Ardglass herrings have carried the name of this little Co Down fishing port all over the world, but that name may become forgotten if there are many more herring seasons like the present.
In an average year some 100,000 crans of herring would be landed, valued about £20,000; this year, so far, only 800 or so crans have come ashore.
Nightly the sturdy herring ringers put to sea – ranging as far as the Isle of Man in their search for the missing shoals: but every morning the tale is the same – tiny “shots” or nets empty save for a multitude of stinging “scunders” – jellyfish.
Michael Shiels and Hughie Connor, of Downings, Donegal, have been coming to Ardglass for years. Herring curing is their trade. They never remember a season so bad. Most years they have teams of gutter girls to handle the fish while they look after the coopering of the barrels and the final packing; this year there are no gutter girls. “For all the herring we’re getting,” said Michael, “there’s no call for any girls.”
The cause of the scarcity? No-one knows. Some blame the weather. Some blame the winter trawling of two years ago when great quantities of small herring were taken for fishmeal. Some blame the big Belgian and French trawlers which disturb the bottom. Some blame the H-bomb. Some blame the Government.
The only hopeful note may be indirect. For several years the North Sea herring fishery has been declining. Famous ports like Yarmouth saw “scarcely a tail”. This year, though, there are reports of bumper catches again.
Maybe it will be like that for the Irish Sea too.