‘Fish don’t do borders’: Life on the Irish Sea after a hard Brexit

Sea frontiers are easily enforced; trawlers must stay within them even if the catch does not

It is an overcast but dry December morning at Howth pier in north Co Dublin. John Lynch and his crew are preparing to take his trawler, the Eblana, out into the Irish Sea. The water is calm, for now.

Our destination is a border, not a hard or soft border but a watery frontier. Lynch is bringing The Irish Times out to the Irish Sea border between what will be European Union and UK waters after Brexit.

The boundary is just 30 nautical miles out, the equivalent of 34 miles on land. If the Brexit deal is not ratified by the time the UK is set to leave the EU on March 29th, 2019, this is the line beyond which Lynch must pull up his nets and stop fishing. It would become a hard border down the Irish Sea, the actual frontline of Brexit for Irish and British trawlermen. And, given the growing political turmoil in London this week, a hard Brexit is becoming more of a possibility.

“That has always been my prediction and they will negotiate their way back in over a few years on better terms,” says Lynch.


A colour-coded map of Europe he holds in the wheelhouse of the Eblana is worth a thousand words. "We fish the middle of the Irish Sea, either side of the line, in the red and in the blue most every day we are out," says the Eblana's skipper.

On the chart, the island of Ireland sits in a blue bubble of space that stretches out to the west into the Atlantic Ocean; Britain is in a sprawling red bubble that covers the seas around it and Northern Ireland.

“After the hard Brexit – if there’s a hard Brexit – we will have that portion there, that small portion of blue on the east coast of Ireland,” says Lynch.

The Eblana, a 30-year-old boat spanning 22m, catches ray and whitefish, including plaice, cod and haddock. The fish are sold in Dublin and the UK through a sales agent. About 60 per cent of Lynch's catch comes from the UK side of the Irish Sea.

He fishes up and down the sea frontier between the EU and UK economic exclusion zones, or EEZs, from July to January before heading to trawl his nets off the south coast. The strong tides up the middle of this, the deepest part of the Irish Sea, make these waters rich feeding grounds for fish and lucrative areas for Irish trawlers.

“If there is a hard Brexit, the fish could be there,” says Lynch, pointing to the red UK seas on his portentous map, “and we could be here”, he adds, pointing to the blue EU seas, “wasting our time”.

Brexit's choppy seas extend far beyond these waters. The mainstay of the Irish fishing fleets are mackerel and prawns (nephrops). Irish trawlers currently catch 60 per cent of mackerel and 40 per cent of Dublin Bay prawns in UK waters. The seas west of the Shetland Islands are prime waters for migratory mackerel where the fish are at their best quality. An area known as "the Smalls" to the west of the Scilly Isles off Cornwall, also in UK waters, is full of prawns and another popular destination for Irish trawlers.

Overall, about a third of total Irish fishing volumes are caught in British waters, so a disorderly Brexit would badly hurt an industry that employs about 14,000 people, including 4,000 Irish fishermen on 2,050 boats.

"We are in the eye of the storm," says Seán O'Donoghue, chief executive of the Killybegs Fishermen's Organisation, one of the industry's representative bodies that has been lobbying hard about Brexit in Brussels as part of a group of nine member states operating under the banner of the European Fisheries Alliance.

"A hard Brexit would absolutely destroy the Irish fishing industry. We can't countenance it and seem to be on the precipice of it," he says. "If Brexit goes wrong in fisheries, there is no area that won't be affected. It doesn't matter if it's Killybegs, Rossaveal, Dingle, Castletownbere, Dunmore East, Kilmore Quay, Howth or Clogherhead, " he says, listing off the main fishing ports around Irish coast.

Lynch would not even contemplate fishing in UK waters if it is a no-deal Brexit. On-board satellite tracking systems and technology leave no room for error. On the bank of screens in front of him in the wheelhouse he can identity a nearby vessel with a few clicks on his computer. So can the Royal Navy.

“The minute we go into UK waters, we will shine up on their screens,” he says.

A hard Brexit, if it was really chaotic, could mean more intensive Royal Navy patrols and the potential for vessels being impounded and court appearances in places such as Holyhead when frontiers are crossed.

“If we are out, we are out; we won’t go in because of that risk,” he says.

Hard frontiers are easily enforced on the seas and trawlers must stay within them, even if their catch doesn’t.

“Fish don’t do borders,” says Lynch. “They have tails; they move.”


Lynch's son Conor and another crew member, Shane Harrington, originally from Castletownbere in west Cork, untie the Eblana. Within minutes, the trawler is motoring out of the harbour, past Ireland's Eye.

On the starboard side, the easily recognisable Irish Ferries livery of the Ulysses comes into sight as the ship powers out of Dublin Bay, bound for Holyhead. It is one of several passenger and freight ferries that pass the Eblana on our day out. "You don't want to have an argument with him – too big," says Lynch.

He believes that, after Brexit, Ireland will need even bigger ferries and more of them as Irish companies face an uncertain future transporting goods through the UK to the EU and so must rely more on direct sea routes.

“We are going to have to become more dependent on our own ferries,” he says.

As we pass by the Kish lighthouse, talk in the wheelhouse turns to the killer whales spotted on the Irish Sea recently and the best time of year to see humpback whales off the south coast (spring and summer).

The bigger fish Lynch has his eye on is the potential future deal to be reached between the EU and the UK, the outline of which was set out in the political declaration agreed last month.

Brexit means the UK will depart the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. This pleases British fishermen who believe it will give them exclusive access to their vast sea territory. But the UK depends heavily on the EU for trade; 75 per cent of British fish is sold in the EU, so a close relationship should be unavoidably symbiotic.

A deal over mutual fishing rights and access to each other’s markets seems practical but for the UK’s small but vocal fishing industry, a hardline constituency of Leavers, the emotion of pro-Brexit politics and economic nationalistic fervour to control borders and territories trumps logic.

“They see this here,” says Lynch, pointing again to the vast areas of red UK EEZ waters on his map, “and say that’s all ours; we will take it back. I have not met anyone in the UK who doesn’t think it.”

Paragraph 75 of the 36-page political declaration, however aspirational it is, offers hope to the Irish fisherman as it provides much-needed leverage over the UK in future trade talks. Under the agreement, future fisheries arrangements must be negotiated as part of an overall EU-UK trade deal.

“The way it is now is if we don’t get access to the UK waters, they won’t be selling anything into the EU markets: fish, cars or pharmaceuticals. If it was just fish, they may try to find a way around it,” says Lynch.

The Irish fishing industry sees this short paragraph as being critical for its future, post-Brexit.

“It is 25 words to protect an industry but it is really important,” says Seán O’Donoghue. “We have laid a very good foundation for the negotiations but we still have to build the house.”

Lynch liked the fact that French president Emmanuel Macron last month threatened to scupper the wider trade talks and leave the UK in the "backstop" customs union with the EU, something that horrifies Brexiteers, unless the UK quickly agreed to allow EU fishing boats the same access to British waters as they have now.

“It was a big help that someone that powerful had an interest in fisheries,” he says.

There are fears that something similar to the recent clash between French and British fishermen in a dispute over rights to scallop-rich grounds off Normandy could happen again after Brexit. Jim O'Toole, chief executive of Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM), the State agency that develops the seafood industry, says everyone was working as hard to avoid "a very negative situation and unintended consequences".

“At the extreme end of that is what you could see between the English and French fishermen – there was conflict. That is certainly a pretty extreme example but it underlines the gravity of the situation,” he says.

Lynch believes that if Brexit “was not properly managed, you could have things like that happening”.


As the Eblana approaches the future EU-UK sea border, Conor Lynch ties the "cod end knot" – a sinnet knot – at the bottom of the trawl net to keep the fish in as he and Harrington prepares to shoot the net out.

Lynch, who is 20, has been fishing with his father for two years. Fishing goes back generations in their family. He is stoical about the challenges created by Brexit; they are part of a long line of obstacles that this hard and highly complex industry throws up. Irish fishermen will just have to “shape up or ship out”, he says.

“When my dad was my age, there were no quotas, no politics, you just went out and caught your fish. You are always going to face adversity in the fishing industry from things like the EU and Brexit,” he says.

Harrington, also 20 years of age, admits he is puzzled about “what way Brexit is going to go”.

“They want their own waters back but it can’t work both ways,” he says of the British. Lynch adds: “We used to fish each other’s waters before the EU. We will surely able to work something out between us.”

As we wait for the call from the deck above to release the net, Lynch shows off ray, haddock, plaice, cod and monkfish they caught on an earlier trip.

Post-Brexit restrictions will have an added complication for the sustainability of existing stocks in EU waters. This is the “double edge” risk posed by Brexit, says O’Toole of BIM. EU vessels displaced from inaccessible UK waters means greater activity in a smaller area around Irish coasts.

“There isn’t new ocean,” says O’Toole. “You are dealing with a biological stock. It is a resource that is currently managed and needs to be managed so that it is sustainable into the future.”

Out of €401 million worth of 314,000 tonnes of fish caught in 2017, some €118 million or 70,000 tonnes were landed by non-Irish boats, according to BIM. French boats made up 45 per cent of that value.

At the back of the Eblana, Harrington and Lynch expect more EU boats to appear in Irish waters over the coming year, particularly with the increased quotas coming for black sole. Among them will be Belgian "beamers" – the beam trawling vessels that drag chains along the seabed to catch the sole.

“All chain and no brain,” says Harrington.


Lynch winches back up the large net at the end of a far shorter fishing run than normal for the benefit of The Irish Times. The boat would normally trawl for more than five hours up and down the sea frontier, and would fish for eight or nine days before returning to Howth with (they hope) a full fish room below deck.

As the trawler turns for home, the silhouette of the Wicklow mountains can seen on the horizon, showing just how close the future sea border is from the Irish coast. “It is not far at all,” Lynch says.

Just over two hours later, the Eblana turns back into the harbour. Pulling up to the pier, Lynch reflects on the seas ahead. A hard Brexit would result in "chaos", he says. "As an industry, we didn't consider no deal; we planned for continuing with what we have."

Thinking the unthinkable, Lynch may have to consider working the more restricted fishing grounds on his doorstep or the possibility of heading to the south coast earlier than he expected to access larger EU fishing grounds.

The 60 per cent of the fish he catches on the UK side of the Irish Sea these days is “a big number”, he says.

“The fishing we do out there in the second half of the year is how we make our money,” he says. “We would have to move on to something different.”