‘A town that had a love affair with fish’

“I grew up in a town that had a love affair with fish” writes Ciaran Mullooly in his book, ‘Back to the Future.’ In a chapter on Lanesborough’s former status as a world-renowned location for coarse fishing, the RTE Midlands Correspondent reminisces about lively nights in the Lough Ree Arms Hotel in an era when English fishermen visited the area in great numbers. But, with ‘changes in sterling’ and the advent of commercial fisheries in the UK, the good times began to fade…then came the biggest threat of all to an already struggling angling industry in Lanesborough…in the form of an invader from afar. The following is an edited extract from Ciaran’s book in which he addresses the devastating impact arising from the arrival of a most unwelcome visitor…

‘The weeds are least of our troubles now…meet the Asian Clams’

* ‘Back to the Future – Reflections on rural Ireland, recession and renewal around Lough Ree’, a new book by Ciaran Mullooly, will be launched in Roscommon County Library on Friday, November 13 (6 pm) by well-known actor, Roscommon native Enda Oates

Thursday September 11th, 2014 was the day it all began, and I remember it very well. A few locals trying to improve conditions for fishermen near the bridge had contacted John Devanney and Dr Joe Caffrey, a scientist with the Inland Fisheries Ireland agency. We were all asked to meet at the hot-water stretch in Lanesborough to discuss the growth of heavy weeds there that was choking the fishing in recent times.

  Joe Caffrey, being as punctual and efficient as ever, was there long before us and when we arrived at the water’s edge he had a grimace on his face that I will never forget.

  “The weeds are the least of the troubles now,” he told us, taking a handful of what looked to me like shellfish from the river and pouring them out onto the bank. “Meet the Asian clams.” 

  There was at first a kind of an excited rush of adrenaline about the discovery, an uneducated impression that we were to become the beneficiary of some sort of modern phenomenon that would put our fishery onto a new pedestal. How wrong we were!

  The fatal attraction of the invasive species, Corbicula Fluminea, to the hot-water stretch at Lanesborough was explained to us all in great detail and, slowly but surely, the most frustrating feeling in the world began to fall upon us, a kind of a depression over anyone who cared about the value of the fishing to the economy here and could remember those glory days of the 1970s and 1980s.

  The truth is, the day the Asian clams arrived here was ultimately the day when we confirmed, beyond any reasonable doubt, that coarse fishing at the hot-water stretch in Lanesborough would never be the same again.

  With its origin in Asia, adult Corbicula are simultaneous hermaphrodites (both male and female) that are capable of both cross and even self fertilization thus taking only one individual to start a population. Adults can live for three or four years, and typically reproduce twice a year, although some populations have been observed reproducing more often under optimal situations. A single adult can produce 1,000-100,000 juveniles per year and that day we were being told that because of the abundance of hot water we had very close to optimal conditions under our nose for our new visitors.

  This was devastating news. With the support of a continuous flow of hot water from the power station and the gravel base the clams love, the conditions are absolutely spot-on for reproduction on a mass scale, and that’s precisely what had already happened. At the first count the experts estimated that over 30 million of the species were in the stretch, and the implications for the fish are potentially damaging.

  We know now that Corbicula is a filter-feeder on microscopic plants, animals (including bacteria) and in the water column or in the sediments. The clams live, in other words, on the same sort of feed stuff as our beloved bream and roach and, with their numbers growing thanks to what we have now christened our ‘local jacuzzi’, we were told that very first day that there is little chance of the fish coming out on top in this particular confrontation.

  The most frustrating aspect of the last twelve months has been the lack of progress for all the energy and the effort that has gone into trying to find a scientific solution to dealing with this crippling problem, a campaign that now appears to be ultimately doomed because of the scale of the rolling infestation.

  Over weeks and months in 2015, local people who cared sat down with fishermen, tourism providers, state agencies and third parties to try and see if they could come up with somewhat of a non-political solution to this most serious threat.

  I agreed myself to try and help the process during the summer and we sought advice from all corners. There was talk of suction-harvesting, mats on the bed of the river, extractions of all types, redirection of the water outlet from the power station, burning of the shellfish and transport of the critters to approved dumps many miles away, but ultimately no solution that could either guarantee the eradication of the problem or meet the financial constraints set upon those responsible for controlling or removing the Asian clam has yet been found.

  Everybody in Lanesborough has slowly come to terms with the fact that the Asian clam is here to stay. The local fishermen had desperately hoped for a management plan that would have the river bed depopulated every two years and a significant investment made in angling locally. One of the central issues that has emerged has been the lack of clarity over who is ultimately responsible for invasive species of this nature in Ireland. While Inland Fisheries led the multi-agency team over the last two years, it seems the National Parks and Wildlife Service have some responsibility in this general area. The sooner it is confirmed who is to lead the campaign to control and manage this very serious problem the better and, even more critically, the issue of providing the funds that the agencies need to really tackle the problem is surely paramount.

  Without a more energetic approach from central Government, the problem is getting worse and so too is the threat to fishing Lough Ree, such a short distance away. The clams have already been found, albeit in smaller numbers, at the ‘cut’ of the shannon navigation into the bay at Ballyleague on the top of the lake.

  Some of the best fishing experts tell us the very real possibility now exists that one of Ireland’s finest predator lakes could well be sterile within 10 to 20 years if the clams spread and unless a more aggressive attitude is taken to deal with the invasive species. We can only hope that the penny will drop with those who can do most.

  In the meantime, Lanesborough and Ballyleague struggle on in the knowledge that they have been watching this crisis develop, almost in slow motion since September 2014. There’s a sense of helplessness emerging, a feeling among many that they have been watching the car career off the road and into the ditch and that now nothing can be done to save the driver. Let’s hope they’re wrong.

  Either way there will never again be a Lough Ree Arms like the one we drank in during the 1980s. Even with the reversal of fortunes for Sterling, it is hard to see the English angler returning in such numbers. Life has moved on, a great tradition is dead, and we are left to pick up the pieces. I salute Hugh Keane, Philip Gordon, Alan Farrell, Gerald Farrell, Eithne Clyne and the members of the Lough Ree Angling hub who have been trying desperately to re-create the atmosphere for angling to grow again here over the last 12 months. The initiatives on the marketing front in the UK and elsewhere have been very praiseworthy and the fishermen have already returned, albeit in smaller numbers. The challenge they face may well be to find a new ‘hot water stretch’ in the locality where 50-100 stands could well be developed again for coarse angling, hopefully well away from the present invaders and in a corner that will attract both the fish and the fishermen.