A sea angler in West Cork, pictured lure fishing for bass on Ireland’s Atlantic Way.

New tool could have international appeal and help signal ‘early warning’ of directional change when it comes to marine fish stocks

Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI), the state agency responsible for the conservation and protection of freshwater fish, habitats and sea angling resources, has developed an important new tool that captures anglers’ knowledge and hands-on experience to help track changes in stocks of marine fish.

The new method is called ‘FLEKSI’ and crucially, it taps into the local ecological knowledge of Irish sea anglers as a way of complementing scientific knowledge. Over 650 recreational anglers who fish along the Irish Sea, Celtic Sea and West Coast of Ireland have contributed to the development of the tool, which was highlighted in the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) Journal of Marine Science earlier this month.

FLEKSI, which stands for ‘Fisher’s Local Ecological Knowledge Surveillance Indicators’, can track how fisheries change over time. According to Inland Fisheries Ireland, it could also have a much broader application in helping to conserve or manage fisheries internationally, as all EU Member States are obliged to develop data collection programmes for marine recreational fisheries.

William Roche, Senior Research Officer with Inland Fisheries Ireland explained: “Ireland is known throughout the world for its iconic sea angling resources, attracting up to 185,000 anglers annually. A long and proud tradition of sea angling in this country means that many individuals and groups have accumulated hands-on knowledge of sea angling over the years, from catching tope sharks in the Irish Sea to fishing for bass on the beaches of the Dingle peninsula. We wanted to create a standardised framework that could capture these anglers’ observations and perceptions, to help us better understand long-term changes in recreational fisheries and to act as an early warning signal for long-term changes in the future.”

Roche added: “Tools such as FLEKSI can help us meet the challenge of monitoring fisheries. It can also provide important new information that supports science, policy and management in Ireland and potentially throughout the European Union.”

657 sea anglers, some of whom had more than forty years’ experience, took part in Inland Fisheries Ireland’s study in April this year. They were asked how sea angling ‘now’ compared with how they remember sea angling ‘then’, when they first started. Based on their perceptions and observations, the results suggest that stocks of cod, whiting and bass, have declined around Ireland over the last forty years. Importantly, this perception matches with stock assessments from ICES, which is the organisation tasked with determining stock status for all sea fish species in European waters.

The study results clearly demonstrate that anglers’ knowledge can provide an accurate picture of changing marine fish stocks,” said Samuel Shephard, a Senior Research Officer with Inland Fisheries Ireland.

He added: “Anglers have a leading role to play in conservation. They spend many hours outside, observing nature and the fish they catch. They may recall how different species have come and gone, and how average catches and sizes may have changed. Over an angling career, this experience can become a unique insight into the status of the fisheries. Inland Fisheries Ireland’s policy of collaborating, where possible, with angling citizen scientists and of harnessing their experiences can help us better understand long-term changes and how to protect these wonderful resources for the future.”

The FLEKSI tool paper is available to download from the ICES Journal of Marine Science website. The report is authored by Samuel Shephard (lead author), Diarmuid Ryan, Paul O’ Reilly and Willie Roche of Inland Fisheries Ireland.