Salmon Fishermen, Mornington, Co. Meath
Salmon Fishing on the Boyne River
A brief synopsis of the Boyne River Salmon Fishery
By Leo Boyle
Fisher folk have fished the Boyne since time immemorial. It has been a godsend to the communities that dwelt along its banks. The river is famous for its great run of salmon down through the ages, which gave sustenance to the numerous communities that lived along its banks, such as Mornington, Baltray and Drogheda.
One unique aspect of salmon fishing on the Boyne is the method which is used to catch the fish. The method is quite ancient. It is a simple method which has got its own natural inbuilt conservation measures. For instance the length of net is only eighty-five yards long and the river can be one hundred and thirty yards across and sometimes more. So there is a great opportunity for salmon to escape. Also there is the tidal factor. We have two tides every twenty-four hours.
Going back in time the men would fish both the day tide and the night tide when salmon were more plentiful. In recent years most men would only fish the day tide because of the decline in stocks. The velocity of the Boyne waters especially in the estuary area would prevent fishing, except for a four hour spell. Outside of these four hours the river becomes too deep and the tide too strong which makes the task inoperable.
A lot of technology has entered into the fishing arena in recent years, but not in the salmon fishing in rivers. Technology which includes radar, to detect locations of fish, monofilament netting which fish can’t see, faster boats, etc, etc. None of these “advantages” have been brought in to improve the efficiency in the method which is used by the Boyne salmon fishermen, luckily enough.
Suppose for instance that we could bring in some sort of a contraption on the Boyne which would ensure 100% success rate? Meaning that we could catch all the fish that entered the river. This might be considered to be a big step foward by engineers and technicians as regards progress in the engineering field, but it would be a disaster as far as the salmon were concerned. The salmon stocks would be wiped out in no time at all. There would be no brood stock to sustain the fishery. There are some fields in which there should be limits to technology. One of these is salmon fishing.
Briefly, the method used on the Boyne is as follows: It all starts off with two men. Having been alert to the point on the river where a salmon has jumped. One man rows the boat out into the centre of the river and as he rows out the net is paid out from the boat. The other man stays on the beach and is holding a rope which is attached to the net. When all of the net is paid out from the boat the boatman heads back for the shore, and as he is rowing in there is another rope (which is on the other end of the net) being paid into the water. When the boat reaches the shore the boatman and his mate on the beach (the landsman) will start closing the net with the help of the other men in the gang. All then pull the net to shore and check for any catch.
Now, to give a perspective on the importance of the salmon fishery to so many families down through time. It has to be said that it was a life saver. The salmon kept the body and soul together of many communities for generations. Families were fed, housed, clothed and educated by the riches of the Boyne river, when times were very tough for many people in Ireland. We were blessed to have such a pricelass resource on our doorstep.
Salmon were also used as a bartering commodity for other foodstuff, or household requirements. To say that we were lucky to have such an asset in our communities would be the understatement of all time. It must also be borne in mind that during many of those years when salmon were abundant, many people of the country were struggling to make ends meet. Indeed it is said that no one from the villages of Mornington, or Baltray were forced to take the ‘Coffin Ships’ to America or anywhere else. They had an abundance of food available, all from the river Boyne. There was salmon, trout, bass, plaice, mussels, cockles and winkles.
This begs the question regarding other coastal communities around Ireland as to why so many had to emigrate. Surely there would have been plenty of marine food available to keep the hunger at bay? Whilst the Famine era was the most devastating time in our history, there were also very hard times outside of this period.
Finally (probably) a very worrying trend has crept into the equation, which is the gradual decline in salmon stocks. The number of fishermen has also declined. Going back to my grandfather, Jack 1860/1945) who died at the age of eighty five years, there were more men fishing then, than there are now. My grandfather began fishing when he was twelve years of age, in 1872. One hundred and forty years ago. About an average of sixty to eighty men would have fished during the grandfather’s time. He fished until he was seventy five. He packed up in 1935.
As time evolved more people took to salmon fishing. We had the Mornington, Baltray and Drogheda men, plus men from peripheral areas such as Laytown, Donacarney, Colpe, etc. From the 1940s up to around one hundred and fifty men fished.
Salmon were exported to England for some time, and there was also a local buyer as well.
All the boats and nets had to be licenced by the Dept. of Fisheries, or other relevant bodies such as the Board of Conservators. If one had two boats and two nets then one could acquire two licences. However if a person only had one boat and one net, he would only get one licence. It meant that the man with two boats and nets would get two casts, in comparison to the fellow who only had one boat and net which allowed him just one cast.
There are about fourteen fishing stations on the river Boyne. Some of the names are The Front, Haven, Carrick, South Point, Hole, Bankstown, Queensboro, Mornington Pier, The Eelhouse, Stewarts, bank, Tom Roes Point, The Mud, And The Ramparts.
There was one more fishing station above the Ramparts. This was at Oldbridge, but this has been closed for many years as it was deemed to be above the tidal waters.
Oldbridge was the one site where the ancient coracle was used to cast the net. This particular craft was not used down river especially at the Boyne estuary as it was deemed to be unsafe due to the tidal velocity in that area. The old bridge site velocity was significantly slower. There were so many boats on each station that it would be difficult to get a razor blade between them.
However in 1970 the Marine Dept. brought in in new regulations in relation to the number of licences which were in existence at that time. The big change was that instead of a fisherman getting licences for each boat and net that he owned, he would only get one licence. The new regulation was one licence for each man, much more equitable. There was a limit of fifty licences for the Boyne. The licenced man could bring a non-licenced man with him. This man would become a “nominee” on the licence, and if the licenced man could not fish some of the time then the nominee was legally entitled to fish on that licence.
Indeed there were many Drogheda boats that as well as having the licence holder and the nominee, they could have one or two crew members as well. Though the crew members would not be allowed to use the licence unless the licence holder or nominee were present.
In the mid-eighties the stocks of salmon were declining at a faster pace, due mainly to the wholesale slaughter of salmon at sea. Sea monitoring was quite ineffective in those years as far as regulations were concerned. Ultimately, under severe pressure from Brussels, the Irish Government banned salmon fishing at sea in its entirety.. By this time (2006) serious damage was caused to salmon stocks.
As a consequence of the salmon decline a number of fishermen took up other employment. Yet there were still fifty licences in operation in 2006.
A number of conservation measures (apart from the ban at sea) were put in place which included the closure of a number of rivers all over the country. The rivers would remain closed until such time as there was a recovery in stocks. Most of the east-coast rivers were closed, this included the Boyne.
Whilst the ban on sea fishing was compulsory, the powers that be gave the option of taking compensation, or holding on to their licences to the fishermen. You could still keep your licence and hope that one day the stocks would return to a healthy level.
Of the fifty licences on the Boyne, thirty-six men decided to take the compensation as they could not see much future in the fishing. There are only fourteen of us now to hold the fort. Its sad to see such little activity nowadays on the river which once teemed with people going about their business like little colonies of ants.
In 2009 the Inland Fisheries of Ireland (I.F.I) asked us (the remaining fourteen men) if we would like to take part in a catch and release programme. This programme could help to give an approximate idea of the amount of stock in the Boyne, along with other measures they were carrying out, such as the angling catch, which is also catch and release.
The staff of the I.F.I. also carry out electro fishing. We catch the salmon and they are tagged on the dorsal fin. Its some kind of an electronic tag.. There is an electronic counter in Blackcastle, Navan and this counter will pick up (record) the number of salmon which pass through it. We have been doing this programme for four seasons now (2009-2012). We feel that the re-opening of the Boyne fishery is not too far away, as the catches in our programme have been quite heartening. We are optimistic that the wheel will turn full circle.
Finally, finally, it is incumbent on the remaining few fishermen to keep the tradition alive, come hell or high water. Our heritage must be protected at all cost. If we can achieve that not only will we be happy, I’m quite certain that all of the thousands of fishermen who have gone before us and once traipsed the banks of the Boyne, that they will rest easily in their graves.