Damaged River

It’s the year 2000. I had just returned to Ireland after a fifteen year entrenchment in the multi cultural art metropolis of Berlin and was relieved to have that Atlantic within easy driving distance once again. On a hazy summer afternoon we headed to Lismore, Co. Waterford, to walk the cliff side pathway. The place was so deserted it reminded me of a saying my father often used that “there wasn’t a sinner in sight”. The ocean appeared like a giant lake of pearlescent silver. Despite the tranquility, I could still hear the screeching of steel on steel as the Berliner U-Bahn, ground its way through the dark caverns underneath the four million inhabitants of a sprawling city. The memory of hectic loud urban living was still so vivid. However this wide open stretch of calm ocean, its emptiness and sheer beauty was a tonic for the soul. After twenty minutes or so of perfect silence I spotted an elderly gentleman up ahead seated and solitary, gazing at the ocean.
Eighty-three years of age , born and bred in the village, never travelled much on the roads of Ireland but spent his entire life fishing the waters off the Waterford – Cork coastline. He reminded me so much of my grandfather who was a passionate salmon angler back in the 1940’s & 50’s on the river Lee. How’s the fishing these days, I innocently asked “Tis wiped out I’m afraid !” and he continued… ” there’s nobody to blame only ourselves…we couldn’t get enough of em into the boats …pure greed…the few boats that go out now come back practically empty !” Well my tranquil afternoon on the cliff walk was suddenly jarred back into a rather negative reality. This fisherman was clearly not at peace because of his participation in what he went on to describe as a “crime”. It seems Mother Nature is so perfect until MAN enters the equasion!

Several months on still trying hard to readjust to an Irish society that was extremely unfamiliar I found myself in the company of a medical professional who told me of his two great passions in life : ART & SALMON FISHING. The conversation bounded along from one contemporary Irish painter to the next. I was all ears and all eyes. For years this man and his wife were compulsive buyers of Irish artworks. Delightedly for me this was an intimate, broad insight into what my contemporaries in Ireland were creating parallel to my own artistic endeavours during my fifteen years in Berlin. Several paintings were seascape related works and before long the conversation swung to salmon fishing!

Once again I mentioned my only connection at that stage to salmon was through my grandfather and his keen interest and reputation as a fly fisherman back in the 40’s & 50’s. To my surprise the conversation took on a whole new character.” “There’s NO pleasure fishing the local rivers here anymore!” he explained in a strong acidic manner. I was somewhat shocked. Remembered immediately my conversation in Lismore months earlier with the elderly sea fisherman. “Your grandfather experienced the Lee in its hey day!” “Working a full time busy job and then getting out once a week on the Lee during the salmon seasons prime months, May through August, to land the odd small fish became too frustrating !” I had to enquire further to understand why this once most abundant salmon, trout and eel river was now in such a critical state. There are a multitude of factors that contribute to this. The human awareness factors I will mention here. Other very important factors will be dealth with in next weeks post.

Inniscarra Dam

Since the 1957 Lee Electric Scheme, the river Lee is no longer a free flowing natural entity. Similar to the Liffey , the Shannon and the Erne, the natural flow of these rivers has been broken by concrete barriers to create the business of selling electricity to the Irish public ! In 1957 the ESB catapulted us out of the dark ages of the candle and the oil lantern into a new brightly lit era. Naturally it came with a price tag.

For generations further down river where the Lee divides into the north and south channels both the public at large and the city design engineers of Cork ignored their river as it was ignorantly perceived as a simple solution to carry human waste out to sea. To this very day shopping trollies, bikes, tyres, parking cones, anything that makes a splash really, are being chucked in for the fun of it !

Salmon & trout depend for their existence on fresh, clean, well oxygenated water. For many years the Lee was a contaminated soup that flowed pungent green through the city. Thankfully the City Council (2002) installed a sophisticated purification system which has had a hugely positive impact. A wide range of people I’ve interviewed claim with certainty that farmers dumped large quantities of slurry into the river Lee and its multiple tributaries, wreaking havoc with the crystal clear waters flowing for centuries through the Lee valley from the Shehy mountains. Inland fisheries have confirmed that there has been a major shift in the the thinking on this among the younger generation of farmers. Despite a number of extremely positive initiatives the story for the fish remains critical. I discovered after further research that serious salmon anglers prefer to save and spend thousands of Euros to fly to Canada , Norway, Russia, South America just to get a brief really expensive taste of fishing in a river that has a natural healthy stock of wild creatures.

Some facts to round off the gripe : One wild Atlantic salmon is worth 500 Euros to the Irish economy. One 10-15lb female salmon can produce 10-15 thousand eggs. The river Lee prior to 1957 was known as the Silver Lee due to the sheer abundance of fish that swam in shoals through our magnificent harbour all the way to its source at Gougannebarra. We inhabit an island surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. We have hundreds of rivers and streams. Are we simply unaware of one of our greatest assets? I would say YES ! The vast majority of us simply DO NOT KNOW THE FACTS. We continue to consume fish by the truck load and yet our ocean and river stocks are in a serious and steady decline. Ask any Irish commercial fishing trawler skipper how far they have to motor to catch your piece of cod for your fish supper and chips?

We are surely these creatures greatest enemy and this in my viewfinder is a delicious irony and one hell of a grandiose contradiction.

Next weeks post is entitled : FARMED FISH FOREVER.

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