Accelerating inflation taking heavy toll on Irish fishing industry

‘If it keeps going like this the whole fleet will be tied up in August’

The last time west Cork fisherman Damien Turner filled the fuel tank on his 24m (79ft) seiner Róise Catríona in Castletownbere his bill went into five figures.

“I’ve been fishing more than 30 years and I’ve had this boat for 20 years, but I’ve never seen anything like that. It’s the first time it has cost more than €10,000 to fuel the boat.

“If it goes any higher then the viability of the business is going to become a real issue,” says Turner.

The Róise Catríona is one of only about a dozen seiners operating from Irish ports, a specialist trawler that slowly pulls a floating seine net behind collecting live whitefish.

It is a precarious living at the best of times but rising inflation leaves skippers like Turner struggling to make ends meet. For a six-day trip in May 2021 fuel cost €4,017 plus VAT. Fuel for a similar trip last month cost €10,866.

“Fuel isn’t the only thing that’s costing more, it’s everything. We have a crew of seven with two rotated off each trip. Even feeding them has become much more expensive.”

Rising costs

Maintenance costs and the price of materials are rising too. “We are having to pay for all of this off the same catch. The price we get has gone up a bit but nowhere near the level it would need to be to just cover the costs.”

The Róise Catríona’s crew are all locals including one of the few female crew members in the Castletownbere fleet. Like most boats, they are paid by dividing the price of the catch after expenses.

“I’m lucky to have a very loyal, local crew,” says Turner. “But there will come a point, if this continues, where I’m sure they will be thinking about the future. They have mortgages, children and this is a very uncertain way to make a living. We can’t just go out and catch more fish to make up the difference because we operate under strict quotas.”

Alan Carleton’s 22m trawler Syracuse has been tied up in Castletownbere for the past two months and he is receiving funding under the Government’s Brexit temporary tie-up scheme.

“That’s only for two months so after that we will have to see,” he says.

Typically, the Syracuse would burn 11,000 litres of fuel during a seven- or eight-day fishing trip. Now that will cost more than €13,000 per trip, more than double a year ago.

“We kept fishing through Covid because they we were an essential service, but now we don’t seem to be essential anymore. The increase in costs has been astronomical, on top of fuel our insurance has gone up 12 per cent and all the other expenses are going up as well. It is becoming very difficult for everyone,” he says.

The Syracuse normally puts to sea with a crew of four or five, made up of local and foreign fishermen, but two Spanish colleagues have left for home.

“People will move on if this continues. There needs to be some sort of support like boats in France and Spain are getting. If it keeps going the way it is the whole fleet will be tied up in August,” says Carleton.

Fishing organisations will meet Minister for the Marine Charlie McConalogue in Dublin on Wednesday, where they will demand aid, warning that trawlers in Castletownbere, Union Hall and elsewhere in Cork are staying up in ports because owners cannot afford to go to sea.

“One boat owner told councillors it would cost €42,000 to go out for one run; he’s not going. French and Spanish trawlers fishing in Irish waters are getting 30 cent a litre subsidy from their understanding governments,” Cork South-West Independent TD Michael Collins told the Dáil.

Fuel needs to be cheaper than 60 cent a litre for Irish trawlers to run profitably, says chief executive of the Killybegs-based Irish fish Producers Organisation Aodh O’Donnell. “We are looking at fuel costing €1.30 per litre or more, it has effectively doubled in cost in less than a year.”

Further support

In March, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Commission cleared the way for emergency measures by EU states to offer compensation to the fishing industry, and to set up schemes that would allow for state aid to be offered in the longer term, once plans are lodged with the commission.

French and Spanish fishermen are being better supported, complains O’Donnell: “They have made supports available that other countries are availing of but for some reason, our Government is not. We are just looking for the same level of support as everyone else.”

Under Brexit supports, 179 vessels were tied up for up to two months at a cost of €10 million, with payments running from €4,600-€88,700 per month depending on vessel size. The scheme will operate until October, or November, while vessels will be able to stay idle for two months next year.

For the inshore fleet, a Brexit support was used by 754 vessel owners at a cost of €2.5 million. It offered aid of €2,700 for vessels under 8m and €4,000 for those between 8 and 18m. Further help is anticipated in the coming months, said the Department of Agriculture and Food.

Warning that all fishermen could refuse to go to sea, Patrick Murphy, chief executive of the Irish South and West Fish Producer’s Organisation, says the commission had made clear food security is important now more than ever. “They want our boats out fishing, not tied up in port,” he says.

“But all we are hearing from our own Government is about Brexit funding and paying us to tie our boats up. That is part of the issue but it does nothing to help with the current crisis. We are at a disadvantage and we want to be treated fairly and get the same help as boats from other EU countries.

“There is €6 million available, as we understand, and it will have to go back to Europe if we don’t use it this year, it’s crazy. A Bord Iascaigh Mhara study showed that 85 per cent of the economy in the Beara Peninsula is dependent on fishing so what do they think will happen if they shut us down completely?”