LOUGHS Agency boats looking for poachers in the Foyle were stoned every night for a fortnight last summer and local fishery officers have been badly injured and hospitalised in attacks, it’s been revealed.
Loughs Agency boss Derick Anderson said the curtailment of legal salmon fishing in the Foyle pushed fish prices up and consequently created a poaching boom after years of decline in the number of instances of illegal netting.
Mr Anderson explained that poaching has always been at a significant level on the Foyle since the foundation of the Foyle Fisheries Commission in 1952.
He made the comments during an evidence session at the Stormont Agriculture and Rural Development Committee.
Back in the late 1990s, he explained, between 500 and 700 illegal nets were being seized every season.
However, with the introduction of carcass tagging back in 2001 it became more difficult for poachers to sell illegally caught fish.
Mr Anderson stated: “The number of nets declined from that period to 2006, when we seized only 87 nets.”
Ironically, the reduction in the number of commercial fishermen from 156 to 28 in the Foyle area a few years ago created a poaching boom as the value of salmon created an incentive for criminals to take to the river.
Mr Anderson said: “The number of nets that we were seizing started to rise again as the value of salmon increased and the opportunity for marketing illegally caught fish increased.”
According to the Loughs Agency Chief Executive the rise in poaching began around 2007.
The Agency’s Director of Conservation and Protection Mr John McCartney revealed there was almost a 50 per cent increase in the amount of nets seized in the Foyle over the past six years.
And worryingly this has been accompanied by violent attacks on local fishery officers.
Mr McCartney said: “In relation to the current picture, using net seizures as an indicator of the level of poaching activity, as Mr Anderson said, in 2006, it was 87.
“In 2011, it was up to 161 - almost a 50 per cent increase in the past six years. The past two or three years have been notable by the level of violence that fishery officers are facing on their routine duties.
“I will give you a flavour of one year. In 2011, we dealt with 54 rod-related offences, and we seized 161 nets, 12 boats, 36 bags of oysters and two cars, as well as various items including knives, balaclava masks, batons and other things used as an aid to committing an offence.”
Mr McCartney said the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has been exemplary in supporting the Loughs Agency when help is needed but that whilst “An Garda Síochána has tried very hard” it “seems to be suffering from very limited resources in its ability to respond.”
“That is something that we have taken up with local senior officers in the past,” said Mr McCartney.
The level of violence is also of concern. Mr McCartney said officers have been badly injured and that the Agency’s boats were stoned every night for a whole fortnight last summer.
“The violence against fishery officers is of significant concern to us,” he said. “We have staff who have been quite badly injured and have been hospitalised and been off work, as well as considerable damage to vehicles and equipment.
“For a period in the summer, we came under regular stoning attacks, almost on a nightly basis, for about a fortnight.”