Donegal Loughs

Irish Char Conservation Group survey Donegal loughs – 2004

Co. Donegal is one of the last strongholds for Arctic char in Ireland. Boasting at least 15 population records County Donegal is a natural refuge for Arctic char in Ireland on account of its northerly location, topography (mountain and deep corie loughs) and glacial history (colonization routes) and proximity to the sea. In addition agricultural activity is moderate in many catchments where Arctic char still occur. However even here there are still problems and it is believed that Arctic char may be extinct from at least 2 loughs. Concerns have been expressed over water abstraction in Kindrum Lough (Ireland’s most northerly population) and recent investigations by the Irish Char Conservation Group last year highlighted water resource issues for a number of Donegal loughs.

Lough Salt
Lough Salt near Letterkenny. This 60 hectare lough is about 65 meters deep and some say the crater of an extinct volcano. One of 12 loughs we hope to study in Co. Donegal.

As an aside concerns have also been expressed with regard to the Lough Melvin Arctic char population which is close to Donegal and well known for it’s brown trout species, ferox, gillaroo and sonaghen. Subsequent to these investigations we gave a presentation to staff of Donegal Co. Council, the Loughs Agency and the Northern Regional Fisheries Board to discuss the native fish biodiversity of the region and possible ways forward for sustainable water use and conservation of these unique glacial relict fishes. All agreed that systematic fish surveys were required as most loughs have never been surveys previously for fish lie.

Indeed the Arctic char records are mostly from angling records or historical notes recorded by the great Dr. Arthur Went (Went 1945 and 1971). What is needed is not only a survey that will identify the species present in these loughs and document Arctic char, but a survey that will give detailed information on the species present, their age class distribution, recruitment success, a measure of CPUE and actual abundance, trophic interactions between Arctic char and the other fish species, the bathymetric of the lake (nearly all of these loughs have no bathymetric data), longevityand age class distribution and other basic biological characteristics, and phylogenetic relationships of the trout and char populations.

Coupled with the data collected for other loughs in Ireland, including the surveys carried out in Kerry 11 loughs, Sligo (2) and Donegal (2), the data base is increasing somewhat and we hope to see trends emerging pointing to actual causes of extinctions of Arctic char in Ireland. Up until now, in most cases (except Lough Conn), expert judgment has been the order of the day.

Male and female Arctic char from Kindrum lough, Co. Donegal.
Male and female Arctic char from Kindrum lough, Co. Donegal.

The purpose of this survey is to build on previous surveys carried out by the group and friends to assess the status of Arctic char populations in Irish loughs, collect data for generation of biological information and further Ireland’s knowledge and recognition of it’s native freshwater fish biodiversity. In addition collaboration with other organizations will provide insights into the genetics of char and brown trout and food web interactions (sia) etc. This information will be used to understand more clearly the reasons why char have become extinct in so many Irish loughs and facilitate development of meaningful conservation measures. In addition the data will be used to increase public awareness. Therefore the surveys are more than just the collection of data but also will help define the future conservation of char in Ireland.

This work is being funded by the Heritage Council, the Irish Char Conservation Group and Donegal County Council and supported by National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Northern Regional Fisheries Board the investigations are working in collaboration with University of Waterloo, Canada and others in Sweden and Scotland as well as Queens University Belfast, University College Dublin and University College Cork.