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Snap Net Fishing

Location Three Sisters Rivers (Barrow, Nore and Suir)
Categories Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe
Traditional craftsmanship
Oral traditions and expressions, including language
Keywords Snap net fishing, salmon, Three Sisters Rivers
Contact organisation Barrow, Nore & Suir Snap-net Fishermens Alliance

Short summary

Snap-net fishing for salmon on the tidal parts of the rivers Barrow, Nore and Suir using wooden boats called cots and traditional fishing techniques is passed from father to son through the generations. The shallow nature of the rivers, their muddy banks and river beds, along with strong tidal flows facilitated the development of snap-net fishing as a unique method for catching salmon, and with it a rich culture and folklore associated with the method, the fishermen and the places where they fish.

Snap-net fishing for salmon has been carried out on the Three Sister Rivers (Barrow, Nore & Suir) in southeast Ireland for over 1000 years. There is no other region in the country where snap-net fishing is practised and there is no other fishing method like it, except perhaps in the tidal estuaries in Wales where coracle fishers use similar traditional techniques but different boat types (a coracle is small, light and rounded and covered with calico, which is waterproofed with a bitumastic paint). The coracle fishermen, like the cot men, use the word ‘pill’ to mean a river tributary in their own respective areas. (Fishing for sea trout or ‘sewin’ using traditional coracle boats on the rivers of west Wales was awarded special protected status by the European Commission in March 2017).

Snap-net fishing is seasonal and is confined to the summer months. It is practiced on a part-time basis only. There is no longer any other fishery in the rivers. Many of the snap-net fishermen in previous generations left the southeast region for the cod fisheries off Newfoundland once the salmon season was over.

Background information

The snap-net is 9-20 yards long, mounted on a thin top rope and two stones on either side of the net on the bottom rope. There are two sets of following ropes on either side tied to the top and bottom rope of the net. The net is fished between two wooden boats called cots, which are around 16-18 feet long, 3-4 feet wide and 16 inches deep (the word cot derives from coite, an Irish word meaning a log boat or a dugout canoe), and the use of this type of boat for any purpose is largely confined to the Three Sister Rivers. Some fishermen are expert cot-builders who make cots in the winter months as required, using locally sourced timber (generally larch or oak). All cots originally had two equal sterns or ends but most are now fitted with one transom end to hold an outboard motor, used to move to and from the fishing ledges. This is one of the few changes to the equipment that has been in use for centuries, which facilitated a transition from a four-man crew per pair of cots to the two-man crew on some rivers.

The net is played out between the two cots and is fished in the direction of the tide by one man in either cot paddling with one hand and holding the ropes in the other hand, which ensures that the net is kept open like a purse along the river bottom (the ends of the net on either side are gathered to form the purse, ensuring that a fish cannot escape). When a fish strikes a mesh in the net, it pulls the top rope as it tries to escape, which is felt by the fisherman. The ropes are then immediately drawn to ‘snap’ the net closed (a couple of yards of the stone rope is drawn first), and the net and fish is taken into one of the cots, where the fish is quickly dispatched with a smachtín. Once the fish is removed, the net is played out again to resume fishing. Fishing takes place along traditional ledges in each river with individual names Poll an Choinín, Poll na Cora, An Carraig Rua, Poll na mBac and so on, most of which are in Irish, reflecting the naming of these ledges when Irish was the spoken language in the areas where fishing is practiced. Generally, crews fish downriver with the ebb tide and then return back up river with the flood tide along different ledges, though they may return back upriver to fish the same ‘scrape’ or ‘drift’ again. Other items of equipment include a paddle which the fisherman uses to keep the boat ahead of the net and open, a ‘tin man’ used to slow the movement of the cots when the net is being hauled ensuring that the net remains closed, and a baler to empty the cot of any water that gathers.


Practice and practitioners

At least one fisherman on a crew of two must apply annually for a licence and can only fish if in possession of a valid snap-net licence issued by Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI). The fishing season has varied but in recent years has been confined to June, July and August. Fishing is allowed from 0600 on Monday morning to 0600 on Saturday morning, ensuring a safe passage of fish into freshwater at other times. In recent years, all fish caught must be tagged, and the fishery is subject to a quota. Once a fisherman has used his small initial quota of tags he must cease fishing or apply for more. Fishermen are required by law to fill up a log book with details of each fish caught and tags used, which must be returned to IFI at the end of the season. The number of licences issued was capped at 132 for the three rivers but following a buyout of some licences in 2006, only around 70 licences are now issued, though usually only 50 of these are actively fished. Currently around 100 men on the three rivers have the ability to fish for salmon using a snap-net, which is a skilled operation, requiring a knowledge of the method, the equipment, the river and the salmon for a successful outcome. This contrasts with over 2,000 men on the Suir alone at the turn of the nineteenth century and 1,700 men from Inistioge to New Ross in the early nineteenth century.

The Barrow, Nore, Suir Snap-net Alliance is made up of fishermen from each of the three rivers, overseen by a Chairman, Secretary and a committee which meet regularly to discuss issues related to the fishery. All snap-net licence holders can join the Alliance and attend meetings. The Alliance also meets frequently with officials of Inland Fisheries Ireland and with local and national politicians to further the aims and objectives of the Snap-net Alliance and its members. Members of the Alliance have also been involved with all legally constituted forums (the Regional Fisheries Boards, National Inland Fisheries Forum, the National Salmon Commission etc.) where the views and concerns of the snap-net fishermen have been aired and resolved where necessary.

Snap-netting has been a vibrant thread in the local communities in the hinterland of the rivers where the method is used, which sustained those communities in difficult times and it enriches and fosters community spirit and engagement between the fishermen, their families and the local communities themselves.

Development, transmission and safeguarding

King John was forced to issue a Charter called the Magna Carta in 1215, which was reaffirmed subsequently by other Kings. This allowed ordinary people to exercise their right to fish in tidal waters. We know that snap-net fishing has been practiced on the Three Sister Rivers since at least that time, and probably prior to that but under licence from local estate owners. Snap-netting for salmon is thus is an ancient form of fishing that has changed little over the centuries. Moreover, the techniques used generally pass from father to son and successive generations of families have practiced the method, in some known cases for over 350 years.

The Three Sister Rivers of southeast Ireland (the Barrow, Nore and Suir) have, up until now, been vibrant and active rivers, with a community of fishermen actively engaged in fishing not just for salmon, but also for eels, and many have also exploited each river to harvest reeds for thatching local houses along the river bank and in the local communities from which they come. The lives of the fishermen, their families and the communities in which they live, have been dictated by the ebb and flow of the tides, the wind and the weather and the life cycle of the salmon.

Snap netting is an inefficient method of catching salmon and usually only one fish is caught at a time. A very low rate of exploitation is associated with snap-netting; even in the bountiful years of the 1970s, snap netting generally extracted a very small percentage of the stock from the river. Snap netting is very weather dependent and the success of the method varies with tidal conditions so fishing for salmon using the method is self-limiting. It is a single-stock fishery since only the stock within the river in which it is practiced is exploited. It is a sustainable form of salmon fishing and it is easily managed, monitored and controlled. Moreover, it also provides a useful means of monitoring of the run of salmon in each river each year, without having any appreciable impact on the stock.

The snap-net fishing method has been expertly explained and documented in a book by Professor Nöel Wilkins of UCG, titled Men, Tides and Salmon, Snap-netting on the Barrow, Nore and Suir, published in 1998 by the Southern Regional Fisheries Board. The River Cots of the Southeast are also described in Traditional Boats of Ireland, History Folklore and Construction, edited by Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh and published by The Collins Press in 2008.

Because of a decline in the national salmon resource, probably due to poor survival of salmon at sea due to climate change, there has been no snap-net fishing on the Three Sister Rivers since 2014 as none of the three rivers have achieved their Conservation Limits, as set by the fisheries scientists. Hence there is currently no surplus available for exploitation (the Conservation Limits for the Three Sister rivers combined are 36,249 fish: Barrow–11,737, Nore–10,464, Suir–14,048; harvesting of salmon is only allowed where the stock exceeds the CL for the river).

11/04/2019 Snap fisherman Peter Walsh based in Carrigeen, Co. Kilkenny. Pictures: Patrick Browne

Contact organisation

Barrow, Nore & Suir Snap-net Fishermens Alliance