are reduced to simply gazing, dutifully recording magnificent vistas and suppressing the urge to touch it. In an obscurely located coffee-shop halfway up the slopes of Valentia Island in County Kerry, we empathised with this sentiment as we watched gannets swooping and diving below us in the middle distance between Valentia Lighthouse and Dullus Head, where great sweeps of ocean and cliff will satisfy the dutiful tourist, content to regard such marine life from a safe and terrestrial position.
But on this remarkable outpost in the southwest corner of our Island, the peoples’ relationship with the sea is more tangible than this. Every rock and sandbank is known and approached by fathers and sons in little punts, fishing for stories, mackerel, maybe a pollock. The sea not enough, the wind is introduced as a further parameter to engage with by those who sail and learn to sail between Knightstown and Beginish Island. Divers keep themselves busy with what is around the island and constantly look towards the Skeiligs, willing fine weather, and on the weekend I was there a rowing championship made the stretch of water between Valentia and The Iveragh peninsula a bareback competitive frenzy of muscle versus salt spray and surface tension.
Mark, Andrew and I joined seemingly the rest of the island in going out on a calm Saturday evening as we slid a traditional punt (more ‘traditional’ than a currach) down a most natural slipway, a carpet of Ulva green algae, its growth facilitated by a freshwater influx on the cobble shore outside Mark’s house. We were three marine biologists and we caught five mackerel. Although it did taste wonderful as sashimi later; raw and with some soy sauce but probably much better smoked, as biologists we were more concerned with the particulars of the species we were extracting and the ecosystem it is a part of.
Scomber scombrus is fast growing and highly migratory. Coming into shallower waters in April with good weather, they use spring tides to make minor migrations into and out of bays, all the while in huge schools, which a greedy angler can take advantage of, knowing that if he leaves his line in the water after the first tug, a few more will surely bite on as well. While a half educated biologist will sigh as a friend orders cod in a restaurant, pulling 5 mackerel out of the sea did not cause us to lose sleep. Despite scares in the 60s and 70s when stocks nearly collapsed, Mackerel enjoy the unusual position of being part of a semi healthy, abundant North Atlantic fish stock. This has been thanks to strong management efforts and while the stocks are never far from overexploitation, the Irish mackerel fishery has just been certified under The Marine Stewardship Council as being well managed and sustainable (FIS.com 01/09/09).
Underneath the subtropical gardens of Glanleam House, their humidity and lushness scarcely believable when you walk amongst them we pulled in our lines in acknowledgement of the dipping sun. Hoping for a dolphin or two to escort us, but settling for some moon jellies as the only other marine life to join us on this trip, we felt assured under the low cliffs in the sheltered passage of water between Knightstown and Valentia Lighthouse as other anglers and sailors returned to port, urged by the dimming light to bring home their boats and unsubstantial retrievals from the sea.
This ecosystem must surely take account of its human members, so many of them ungreedily reaping the returns of their respective stakeholds in the waters around the Island. How long will mackerel stocks stay sustainable? If the metallic hued speedsters of the ocean were only ever pitifully pursued by overqualified biologists in tiny boats, probably a long long time, however it is our newly certified fishery fleet whose eagerness will ultimately decide.