In memoriam - John Molloy, fisheries scientist who pioneered engagement with the fishing industry

ICES is saddened to inform about the passing of fisheries scientist John Molloy.
Published: 6 November 2013
​On 29 May 2013, John Molloy passed away and the ICES community lost one of its most charismatic figures.  From 1969 to the 2000s John represented Ireland at ICES working groups, serving also on ICES Advisory Committee on Fishery Management (ACFM) and the EU's Scientific Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries. Over the course of his career, John clocked up a record that is certain not to be equalled, with 30 herring working groups and 20 mackerel working groups as well as 20 ACFMs, each of these a 10-day meeting. 

John was from a farming background in an inland part of Ireland. "There wasn't much mackerel fishing in County Meath when I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, but a fish van did call to the house on Fridays." He graduated from University College Dublin in 1961 with a degree in zoology and commenced work in June 1962. This was the start of a lifelong journey with pelagic fishery research, and he served in various government departments and the Irish Marine Institute, with which he worked until 2006. He was actively engaged with the fishermen, carrying out scientific surveys on mackerel and herring.

A successful pelagic fisherman recounted the first arrival of John to the fishing port of Killybegs, then not an important fishery harbour. Not only did he look different from the archetypal scientist, he was different, and his input helped shape the development of the pelagic fishery in Ireland.  He was ahead of his time in insisting on scientists and fishermen working together. Now, this approach has been adopted across Europe, with the various Regional Advisory Councils. Last autumn, John wanted to visit Dunmore East port to witness the biggest herring season in decades. It was not to be, but his legacy was that the recovery measures for Celtic Sea herring were based on his principle: fishermen, scientists, and the authorities must work together.

John was a familiar sight in Irish fishing ports, sampling mackerel and herring, and more importantly, talking and listening to fishermen.  It was a multi-way communication with John in the centre gaining information on the fleet, methods, behaviour of shoals, spawning areas and times.  In return, John explained the latest scientific surveys, the patterns in the data, the results of the stock assessments, and latest advice on quotas.   Fishermen trusted John and he had a unique relationship with them.  John was able to use what he had learned from fishermen in his international work. An ICES colleague recalled how he would always point out the flaws in the latest science if it was "not representing the behaviour of the shoals", or "not reflecting what Irish fishermen are seeing on the grounds".

Until 2004, Ireland had only a small coastal research vessel. This presented difficulty when the ICES international mackerel egg surveys began in the 1980s. Then, just as now, mackerel spawned mainly west of Ireland and Scotland.  An ICES plankton scientist colleague recalled how each country joined the survey with a large multi-disciplinary research vessel, whilst Ireland would be represented by John Molloy on his own on some chartered trawler.

On one memorable occasion in 1986, John obtained funding from the Irish industry to charter F.V. Emer Marie to cover the west of Scotland. Up until then, only the core mackerel spawning area southwest of Ireland was included. The fisheries protection agency was not convinced that a wooden 26 m boat –  without authorization to enter UK waters, with only one purported scientist on board, and deploying a dubious looking device over the stern –  could be part of a coordinated ICES survey. The vessel was detained off the north of Scotland, and the survey placed in jeopardy. But a flurry of diplomatic activity over a holiday weekend, the representations of fellow scientists in Aberdeen, and John's pleasant way with the authorities, secured the release of the boat. The survey was completed successfully, and these waters have been surveyed ever since.

In 2004, John published a book about the Irish mackerel fishery, explaining the evolution of that hugely successful industry and the scientific work underpinning that development. In 2006, he produced a book on the herring fisheries of Ireland.  These volumes contain a unique insight into the ICES working group system, the difficulties experienced by scientists in the face of uncertainties in the catch and other data, and the various stresses and disappointments when scientific advice was not followed.

John's involvement with ICES began with the herring working group in 1969 at Charlottenlund, later attending meetings in Palaegade from the 1980s onwards. His career started in the pre-computer era, when catch-at-age data were worked up on a sheet of paper. Later, computing power allowed for a single assessment run to be made. Once, a leading scientist was running a very complicated model that would take all night, and a large notice reading "DO NOT TOUCH, BAYESIAN ASSESSMENT IN PROGRESS" was placed on the computer John placed an equally large notice over his programmable calculator, giving the weary attendees a welcome laugh when they returned the next morning. Later, with the coming of laptops, scientists could produce many runs and days were spent testing all possible scenarios. However, this could lead to problems – with humorous results. After days spent doing assessment runs, nobody in could remember which one they had agreed to accept. There was silence in the room when the Chair asked which run would go in the report. After a long pause, John spoke dryly from the back of the room: "its run two hundred and seventy three……with down-weighting".

The ICES Secretariat and fellow scientists have fond memories of John's years as part of the working groups. Despite the stresses of the work, he always had time for people, taking a sincere interest in those around him. Many colleagues readily recall the friendship and support shown by John during their early years in the system.

There were many loves in John's life: his wife and family, his religion, horticulture, his local area, sport, ordinary people, pets and animals, and the saving of turf from the local bog for use as winter fuel.  These were all reflected in the large and diverse group that paid its respects at John's funeral.   This event recalled his retirement party some years earlier, when colleagues from across ICES travelled to Dublin or sent messages full of amusing anecdotes and pleasant memories.

However it is the area of stakeholder engagement that is John's legacy to the ICES community. The collapse of Irish herring stocks in the 1970s prompted the development of local management committees to develop rebuilding measures. From the 1980s onwards these committees developed concrete management measures and achieved the buy-in of fishermen. Initiatives that have been developed by fishermen themselves have been found to have better chances of success, though there were many false starts along the way. These consultative structures pre-figured those that have been enshrined in the reformed Common Fisheries Policy, from 2002 onwards. It was fitting, therefore, that John attended the foundation meeting of the Pelagic Regional Advisory Committee (RAC) in 2004. The many initiatives that the RAC has developed follow the general principles of those challenging though exciting years of John Molloy's career.​

John Molloy 19 September 1940 - 29 May 2013​

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​John Molloy (left of picture) built up a unique rapport with fishermen.

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In memoriam - John Molloy, fisheries scientist who pioneered engagement with the fishing industry

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