October 12, 2018

Photo: John O’Connor

Photo: John O’Connor

Click here for the first blog post detailing the goals for this project.

There’s something very subtly distinct about the culture here in Ireland, particularly among those who interact consistently with its marine life. And though I’ve spent numerous months conducting fieldwork here, it only just struck me exactly what that distinguishing characteristic is. From the biggest cities to the little rural towns, there is an amazingly strong sense of community. The first question from most people is not about your career and what you do, but rather who you are, where you’re from, and what you like to do (this, by the way, is still the case even if you don’t have an obvious American accent). When I think about it, this sense of community surrounded me from the very beginning, during my first interactions with Emmett and the Irish Basking Shark Study Group, Drs. Jon Houghton and Patrick Collins and their students at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), and Dr. Nick Payne at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). I’ve been welcomed into the academic community here with ease. However, perhaps I didn’t quite realize the prevalence of this community mindset until I stepped out of academia during this last week and into a realm that, at first glance, appears very different.

The Helm Skate Fishing Festival in Westport, Ireland has been a staple event in the town for over 20 years. It is organized every October by The Helm, a pub and restaurant ideally situated along the quay overlooking the waterfront. Many of the same fishermen return every year from all over Ireland and the UK for a chance to capture one of the notorious “monsters of the deep” that lurk in Clew Bay, a stunning body of water spotted with 365 small islands - one for every day of the year. Clew Bay is one of the only identified habitats in Irish waters for a population of critically endangered flapper skate, a key factor in attracting anglers each season. Though there have certainly been some years where no skate have been captured, it is much more common that the festival ends with multiple fishermen vying for the top prize, which is awarded for catching the largest specimen. Of course, none of the fish are killed. They are simply measured onboard by a third party (the fishermen can’t know the size until the very last night) and released. Interestingly, this process has generated quite a successful tagging scheme, as the fishermen tend to carry identification tags for captured animals and will record when they have re-captured a previously marked individual.

Clew Bay, County Mayo, Ireland.  Photo: Destination Westport

Clew Bay, County Mayo, Ireland. Photo: Destination Westport

In my experience, there is often thought to be a disconnect between conservation-based researchers and the hunters and fishermen that interact with endangered wildlife. But over the years I’ve learned firsthand that collective work among stakeholders and scientists alike can be significantly more efficient that each group attempting to forge the same path independently. What I didn’t realize prior to this project, however, is just how much I would come to appreciate the community that this sort of collaboration can create. Several months ago, when Patrick Collins and I reached out to Shane and Vinny (who both run The Helm and organize the event), I wasn’t quite sure what the reaction would be to a young female scientist coming onboard the fishing vessels to test out a new tag attachment method. I was keenly aware of the possibility the method might fail amidst an audience of curious onlookers, and even more conscious of the fact that these fishermen had years of experience interacting with a species I had yet to see. But Shane and Vinny were enthusiastic about our participation, and even offered the use of a RIB (rigged-hulled inflatable boat, operated by fisheries officers from Inland Fisheries Ireland) to transport me, along with the event’s photographer John O’Connor, between the vessels as they captured the skate. What’s more, I was invited to participate in all the weekend’s festivities, which include live music, food, and drinks at The Helm every night and the awards ceremony on Sunday evening. Thus, immediately upon our arrival to Westport on Friday, October 5, my fellow researcher Haley Dolton and I headed straight to the pub. We were warmly greeted by Shane and Vinny, in addition to roughly 80 fishermen (and 3 fisherwomen) who had all gathered there to kick of the festival. Almost immediately, we were engaged in conversation. We learned that some of these fishermen had met through the festival and continued to fish together every year, and we watched video after video of the skate that had been captured in the past. We also gathered information on the average size of the captured specimens, where they had been captured in the bay, whether they had been primarily male or female, and the trends in catch number over the years. In turn, we explained what we were hoping to do. We showed our own photos of the packages we wanted to attach, explained the purpose behind the study, and asked what the fishermen thought were worthwhile questions to pursue when creating a best angling practice protocol. It was an amazingly fun and valuable exchange of ideas, and as we left the pub to prepare our packages for the first day of the festival, we were nearly as excited and optimistic as the fishermen themselves.

My first glimpse of the flapper skate that would ultimately win first prize.  Photo: John O’Connor

My first glimpse of the flapper skate that would ultimately win first prize. Photo: John O’Connor

Saturday dawned cool and clear, the sun shining onto the colorful orange and green October landscape. Croagh Patrick, the holiest mountain in Ireland, was visible in the distance from the bustling quay where fishermen organized themselves according to boat. Seven charter vessels would carry them into Clew Bay, where they would anchor for the afternoon. Meanwhile, Haley and I conducted a last-minute range test on the VHF tags, which would be used to locate the packages containing the accelerometers after they popped off the skate. The process entails carrying a giant antenna to try to locate the source of the strongest signal from the tags, a similar process to active tracking using a directional hydrophone underwater. Naturally, the sight sparked a whole new round of questions from the curious onlookers, many of whom we had met the previous evening. The competition began at noon, and from then the fishermen then had six hours until the call for lines up. Our range test complete, we set out to watch the action with John O’Connor and Kevin and John, the fisheries officers from Inland Fisheries Ireland. All three were equally as interested as the fishermen in what we wanted to accomplish, and were similarly as knowledgeable about both the event and the animals themselves. John O’Connor had photographed the festival for years, and as he knew each of the skippers personally, he would be telephoned when there was a skate on the line.

The first call came in the early afternoon, and I felt an eager and almost nervous sense of anticipation. According to nearly all accounts, it usually took up to an hour for the fisherman to land the skate, which often weighs over 150 pounds. This one defied all expectation and was almost already at the surface by the time we arrived ten minutes after the initial bite. Declan was an experienced angler, and the men on his boat helped pull the animal onboard as we approached. This one was a female, and she was massive. The dark gray of her triangular body was dotted with small white spots across her tremendous wingspan, which we later found measured 220 centimeters (over 6 feet long). She possessed the air of a prehistoric being, both graceful and visibly powerful as she flapped her wings and thrashed her tail, but she rested quietly on the boat deck when the men finally brought her on board. Haley, John O’Connor and I jumped from the RIB to the vessel and the fishermen immediately made room for me to sit down beside the animal. I took a moment to touch her wing, in awe of the experience, before quickly grasping her tail and attempting to attach the package. We had to move quickly, as the fishermen well knew. A few kept a steady stream of water running over the skate while Declan offered insight to help modify the package to fasten it more firmly in place, encouraging me as I willed my cold hands to work faster and taking over when needed. The rest of the group watched and kept us up to date on any signs of stress the skate might be exhibiting, while Haley worked with them and the skipper to record the necessary data. As soon as we were happy with the modification of the attachment, we stepped back and other men stepped into action. Four were required to lift the skate back into the water, and immediately revived at the water’s surface, she returned to the depths with one last thrash. Mission accomplished.

Declan helps with attaching the package while the rest of the fishermen look on.  Photo: John O’Connor.

Declan helps with attaching the package while the rest of the fishermen look on. Photo: John O’Connor.

After bidding the fishermen good luck in resuming their fishing, our entire group on the RIB discussed the package modification and worked together to adjust the other packages accordingly. In the course of the last capture it had become clear to me that I was certainly not the only person invested in the success of this project - the fishermen on board, the officers from Inland Fisheries Ireland and John O’Connor offered nothing but the utmost support and helpful insight. Consequently, I felt substantially more confident when the next call came in, just five minutes prior to the call for lines up. This skate seemed to put up more of a fight, and as we approached the vessel we could see the angler, Joe, straining against the line. We had met Joe at The Helm on Friday night, and knew that he had successfully captured another skate at this same event several years previously. Thus, it wasn’t long before another prehistoric body emerged from the water. This skate, another female, was significantly lighter in appearance than the first, but she appeared to be of similar wingspan (later measured at 214 cm). As soon as she was landed, Haley, John and I were onboard, and once again the fishermen quickly made way as I carried the accelerometer package to the tail. Thanks to the modification, this one was fastened in seconds, and I took advantage of the opportunity to get a better look at the skate as she was measured. I spotted a few sea lice along her wing and stared at the dark pattern of the eye that distinguishes this species from the closely-related blue skate. When she was released to become the second tagged skate roaming the waters of Clew Bay, Joe’s smile matched my own. It was a successful day on all sides.

The second attachment was much smoother, thanks to the modification inspired during the first capture.  Photo: John O’Connor

The second attachment was much smoother, thanks to the modification inspired during the first capture. Photo: John O’Connor

At The Helm on Saturday night, we naturally gathered with the rest of the fishermen to share successes and failures, with science equipment on our end and fishing on theirs. Many sought us out just to ask if the tags had been successfully deployed, and we listened with fascination to stories of near-misses during this and past festivals. We weren’t out late, however, as we had to prepare the equipment for Sunday, and this second day of the tournament was slotted to begin at 8:00 am sharp. I was to be out on the water in the RIB again, with our final accelerometer package at the ready, while Haley roamed around the bay in a charter boat with our VHF receiver and antenna, listening for the VHF signal from the packages that had already been deployed. They were timed to pop off the tagged skate 12 hours following attachment, and we needed to recover them in order to download the data.

Unfortunately, after the success of the previous day, I had nearly forgotten another key lesson learned from all of my previous fieldwork experiences in Ireland: the weather is its own beast. We woke on Sunday to the sound of pounding rain and near gale-force winds, but after a quick trip down the road to The Helm, we were assured that the festival would go on. By the time we had arrived at the marina, however, the winds had risen another several knots and whitecaps were visible even from shelter of our small bay. Nonetheless, Haley gamely donned a dry suit on loan from Inland Fisheries Ireland and set out in the charter vessel with the VHF receiver wrapped in my dry bag. She was under strict instruction to return as soon as she felt the endeavor unsafe or fruitless, as I waited on land for Kevin and John to launch their own RIB. That moment never came, and Haley herself returned after an hour of searching. Conditions were far too bad to find the packages, and as they looked much the same for the next three days, I called off the search. We were finished.

The RIB crew.  Photo: Kevin via John O’Connor

The RIB crew. Photo: Kevin via John O’Connor

We later found out that the fishermen had also been called in, a rare occurrence in this event. Fishermen and boatmen in this part of the world are hardy people, accustomed to enduring strong winds, large swells, constant rainfall and the occasional abrupt squall. But by early afternoon, with only a few hours to go, the festival had ended. As was customary, we all gathered at The Helm after hot showers and hearty dinners for the awards ceremony. Only the two skate had been captured. Declan had won top prize, but Joe would nonetheless come away pleased with his catch. As we bid the fishermen goodbye one final time, we assured them that we would try our best to return the following year, particularly as Shane had renewed the invitation with characteristic warmth. Several local men also told us they would remain on the lookout for the packages, which had undoubtedly washed up on shore by that point. John and Kevin from Inland Fisheries Ireland had expressed the same sentiment, and Alan Drumm, a colleague at the Marine Institute in the nearby town, was already planning a boat trip at the next weather window to take over the search once Haley and I left the country. Although I had spent the last three days getting to know this new group of people, I was nonetheless struck with each unprompted offer for assistance. I cannot say whether they emerged from a desire to improve our understanding of this critically-endangered species or simple goodwill towards the two young scientists who had entered this community, but my best guess is that it was some combination of the two. With a wide array of life experiences and interests, we were working together towards the same goal: to revive the local population of a species on the brink of extinction. For me, however, The Helm Skate Fishing Festival offered something slightly more personal. From here on, wherever this career takes me, I will try my hardest to make my research a part of whatever community I can find.

Photo: John O’Connor

Photo: John O’Connor

Update: one package was successfully relocated on Wednesday, October 10 by Alan Drumm of the Marine Institute and help from Inland Fisheries Ireland. The other has yet to be found. If anyone has information , please contact me here. A small reward will be offered in exchange for its recovery.


I would like to express my thanks for the support in this project to the following people -

My academic community:

Dr. Patrick Collins (QUB) and Dr. Jonathan Houghton (QUB); Dr. Nick Payne (TCD); Dr. Natasha Philips (QUB) and Dr. Lawrence Eagling (QUB); Haley Dolton (University of Exeter); Dr. Nann Fangue (UCD) and the Fangue lab; Dr. Damien Caillaud (UCD), Meredith and Neetha; Dr. Pete Klimley.

My fieldwork and fishing community:

Shane, Vinny, and the rest of the management and staff at The Helm; the fishermen of the Skate Fishing Festival; John O’Connor; Kevin, John, and the rest of Inland Fisheries Ireland; Alan Drumm (Marine Institute); Glen Wightman, for lending the equipment.