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Commercial Salmon Fishing

The Foyle is a renowned salmon system and this fish proved a mainstay of the local economy in times when the salmon was more numerous.

Derry is closely associated with St Columba (521-597 AD) who, tradition holds, founded a monastery on the site of the modern city. Fish traps and nets were operated in Rosses Bay (downstream of the city centre) by monks from the nearby monastery (the ruins can still be seen in St Columbs Park).

With the Plantation of Ulster and the coming of the London guilds to the newly created County of Londonderry, the right to fish salmon on the Foyle was granted to the Honourable the Irish Society – “the right of fishing the River Foyle, so far as Lifford [County Tyrone], is vested in the Irish Society by the Charter of Londonderry, granted by James I on the 29th March, 1613 but at present the Marquess of Abercorn and the Earl of Erne hold fisheries below that town” (Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Londonderry 1837).

In a seventeenth century report to Sir William Petty it was reported that “the quantity (of salmon) formerly taken were from 120 tons to 250… but these four years past vastly decayed” (Salmon Fisheries of Derry, 1682). This report stated that salmon were exported to Venice (Italy) and Bilbao (northern Spain).

The 1837 OS Memoir recorded that 121 tons were taken in 1721 on the Foyle and Bann together and that the yearly average 1808-23 for the Foyle alone was 17,363 fish (“868 cwt”, equating to 44,096 kg). The trade to Venice (reported in 1682) continued into the eighteenth century, with, in the particular instance of 1781, 676 cwt (34,342 kg) being exported to that city. Considerable quantities of salmon were also exported to France at this time (18.5 tons per year on average 1771-77) and to Spain and Portugal (149 tons in 1777).

With the introduction of stake nets (a funnel arrangement of nets that trapped migrating salmon) the yearly average 1827-35 was 53,603 fish or 2,814 cwt (142,957 kg).

In the early part of the nineteenth century it was reported that “the greater part of the salmon of the Foyle is now sold, fresh, in the Liverpool and Manchester markets, some also in Glasgow, and some occasionally in Bristol; a part is pickled in vinegar and sent in kitts [small, shallow casks] to the London market” (1837 OS memoir).

In 1785 the Greenland Fishing Company of Londonderry was formed, a grouping of merchants and traders intent on exploiting the whale fishery of Greenland from the port of Londonderry! Although three whales were caught in the first season, a number of setbacks befell the company leading to its failure – not least the sinking of their whaling ship off Ballycastle, County Antrim on the return voyage from landing the first years catch at Liverpool.

The Foyle Fisheries Commission was established in 1952, a cross-border body established to conserve and harvest the salmon of the Foyle. Conservation of the fishery moved to the fore as fish stocks declined in recent decades, with the Commission as a body ceasing to catch fish themselves in 1988.

Foyle Fisheries Commission became the Loughs Agency in 1999, an organisation with aims of conservation, protection and management of the fisheries of the Foyle and Carlingford river systems.