Macdara Ó Cuaig has worked as a Fisheries Scientist at the Marine Institute for the past 18 years. Born and raised in Connemara by the sea, Macdara says he has 'fishing in his blood'.
"I grew up in a house with a view of the sea on three sides so I spent my childhood by the shore and went fishing with my uncle from a very early age. Many of my mother's family were fishermen, both my granddad and my great grandad fished. On my father's side, my great-grandfather was one of the boatmen who traded turf on the Galway Hookers over a hundred years ago," Macdara said.
Macdara would go fishing with his uncle during the school summer holidays and while studying marine science at NUI Galway. Following a Higher Diploma in Fisheries Management, Development and Conservation at University College Cork he completed a Research Masters, focusing his research on the shrimp stock he fished near his home.
"I knew from fishing in the bay at home, that year on year we were starting the shrimp earlier and earlier and the shrimp we were fishing were getting smaller. I wanted to find out if we left the shrimp alone, would they get any bigger. For my Masters, I sampled and fished six days a week for sixteen weeks and fished from the same cove that my grandfather and great grandfather would have used. I was collecting a lot of data each day to track the growth of the shrimp, and post analysis could show that delaying the fishing season would result in larger shrimp," Macdara said.
Following his studies, Macdara secured his first contract with the Marine Institute in 2001 working as a Port and Boat Sampler in Castletownbere, Co Cork. Since then, he has worked in various roles at the Marine Institute, from a lab analyst, to sampling fish species on the RV Celtic Voyager and RV Celtic Explorer, and working on monkfish and cod-tagging research projects.
"The cod-tagging research project has been one of the most interesting projects I have worked on. I tagged over 20,000 cod with conventional tags, and surgically inserting electronic data storage tags (DSTs) into the gut cavity of a subsample of the fish tagged. When the cod are recaptured by the fisherman, the DST tags provided information about the behaviour of the fish, as well as temperature and depth data. From this data, we could build a picture on the migration patterns of the cod, patterns which correlated nicely with what the commercial fishermen assumed to be the cod movements," Macdara said.
For the past three years, Macdara has been working in the inshore fisheries team which focuses on species such as lobsters, crabs, oysters, scallop, razor fish and clams. "On the inshore surveys, we are working with fishermen to get an estimate of the abundance of the stocks. To be as accurate as possible we try and do as many sampling events in the bays as time will allow us. We tend to do lots of short tows, so we might do 40 tows in a day, where a fisherman on average might do 15 tows in a day. We deploy the gear over the side, pull it along, haul it back up and go through everything that's in the net. We sort by species and also take lengths and weights of the species we are targeting. On every fisheries survey, we are trying to estimate the size of the stock in an area - the principle is the same whether we are on a small inshore vessel or on the RV Celtic Explorer in the Atlantic Ocean," explained Macdara.
All the scientific data gathered from the inshore fisheries surveys is provided to the relevant management authority such as a local fishing co-operative or management group and/or the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The management authorities are then able to make informed decisions on the sustainable utilisation of the inshore stocks in the bays around Ireland.
Macdara and the team may also work with fishermen to develop mitigation plans in Special Areas of Conservation to enable sustainable fishing and the protection of sensitive habitats. Working closely with fisherman is a big part of Macdara's role and what he enjoys the most.
"I like undertaking surveys on the small vessels because you meet many more fishermen, and different kinds of fishermen. They are out at sea every day, and are willing to share their vast local knowledge and are always interested to better understand the work we are doing too. It makes you very aware of our work and how it may potentially affect them," Macdara said.
Since Macdara is working with different fishermen all the time, he says communication skills are essential. "Fishermen have a certain way of working and when we join their vessel to carry out our surveys, we are using their gear, but we are using it in a different way. It's important to be able to explain the science behind our methods. We have to be respectful of the work that the fishermen do, their experience and their knowledge of how their vessel works too."
As well as communication, Macdara says attention to detail, flexibility and logical thinking are also key skills. "We look at patterns in the data, and also consider practical scenarios that might affect the results. It's important to be able to go with the flow and adapt to different situations. When working at sea, one day there might be calm water and sunshine and on another day there could be wind and rain and water flowing on to your data sheets. In this line of work, you have to be open to different scenarios and that's the beauty of it - because you don't know what it is going to be like each day."
Macdara says his role is very important to the sustainability of people living and working on Ireland's shores. "Those working in fisheries are people making a living, not necessarily people making a fortune. With a tradition of fishing and seafaring in my family, I understand how important fishing is to many people on our coasts. At the Marine Institute, we are gathering knowledge and advising government about how best to sustainably use our marine resource, and it is great to be a part of that."
Macdara says it is often forgotten how connected we all are to our ocean. "Whether you are standing with your toe in the shore or standing on the tallest mountain, your actions can have an effect on our ocean. We are all connected to our ocean, it influences our climate and provides us with resources, transport and food. We need to remember that the ocean affects us all, and we all have the potential to affect the ocean."
Recently, Macdara has been appointed as Fisheries Liaison Team Lead at the Marine Institute. This is a new position which builds on his skills and experience working with fishermen. The fishing industry facilitates at sea data collection by bringing scientists to sea on their vessels, and they share their own knowledge and data to assist the scientific programmes that asses the status of the fish stocks. Macdara says he is really looking forward to this new job, "This is the reason I got into marine science, to be able to use fishermen's knowledge and expertise to strengthen the science that underpins the sustainable exploitation of our resources and ensures a decent living and environment for our coastal communities. It is great to be appointed to a position where this is my job!"