Ronald Surgenor on what it means to be win the Marine Conservation Volunteer Award

As a lifelong angler, I've been fishing since I was around five years old, and now almost 50, I've spent decades in and around the seas and freshwaters of Ireland. I have seen firsthand the impact of commercial fishing, pollution, and other human activities on our fish stocks. These experiences have led me down the route of conservation angling, as well as the occasional fish for the table.

I have contributed as an angler to data collection for the Irish Specimen Fish Committee since 2000. I have tagged sharks all around Ireland and collected DNA samples from Twaite shad to show that they hybridize with Allis shad.  And since 2018, I have spent most of my free time on the water tagging skate, sharks and rays for Ulster Wildlife's Sea Deep project. Volunteering is now a way of life for me.

I don't really see it as volunteering my time but more as using my experience to help protect our fish stocks and encourage other anglers to come on board as volunteers. I've been advising the Sea Deep team (Heidi) on angling techniques and helping deliver tagging training sessions to anglers on best practice for hooking, landing and returning the fish to the water. I share my own experiences and knowledge and utilize my Sea Deep training to recognize signs of stress in fish. For example, sometimes you must unhook fish at the side of the boat without landing them.

Being licensed to target Flapper skate is a privilege.
A photo of a Flapper Skate, or Common Skate, taken by angler Ronald Surgenor

Seeing these fish appear from the depths is something you cannot do on your own, it's a team effort. It takes at least one other person on board the boat to assist. I am lucky to have a couple of very good friends I have fished with for close on 30 years, and it's these guys I have shared most of my fishing adventures with. We know exactly what needs doing when someone gets a skate on. Measure mats and nets are laid out on the deck, tagging and DNA equipment are readily prepared so that when a fish comes aboard everything is at hand to minimize the time the fish is out of the water.  We ensure our fish handling practice is to the highest standard for the safety of both the fish and ourselves. We have even caught the same skate twice in one day, a positive sign that she continued to forage after being tagged and released. We caught her again six months later - all in water at a depth of 300+ feet with tides running through like a river some days!

As a volunteer with Ulster Wildlife, I help out on a lot of different projects such as red squirrel and barn owl conservation, as well as the Living Seas team.  I see firsthand the amount of work that often goes unseen, and I don't envy the task of the project leaders who organize the work parties, training days and volunteer records. It must be like herding cats, so a big thank you to them.

People often ask what I get out of volunteering, and it's always hard to give a sensible answer, but it comes down to the fact that I love being outdoors and observing wildlife. If I can make what I do as a way of life count towards conservation and help others learn, that can only be a good thing. When I heard that I was awarded the Marsh Christian Trust's award for marine conservation, I was delighted, not just that I had won but also for the Sea Deep project as it felt that at last people recognized on a national scale that skate and sharks need to be protected.

Bio

Ronald Surgenor -  I work and volunteer with Ulster Wildlife.  I have volunteered for the past five years on red squirrel conservation, barn owl conservation and the Sea Deep project. I have also worked for Ulster Wildlife for the past four years, firstly as a Conservation Ranger on the Red Squirrel United project, and currently, I am working in two posts, as Nature Reserves Officer and Field Assistant on the CANN project monitoring Bogs and Peatlands throughout Northern Ireland. In my spare time, I relax by doing some wildlife photography, walking our two dogs and getting our boat ready for the coming season.