This year has proved a hard one for an already struggling fishing sector, writes Ruadhán Jones
You might have heard the names – Castletownbere, Killybegs, Kilmore – or read them on packets of fish without thinking much of it. They produce nice seafood to eat, stocking the shelves of supermarkets around the country. You probably wouldn’t give them a second thought, unless their produce was suddenly to go missing.
That might sound over the top and perhaps it is. But coastal communities are warning that recent European and Irish decisions have “decimated” the fishing sector – which employs 16,500 men and women around the country – and that the new fishing season in September may not get underway.
“There’s a complete lack of leadership on this issue at political level and there’s a complete lack of engagement between the control authority – the Sea-Fish Protection Authority (SFPA) – and the sector,” says Mr Brendan Byrne, chief of the Irish Fish Processors and Exporters Association. “We now find ourselves in an impossible situation where we’re ready to go into another pelagic season, which would start again in September, and we don’t have the wherewithal to operate our fisheries.”
This year has brought the neglect of the fishing industries to the fore, with three strikes against Irish fishing communities leaving them feeling upset, frustrated and betrayed, culminating in a protest in Cork and the proposal for a second one in Dublin on June 23. The first strike was the €40 million worth of fish lost as a result of Brexit negotiations. The second was a decision to deny Irish fishers the right to land their catch at their own port or pier uninterrupted. The third was a system of penalty points that allow little or no right to appeal.
All this has left the “ordinary man” to suffer for what the Mr Byrne calls “years of neglect” of the fishing sector. More than 16,000 men and women across the country depend on the sector for their livelihoods, Mr Byrne tells The Irish Catholic, and they have been left to carry the burden for failures at political and organisational levels.
“It’s actually devastating to the entire sector, when you consider that in December, they (the EU) took €44 million worth of fish that the Irish fishermen would traditionally catch away from us,” Mr Byrne says. “And then on the April 13, they (the EU Commission) took the right to land our own fish into our own country away from us as well. We’re in an incredible situation where we have 12% of the EU waters and yet we can’t catch fish that surround our island.”
“The entire fisheries sector is in a state of collapse and there’s complete political intransigence or lack of understanding to save it…. And meantime who suffers? The ordinary people suffer. The people depending on getting a number of weeks work in the fish processing factories, those that are dependent on getting a number of weeks work in the fishing vessels, those that are in the service sector.”
But while the first half of 2021 has seen conflict between fishing communities and the Department of Marine and the Sea-Fishery Protection Authority come to a head, it is only the latest in a long line of issues going back almost fifty years, says retired fisherman Brendan O’Driscoll of Castletownbere, Co. Cork, one of the largest fishing towns in Ireland. Mr O’Driscoll’s father and uncles founded the fishing sector in the town he says, but ever-increasing bureaucracy drove him and his brother out.
“At the moment we have what’s called the Common Fisheries Policy,” Mr O’Driscoll explains. “It was set up to look after all coastal states. The biggest part of that is what’s called Zonal Attachment. It means you should get the greatest share in your own waters to look after your own coastal communities. Whereas here, it’s the complete opposite.
“When we joined the EU back in ‘73, we didn’t have the paperwork ready to join it, that was all of it. And we didn’t have the boats at that time to compete with our neighbours. But we built up a fantastic fleet over the years with the help of BIM (An Bord Iascaigh Mhara) and everybody else. But we never got the quotas to keep the fleet going.”
Mr O’Driscoll warns that there is a growing sense of injustice among coastal communities as Irish fishers are squeezed out of their waters.
“Putting it bluntly, the Irish fishing fleet en masse have 15% of the quotas in our own waters. The rest of the EU decided to take the rest of the quotas and we have nobody fighting our corner. Those in the hallowed halls of power don’t seem to be interested in taking up the mantle for us and fighting for us – any one of them, to be quite honest, for years.”
“They see it as, how would I put it, as a bit of a waste of their time because I suppose the fishing industry is so small in the overall scheme of things in Ireland – that’s the way they look at it. But it’s huge in the coastal communities and it is being decimated in fairness… Injustice is the big thing. All we want is equality. And like we’re Europeans, we’re the best Europeans around, but we want equality in our own waters. That’s the bottom line. We’re here in Castletownbere and we see between 30 and 40 artic loads of fish leaving here every week from the French and the Spanish, unchecked by the authorities. And these guys are getting fish outside our own door here, while most of our own boats are fishing on really tight quotas and fish maybe two weeks in the month. And they have to tie up and look at these fellas drawing fish for the rest of the month.”
Fr John Joe Duffy of Dunfanaghy (Clondahorkey)/Creeslough, Co. Donegal, also warns that feelings of betrayal and frustration continue due to “draconian regulations” introduced by the Irish Department of Marine and the SFPA.
“The fishermen and fishing communities feel very betrayed by the department, Government and SFPA,” Fr Duffy says. “They have issued the most draconian measures against Irish fishermen that doesn’t exist against other fishermen. They’re demanding this weighing system that is not replicated in other parts of Europe. They’re allowed to weigh their fish in the factories of other European countries and allowed to land freely in Ireland without check. So the Irish fishermen feel very betrayed that one law applies to them but no law applies to other European vessels.
“So what they’re effectively doing is they’re bringing the entire industry to a halt. There is a lack of political leadership within Ireland, never mind the EU… the SFPA seem to be using fishermen to cover up their own incompetence and then requests are coming from the EU and the whole burden for the failure of the Department of Marine, the SFPA and poor political leadership is thrown upon the Irish fishermen.”
While not all coastal communities are affected badly – Fr Patsy Lynch reports that the small fishing community in Ballyskelligs have fared well – the overall sense is of a sector staring down the barrel unless action is taken.