Inquiry to hear of Brexit implications for North’s fishing industry

Fishery worried about eel-restocking programme and accessing European markets

Fishing for eels in Lough Neagh. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Fishing for eels in Lough Neagh. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The Brexit transition deal may have rocked the boat for the UK government with its DUP partners but fishing quotas are not the only catch when it comes to Brexit and what the future might hold for some fishing communities in the North, a UK House of Commons inquiry will hear this week.

On Wednesday the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee will gather further evidence on the implications of Brexit for the fishing industry in the North. It is currently focusing on the sea fishing sector in Northern Ireland which employs 850 people, but one small fisherman’s co-op claims its future and the traditional fishing skills handed down by local families from one generation to the next is also at stake.

The Lough Neagh Eel Fishery, which is owned and operated by the Lough Neagh Fisherman’s Co-operative, is one of the oldest co-ops in the North. In 2011 the Lough Neagh Eel was awarded Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status by the European Union which means it is protected under law like Parma Ham, Champagne or Armagh Bramley Apples.

This year the co-op, which holds exclusive rights to eel fishing in the lough, celebrates its 53rd year in existence but, according to its chief executive, Patrick Close, its members could be casting off into unchartered waters post Brexit.

Restocking programme

The Lough Neagh Eel Fishery has just completed its latest restocking project, part-financed by the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, which involved shipping in one million glass eels (baby eels) from across France.

According to Mr Close, the restocking programme is a vital part of its future but he is worried that post-Brexit agreements might not only prevent the fishery from sourcing glass eels for restocking purposes in Europe but also from accessing its most important European markets.

“We have to buy in glass eels every year, often from England but also France or Spain but our heavy investment in restocking programmes is helping to play a key role in a European-wide eel management project to conserve the European eel.

“Since 1984 we have released 100 million glass eels into Lough Neagh and this has played a vitally important role in promoting the recovery of the stock levels of the European eel. Thanks to our proven escapement programme these latest glass eels that have arrived from France will grow wild in Lough Neagh for the next 20 years, feeding on natural substrate and will mature in the lough and then a significant percentage will migrate down the River Bann and return to the Sargasso sea completing their life cycle. Overall the Lough Neagh system is incredibly valuable to the entire EU restocking programme,” he said.

Uncertainty

The co-op produces on average 400 tonnes of eel each year and about 80 per cent of this is exported to mainland Europe. According to Mr Close, there is now a “great sense of uncertainty about the future”.

“There is a deep fear that our way of life could be under threat because of Brexit and its implications. We sell a minuscule amount of our produce locally because there is not a great eel-eating tradition on the island of Ireland and only about 20 per cent of the eels we produce are sold in the UK and that is mainly to the jellied eel trade in Billingsgate in London.

“If we lost our ability to sell directly to mainland Europe then we, simply put, don’t know what the future would hold for us or the small cluster of 250 fishermen and their families whose lives revolve around the eel fishery and it is not just them who will lose out.

“We have a yearly turnover of around £3 million [€3.46 million] and that money supports other businesses in our community – it flows into our community from the co-op and if we can’t sell our eels to Europe, that will disappear and where we are there will be nothing to replace it,” he warned.