21 August 2008 Edition
The tide must turn for Irish fishing
FOR DECADES, Irish fishermen have been battling against enormous odds in an effort to make a living out of an industry that is declining due to Government neglect and poor negotiating at EU level.
When it came to negotiating on fisheries, Irish Government representatives were outfoxed on the state’s entry into the EEC in 1973. The outcome of that poor performance is that a potentially prosperous sector has fallen into relative poverty. Fishermen have been driven to frustration and despair, as evidenced by recent protests where fishermen handed out free fish to the public to highlight their plight.
ELLA O’DWYER talks to people for whom fishing is their lives.
JIM BOYLE (57), from Killybegs, County Donegal, started fishing in 1979, having left his job in the engineering industry. His boat, the MV Vigilant, is a 54-metre tank boat that carries a crew of ten who frequently spend as long as seven months out at sea, following the shoal from outside Norwegian waters down 150 miles south of Ireland.
While he’s hit by rising fuel costs and tighter quotas on the kind of fishing he does, he feels even more concerned about other sectors in fishing.
“In the early 1980s, I started what’s called pelagic fishing, meaning we don’t fish for white fish which has tighter quotas than for pelagic and sells for a lesser price than what I fish for, the likes of mackerel and scad.
“I had been working in engineering and the money was bad in that industry in Donegal at the time but the money was good in fishing.
“Later in the 1980s, it was discovered that there were problems around fish stocks in Europe, especially mackerel, and that impacted on stocks between the North Sea and the South of Ireland so there were tighter quotas imposed and we were allowed to take a far lesser quota of fish. It helped in ways because today we have the largest stock of mackerel in the North Sea. But now that the stocks are up the quotas should be raised again, especially given the rising cost of fuel to drive the boat.”
But Jim Boyle believes that the plight of people fishing for white fish is even worse.
“The fishermen I would feel most sorry for are the white fishing sector – haddock, whiting and other white fish. Their quotas are even lower than for us pelagic fishermen and the white fishing sector earns less money because white fish is cheaper to purchase in the shops than what we fish for.
“The market for pelagic fish like mackerel is places like Japan and they pay good prices so we’re doing better though still hit by fuel prices.
“The white fish fishermen are really in dire straits. There’s no compromise being made for them. Fishermen should be given extra quota and some compromise around fuel costs, maybe take the VAT off the price of diesel.
“The man in the boat gets the least money out of the whole fishing industry though he’ll have done all the hard work.”
But he hasn’t lost hope.
“I’m hopeful now because the protests of recent times are getting the message out and I think the ‘No’ vote [in the Lisbon Treaty referendum] shows that Ireland can stand on our own two feet and that people are demanding what they need. But again my heart goes out to the fishermen and women who are depending on the white fishing because they are going through a hard time and they will go through a harder time.”
A trip to Howth Harbour, just north of Dublin City, confirms what Boyle said and more.
Walking around the harbour it was easy, if not depressing, to see the fishermen’s predicament as rows of boats lay tied up on shore. While our photographer was busy buying fish from the local fishmonger’s shop I asked the salesperson if he’d ever fished and how was it now.
“It’s finished,” he said. “Dead.” On that bleak note, we walked up the harbour, where we met a fisherman called Tomás Conneely, who told us that he gets up to €4 per kilo of monkfish and in the shop it costs about €24 a kilo.
He also fishes for prawns and gets €3.50 a kilo. “We were getting that price five years ago and it costs around €10 a kilo to purchase in the shops. Our quota is 30 tonnes a month and we’d have that fished in two weeks.”
Another fisherman we met in Howth, Brian Doyle, has been fishing for over 40 years. His grandfather before him worked in fishing, as did his four sons. He fished for white fish.
“We fished mainly from Howth and on the south coast too. The white fishermen have to dump cod which makes no sense in the world. If you bring in over the quota in any fish you’re a criminal.
“There would be 50 guys employed now to inspect the catch, I believe, based in the Harbourmaster’s Office, and they’d be here waiting for the boats and they’d go through every fish in the box. If you come in with over the quota you’re forced to throw the extra fish overboard. That fish would be dead so it’s a complete waste of good food.
“We’re totally dominated by the EU in this country. In 1972, I was director of the Irish Fishing Organisation (IFO) and director of the Fishing Producers’ Organisation.
“We had a lot of meetings in the run-up to Ireland’s entry into the EEC and we were pushing for a 50-mile limit off Irish coasts, meaning that foreign fisheries could not come across that limit, but we got a very, very bad deal. We were sold out. Instead of a 50-mile limit we got from a three- to a six- or 12-mile limit, depending on what part of the coast you’re located. And we lost our gas and oil resources there as well if they existed.
“Then there’s the Northern Irish fleet and because we recognise them as Irish they can fish all our grounds but we can’t fish theirs.”
The Sinn Féin Fisheries spokesperson, Martin Ferris TD, himself once a fisherman, has a very clear perspective on the origins of the crisis in the industry. He fears for the long-term impact on local communities.
“I fished for a good bit of my life and I know that local communities were always very tight and centred around the type of fishing done in their areas.
“When there was money everyone in the community benefited, from the small shopkeeper to the local GAA. Fishing was the heartbeat of that economy and that might well no longer be the case unless the Common Fisheries Policy is renegotiated in favour of establishing adequate quotas for the fishermen and women of this country.
“Of course, the crisis in fishing affects local communities also in terms of local employment, the local shop, the pub, and even the population as people who would have stayed to get a living out of fishing have to leave their communities. There’s huge knock-on effects like that. Onshore business associated with fishing will go into decline if the fishing industry dies.
“The biggest problem goes back to the EEC negotiation in 1973. The Government was desperate to join EEC and agriculture was the largest voting sector.
“Despite the fact that we owned between 16 per cent and 18 per cent of the waters in Europe, we ended up with 4 per cent or less of the quota and fishing was compromised in favour of other sectors of the economy. There was no long-term view regarding the best interests of the fishing industry.
“Of fundamental importance here is the renegotiation of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which has been the bedrock of the disastrous mismanagement of the Irish fishery since this state joined the EU.”
The first common measures in the fishing sector date from 1970, when it was agreed that, in principle, EU fishermen should have equal access to member states’ waters. Member states also decided that the European Union was best placed to manage fisheries in the waters under their jurisdiction and to defend their interests in international negotiations.
After years of negotiations, the CFP was established in 1983.
The CFP has been reworked over the last two decades and the outcome was the Irish fishermen came out with a very poor deal in terms of quotas and fishing rights as Ferris went on to explain.
“The other EEC countries at the time saw a high potential for fishing and they recognised what was there and negotiated accordingly. On the other hand, then our fishing fleet was made up of old-fashioned trawlers, we didn’t have a modern fishing fleet and there was no real serious consideration to developing one.
“Most people at the time believed that the compromise on fishing was in favour of the agricultural sector – a good deal on agriculture at the expense of a good deal on fishing. There were 200,000 farmers in the country at that time and that was a lot of votes.
“I’d say that there was simply no serious consideration to the potential that was there in fishing. They were only interested in looking after the bigger sectors. We lost our quota back then. It’s all quotas now and our quota is totally inadequate.
“Unless and until an Irish Government reverses the shameful sell-out made at that time, we will be merely tinkering around and allowing Brussels to engineer the effective liquidation of the Irish fishing sector.”
Martin Ferris locates the cause and solution of the whole problem with the Common Fishing Policy.
“The CFP needs to be renegotiated to take into account the lack of quota in Irish fishing. If we don’t get an adequate quota in this country the fishing industry won’t survive. Ireland needs a better deal.”
The crisis - cause, effect and solution
Inadequate quotas aggravated by rising fuel costs.
Poverty, hardship and the possible death of the fishing industry.
The decline and depopulation of rural communities with the attendant inroads onshore business such as small shops and pubs. Negative impacts on Irish cultural entities like the language and the GAA.
Immediate aid pending a renegotiation of the Common Fisheries Policy.
Free fish show net crisis
FOUR HUNDRED people from all around the Irish coast gathered on Dublin’s O’Connell Bridge on Monday, 21 July, to highlight the crisis facing Irish fishermen. They handed out large quantities of fish free to passersby and then went to the French Embassy to coincide with French President Nicolas Sarkosy’s visit to Dublin that day.
Speaking to An Phoblacht, John O’Mahony from Cork said that so far he’d been on about eight or nine protests around the country and that public support was huge.
“We’re having to dump two tonne of cod a week because the quota is so low at 906 tonnes a year, which is nothing. We’d have that caught in the first three months. Dumping fish is a huge waste of food.
“For prawns we’ve a quota of 15 tonnes for this month and that will diminish as the months go by so in October we might have no quota left at all, we’ll have no money and we’re not allowed to claim social welfare.”
So what’s John O’Mahony’s message to Sarkosy as France holds the EU presidency for the next six months?
“Give us back control of our waters. We’re looking for a level playing field. The French and the Spanish have the majority of the quotas. Even though we have the majority of the waters, we only have 4 per cent of the quotas.”