Largely misunderstood industry facing what may be its most serious crisis
Despite its fine fishing grounds, Ireland has one of Europe’s smallest commercial fleets, writes LORNA SIGGINS,Marine Correspondent
WHEN COLEY Donohue takes his 22m (72ft) trawler Qavak to sea from Rossaveal in south Connemara, it is with two dozen separate screens and switch panels in his wheelhouse.
Even as he monitors them, several of these same devices observe him – informing authorities ashore, by satellite, what he is doing, where and when.
When he reaches the prawn grounds at the back of the Aran Islands or out on the Porcupine Bank, his course, position and speed – the latter indicating his activity – are recorded by several tracking systems which must be switched on by law. Shelves below his chart table are heaving with dozens of folders filled with EU and national regulations.
Before midnight each evening, he must record details of his catches on an electronic logbook. Picking up the transmission signal to send reports can be challenging, but failure to file could result in a criminal conviction. If he receives a VHF radio call from a Naval Service boarding party, the ensuing physical audit of his hold, gear and log could take several hours.
It’s a far cry from Blasket writer Tomás Ó Criomhtháin’s descriptions of seine-netting off the southwest or Ernest Hemingway’s immortal images of simple combat between man and fish.
There are two current media-fed perceptions of skipper-owners like Donohue. The first involves nouns such as “pirates”, “plunderers” and “pillagers”. The second suggests life on the average trip resembles an episode of the Discovery Channel’s TV series Deadliest Catch. The politics of food have never been simple, and no more so than in a largely misunderstood industry facing what may be its most serious crisis yet.
Margaret Donohue knows the reality, as do partners like her around the 7,500km coast who provide the essential shore support for their family business. Technology and design have revolutionised commercial fishing – making it safer, and more efficient, with electronics able to identify certain fish types by their speed, and lightweight self-spreading nets that can save on fuel and time.
However, as recent fatalities off the west and southwest have shown, it is still a pursuit involving serious risk; and such is the level of bureaucracy, governed by the EU Common Fisheries Policy, that the risk is as much financial as physical.
“There is no support, no encouragement for young people who might want to take it up,” says Margaret Donohue, aware that her 20-year-old son lives for the chance to make it his career.
Ireland may have the second largest sea area, and some of the best grounds, but this State has one of the smallest commercial fishing fleets proportionately in blue Europe. Those skipper/owners who have survived a radical restructuring, involving several State-funded decommissioning schemes, have faced volatile fuel costs, tough competition from cheap “third country” imports, and the loss of deck skills to the construction industry during the so-called boom years.
The changes have taken place against a backdrop of growing awareness of, and criticism of, the impact of commercial fishing – comprising a mixture of cogent argument made by some non-governmental organisations, and simpler soundbites fashioned for the media.
The fragmented nature of the fishing industry makes it vulnerable to such criticism, noted Fishing News International correspondent Quentin Bates earlier this summer. The marine dredging business receives little or no attention from environmental NGOs, he said, even though it involves continuous removal of “massive swathes of prime marine environment”.
“Sensational headlines don’t help, and only serve to alienate the industry,” says Marine Institute director of fisheries ecosystems advisory services Dr Paul Connolly. Connolly is not only one of Ireland’s most respected fisheries scientists, but is first vice-president of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), which co-ordinates and promotes marine research in the North Atlantic. He cites as an example the annual fish quotas set by EU ministers at pre-Christmas talks under the auspices of the EU fisheries policy. ICES provides the preparatory scientific advice on 78 individual stocks at differing levels of health in different sea areas.
“The criticism has been that catches are set at a level which ignores the research,” says Connolly. “That may have been true in the past, but there’s been an enormous shift towards science. In 2005, for instance, some 59 per cent of EU stocks had total allowable catches set at a level which exceeded scientific advice. Now, that percentage is down to 11 per cent . . . but we still have work to do.”
That work includes moving towards a more holistic way of managing marine habitats, explains Connolly.