The Local Fisheries of Dublin

From The Illustrated Dublin Journal, Volume 1, Number 27, March 8, 1862

WE have already in previous numbers of this journal noticed some of the principal crustaceae which minister to the gastronomical tastes of the inhabitants of the United Kingdom, and are now induced to briefly return to the subject, for the purpose of giving our readers an outline of an admirable paper recently read before the Natural History Society of Ireland, by Professor Kinahan, F.L.S., inquiring into the causes of the present decay of the Dublin crab and lobster fisheries; with a few suggestions as to the practicability of amendment of the market supply, either by substitution of species or otherwise. The subject is one in every respect deserving of attention, and has been very pertinently treated by Professor Kinahan.

On a comparison of the numbers of species of crustaceae which are exposed for sale in the markets of Paris, London, and Dublin, it appears that the lowest consumption of these dainties is in the latter city. In Paris the species of crustaceae exposed for sale in the public market is generally nine in number; viz., the lobster, the common crab, the sea cray fishes, fresh water cray fish, common shrimp, two species of prawn, the common green crab, and the velvet cleanser crab. In the English markets the list is still larger--twelve in all. This includes the common crab, the lobster, sea and fresh water cray fish, the common shrimp, three species of prawn, the corwich, and the green crab. We find the list in the Dublin market limited to the following: lobster, common crab, sea and fresh water cray fishes, common shrimp, which, with the addition of the Norway lobster, called "prawns" in the Dublin markets, makes up but six, although most of the other species are found about Dublin, or in localities easily accessible for its markets. It will be interesting to examine the species in detail. The common crab is taken in large numbers around the Irish coast, but of late years the Dublin fisheries have been falling off. This arises from various causes, but, in Professor Kinahan's opinion, none have been so active as too close fishing of the ground, and the consequent destruction of the young, which, though unmarketable, are used as bait by the fishermen, in some cases foolishly, as for baiting whelk-pots. In the Summer hand-line fisheries, hardly any other bait is used, when crabs are procurable; and this might be avoided, since it has been found that the velvet cleanser crab is equally efficacious as a substitute. The grounds in which these animals are found are rocky, weedy bottoms, hence the fisheries are confined to within a short distance of the shores. The chief places about Dublin are Skerries, Howth, Kingstown, Dalkey, and Bullock. The fisheries used to be carried on solely by wicker pots, made on the principle of the common wire mouse trap, but with the aperture at the top. Latterly, about Kingstown and Dalkey, the drum-net has superseded the pot. It is made of net stretched in the form of a drum on hoops, with openings at opposite ends, one opening being at the top, the other at the bottom. From the hoops the bait, consisting of bits of fish, is generally suspended by means of withes, frequently made of the common briar. These are sunk and left down for a certain number of hours, when they are taken up, the crabs, etc., removed, and the pots or drum re-baited and sunk again. On the west coast of Ireland crabs are taken by another method. An open hoop having two lines set cross-wise on it, and below furnished with a bag net, is fastened to a strong line of sufficient length, the bait being attached to the cross-lines, and the apparatus then lowered into the sea; after the lapse of ten or fifteen minutes it is drawn up, and the crabs, etc., are found in the bag. When pots are used the fishing is most precarious; the pots are frequently lost through gales, or carrying away of the buoys by passing vessels, and, as the baits require to be frequently renewed, it often happens, when the crabs are scarce, the cost of the bait exceeds the value of the capture. The crabs taken at Skerries are generally of large size, but epicures prefer those captured about Bullock and Dalkey, which are moderate sized, plump, and heavier in proportion, though, singularly enough, those captured at the back of the East Pier are mostly inferior. The feeding grounds have probably something to do with this; the Bullock grounds being free from the influence of the sewerage, which greatly affects the Kingstown grounds.

The only difference between the modes of capture of the lobster and the crab is, that the former prefers a stale bait. Heavy gales affect the supply of the two species in a remarkable manner. The last season, after the heavy gales of February, 1861, proved a very bad one; probably the disturbance of the rocks near the shore had something to say to it, from the destruction of their feeding places. Rutty, in his "Natural History of Dublin," has a curious statement about this species. He says: "This is native and good at Howth and Lambay; but what they have good at Bullock they bring from Waterford, etc., and feed and send to Dublin market those of their own produce, small and bad."

The sea cray fish, or spiny or horny lobster, is extremely rare about Dublin. The markets are supplied from the southern and western coasts, but the consumption is small. The freshwater cray fish can scarcely be included among the edible crustaceae as its great use in Dublin is as a garnish to fish. It is chiefly supplied from the streams in the county Kildare, as at Maynooth. The shrimp is only seen in the market in small numbers, and of them most are imported, although it is extremely common on the Dublin coasts, the sandy pools on its beaches everywhere containing it; and in some places, such as about Bush, the species grows to a large size. They do not want for flavour, so that we can only account for its absence from our tables by a want of appreciation in the eating public.

The "Norway lobster," though called the prawn in the Dublin markets, differs much from the true prawn, being four or five times the size of that animal, and of a different shape. It is the most beautiful of all our crustaceae as regards sculpture, and is generally abundant and much appreciated in the Dublin markets. They are supplied by the trawlers from the deep waters which lie between Ireland and the Isle of Man. The "common prawn" occurs in the crab grounds about Dalkey Island, and formerly constituted an important fishery. Why this has fallen off it is impossible to say; the species still exists, but is rare. It is also taken at Bray Head. The "squill prawn" is one of the species which Professor Kinahan thinks might be profitably introduced for consumption, if a taste for shrimps were once acquired. It is found abundantly in every rock-pool about the Dublin coasts, and in the pools cut off from the sea by the railway; in the weedy portions of the slob, at Malahide, etc., where they can be captured in a common hand ring-net in abundance. This is the species mentioned by Rutty as having been destroyed by the frost of 1740, as a reference to Rondeletius will show. The species of prawn known as "Leach's prawn" is not met with about Dublin, but is very abundant at certain seasons in Galway, where they are sold indiscriminately with the "squill prawn" and the young of the common prawn. The species called the "Esop prawn" occurs in our rock-pools, but, being more properly a deep-water species, if fished for, it must be sought in the deeper waters. It occurs in myriads in the herring nets, and it is a great pity it has not been introduced into the Irish markets, seeing that it is common enough in those of London. Leach remarks of it: "It is used as an article of food at Yarmouth, and is at that place so much esteemed for the table, as to afford constant employment during the summer season to the fishermen, who take it in abundance at a considerable distance from the shore, and name it, from that circumstance, the 'sea shrimp.'" Off Dalkey it occurs abundantly in the pots, when crabs are used for bait; indeed, the supply seems inexhaustible.

First, amongst the crab species, may be noticed the "green crab," which swarms around the Irish coasts, and is easily captured, either by "bobbing" for it, as is done for eels, with a bundle of garbage; or by the hand, under stones, at low water. Although found in both the London and Paris markets, it bears only an inferior price. It might, however, with advantage, be substituted for the common crab as bait, and so diminish the destruction of the young of that species. It is used by the Malahide fishers as bait for their whelk-pots, and, immediately after exuviation, while still soft, is used as a bait for shore hand-lines about Dublin, being then called "soft crabs." The "velvet cleanser crab" is extremely abundant under stones at half tides, and a great pest in the crab pots. It has been successfully substituted for the common crab, but the great objection to it is the small amount of meat found in it; this, however, would not prevent its being used in the manufacture of sauces, a purpose for which the smaller crabs are used. The fishermen in the vicinity of Kingstown call it "the fiddler", and commonly destroy all they find in the pots, but it is frequently used for baiting the whelk-traps.

Around Dublin there are a number of other crustaceae which are taken abroad, and which, like the last-mentioned, might at least be used in sauces; the "scaly Spanish lobster," found abundantly in certain localities; two species of "cleanser" crabs, abundant in deep water, and easily procured by the dredge and other means.

The conclusion of Professor Kinahan's valuable paper was devoted to a few general remarks anent the local fisheries of Dublin. As he observed, there can be no doubt that formerly they were much more curative than at present, and that of late years the supplies have fallen off. A consideration of the causes may be necessary. The first of these, without doubt, is too close fishing. Unfortunately, the period of the year when those delicacies are in season, is also that at which hand-line fishing is in vogue, hence a ready market is obtained for individuals which ought rightly to be thrown back again into the sea to grow; unfortunately, also, those fish which carry the spawn, or coral, as it is called, are considered the greatest delicacies, and, hence, we are burning the candle at both ends--destroying the young and destroying the ova. Then, again, the number of competitors on the fishing ground is much increased; hence large individuals have become scarce, and the fisherman is obliged, in self-defence, to reimburse himself the cost of his bait, time, and tackle, by vending crabs which formerly were thrown back into the sea. Legislative interference with the fisheries has always defeated itself, partly through popular prejudice, and partly through arbitrary restrictions, which have, in too many cases, converted the natural active guardians of the fish into their destroyers, or at least, into passive witnesses of their destruction by others. Another cause, doubtless, has been the increased consumption, through the opening of new markets, etc., which has brought about the very thing we have noted before--too close fishing. A third cause which may be remarked in the Dublin fisheries, arises from the changes which the advances of civilization have caused in many of the feeding grounds. Numerous houses and terraces built in the vicinity of the sea pouring in gallons of filthy and deleterious sewage by the hour, cause the destruction of the food on which the animals feed, if not their own, and drives them from their haunts. As Professor Kinahan correctly remarks, while the denizens of the Irish metropolis keep up their present absurd system of sewage, in which, under the absurd idea that the foul matter will be dissipated in the tide, they carry the outlets of their sewers down into the sea. Under this system, the natural course of events is, the solid matters are carried out to sea in the first instance, and are either returned again in a minute state of division, but not the less hurtful on that account, and spread upon the Irish beaches; or else, meeting with a non-current, deposited as a bank of foetid, lifeless mud. Legislative enactment might meet this difficulty, but, with Professor Kinahan, we are not sanguine on the point. Another cause, doubtless, of the falling off arises from changes in the submarine banks, due to violent storms, which have destroyed many favourite feeding grounds--in fact, since a heavy gale, many years ago, the mollusca, etc., thrown up on many Irish beaches, have been totally altered as to numbers and species. Professor Kinahan is of opinion that there is one remedy which, supposing the sewage difficulty removed, might restore the Dublin feeding grounds--this is, the breeding of crabs and lobsters in stews, into which the sea has full access, and from which the young could escape, or be transferred at the proper season into localities more fitted for their adult growth. These remarks are intended to apply more particularly to the grounds about Kingstown, Dalkey, and Bullock, but they are generally applicable to any locality. From the introduction to White's excellent popular history of British Crustaceae, proving that the subject of supply is, by no means, an unimportant one in an economic point of view, it appears that in London the consumption of some of the largest dealers amounts to 60,000 lobsters and 12,000 crabs per annum, while many of the ordinary fishmongers find sale for some 8,000 or 10,000; and the consumption of prawns and shrimps is almost incalculable. Hundreds of pounds weight of the former, averaging 200 prawns to the pound, and bushels of the latter, averaging from 100 to 150 in the pint, being something like 6,400 to 9,600 in each bushel, finding a ready market, and this takes no count of the other species consumed. Between May and June, 1855, upwards of 40,000 lobsters were sent from the Orkneys alone to London, their value being £5,000; and during the summer season 3,050 lobsters were exported from the Channel Islands per week, totally irrespective of the consumption in the islands themselves. From Norway, at least 600.000 lobsters are annually supplied to the London folk, so that the only wonder must bo that the supplies have not long since run out. Of the numbers consumed in the Dublin markets, we have no accurate means of speaking, but judging by the displays in the shop windows, and the number of boats employed in the fisheries, it must be considerable enough to render the subject brought forward in Professor Kinahan's communication--which, we may add, was illustrated by specimens of most of the species of crustaceae mentioned--of considerable importance.