Northern Ireland news

Fishing for world renowned Lough Neagh eels has collapsed: fishermen

Satellite imagery shows the level of algae bloom in Lough Neagh. Picture by Copernicus Open Access Hub
John Breslin

Fishing for globally renowned eels has collapsed due to the vast amounts of toxic blue-green algae in and around Lough Neagh this summer, fishermen and locals have claimed.

Fishermen are casting nets for roach, perch and pallen as they try to make a living during what is widely described as the worst season ever for the presence of algae blooms, the cyanobacteria deadly to animals and harmful to humans.

People who work on the lough claim the Department of Agriculture (DAERA)-managed fish farm at Movanagher has now shut down amid what those whose families have lived and worked on the lough for generations describe as an unfolding environmental disaster. 

DAERA has been contacted for comment.

Lough Neagh Fishermen's Co-Operative, which buys the majority of the catch from the lough, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

It is the first year in more than five decades that Kevin Johnston has been unable to fish for eel on the lough, his wife Una said.

Read more: Vast stretch of Lough Neagh cloaked in apparent toxic algae as locals insist it is the 'worst ever seen'

Read more: Sludge-like toxic algae could wash up on any shore on Lough Neagh, agriculture officials warn

The scene in a water way off Lough Neagh

The 68-year-old from Toome first went out to make a living aged 14, leaving school to make a living after his father died.

“He has not made a penny this year,” Mrs Johnston said, adding he is unable to fish for other catch as it is heavy work casting nets and he is not in the best of health.

“It is such a catastrophe,” said Mrs Johnston, secretary of Tidal Toome, a community group. Lough Neagh is part of a global eco-system, she said.

The group runs a tea room, the Lock Keeper’s Cottage on the Bann, which did little business last week amid the continuing crisis. 

Lock Keeper's Cottage in Toome, Co Antrim

Its four-time a year artisan market had to be cancelled due to the confusion, and ill-informed social chatter, over what sort of impact the bacteria is having on the wider environment and communities. 

Mrs Johnston said large amounts of the “stinking” algae builds up behind the Waterways Ireland-managed locks, which are then opened much more regularly but flowed past the cottage.

Protesters at an environmental action rally in Belfast. Picture Mal McCann
Gary McErlain, speaking from his boat on Friday, confirmed his crew was not fishing for eels this year and have not done so since the very early part of the season.


“It’s scale fish. As far as this season goes, it has been sheer destruction and I have no doubt it is because of the algae,” he said.

While fishing for any catch is the hardest of work, Mr McErlain said there is not the same reward in roach, perch and pallen as there is in the eel business.

Blue-green algae feeds and blooms on nitrates and phosphates, essentially waste, including sewage, farm and industrial run-off. 

Sunlight and warm weather helps also to feed the algae while the recent introduction of zebra mussels have cleared the waters with their feeding, allowing light to penetrate to greater depths.

It has, according to locals, revealed just how much pollution has been lurking in the lough over the years.

Activists are organising, with a wake planned for Ballyronan on the west side of the lough this Sunday, organised by Love Our Lough.

Love Our Lough's Emma Ross spoke at Fridays for Future climate rally in Belfast city centre, telling the crowd of the "environmental disaster currently happening on Lough Neagh". 

Emma Ross from the Love our Lough collective speaking at the Fridays for Future rally in Belfast. Picture Mal McCann
She called on people to attend to wake to "unite in grief". 

Save Our Shores has organised an SOS  meeting to be held at the Seamus Heaney Centre in Bellaghy on Wednesday evening. 

Mick Hagan, of Western Shore Angling
Officials from DAERA, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Lough Neagh Fishermen's Co-operative and other agencies are welcome to attend, said member Mick Hagan, of West Shore Angling.
His family commercially fished the waters for generations, including his father and uncle.   

"Never have I seen so many eel fisherman resorting to scale fishing in order to make some form of income," he said. 


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