The chair of Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative Society has serious concerns about the affect sand extraction is having on fish and eels.
Pat Close, head of the organisation since the death of founder, Father Oliver Kennedy in 2013, said fishermen working on the lough have been reporting a massive decline in fish and eels for years.
“There appears to be no fish life left,” he said, speaking about areas where barges suck up sand from the lough’s bed.
Areas, where he said there is nothing left but “deep holes”.
“There are areas of the lough that we would like to see protected or excluded from sand extraction,” Pat went on.
“We have concerns about the extent of sand extraction from the lough, particularly in areas that are known to fishermen to provide the habitat and feeding for juvenile fish.”
When asked if fishermen had reported a decline in fish in the lough, Pat said: “They have reported problems of that nature for many years now, but in terms of quantifying that decline, that’s difficult because this is anecdotal evidence and you don’t have a base line.”
Pat went on to explain how fish such as pollen, roach, bream, perch, trout and dollaghan use sand on the bed of Lough Neagh to lay their eggs, while eels - although born elsewhere - use it for shelter.
“The fishermen would have said for many, many years these areas were being eroded and essentially once a pumping operation takes place, there appears to be no fish life left - all we are left with are deep holes.”
He also said they are growing increasingly concerned as barges move further into the areas where they work in search of sand, sometimes operating closer to the shoreline than even fishermen are allowed.
After bringing these concerns to DCAL - the department that issues fishing licences - a series of meetings were set up between the Co-op and the Quarry Products Association.
The outcome of these meetings was a Memorandum of Understanding, but a spokesperson for DCAL said the department “doesn’t have a signed copy of it”.
When asked if the Co-op signed it, Pat said it hadn’t as talks weren’t concluded.
The memorandum said its “aim is to ensure that sand extraction activity is managed and undertaken in a sustainable manner” so as not to impact on fishing.
The Mail asked the Shaftesbury Estate for a response on claims fish and eel stocks have dropped and whether it would consider conservation zones. We were told the questions would be forwarded to QPANI, which did not reply.
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan issued an Enforcement Notice against Sand Traders giving them until the end of June to stop.
The companies involved appealed and now have until the end of November to submit environmental impact assessments to the Planning Appeals Commission.
Friends of the Earth has accused the Environment Minister of being “complicit” in the ongoing “illegal” sand extraction.