Wriggling out of EU eel fishing ban

A priest who has spent much of his life protecting eel fishing on Lough Neagh faces a new challenge, this time from the EU


The EU proposal to ban eel fishing on Lough Neagh and close the Toome eel fishery might spell the end of a centuries-long battle between the lough’s eel fisherman and authorities that has raged since the last Gaelic lord, Hugh O’Neill, was stripped of his fishing rights after the Nine Years War.

Yet the EU is up against a daunting adversary: Fr Oliver Kennedy has spent the past 50 years as commander-in-chief of the lough’s fishermen, seeing off threats from the High Court in London, Unionist paramilitaries, Ian Paisley, Terence O’Neill and environmental organisations.

His Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative Society is the largest commercially viable wild eel fishery in Europe, with an annual turnover of £2 million (€2.3 million) and an impressive processing facility where eels that are caught in the morning are packed and flown out that day, and can be on sale, smoked, in Holland the following morning. In 2011 the co-operative’s eels were granted EU “protected geographical identity” status, like champagne or Parma ham.

Eel baron was not the role Fr Kennedy foresaw in the seminary in Maynooth, but on being appointed curate of Toomebridge on the shores of Lough Neagh in 1961, he found the community in turmoil. Locals who relied on eel fishing were being threatened by bailiffs of an Anglo-Dutch company which had bought the fishing rights and forbade them to sell to anyone but the company, at low prices and in limited amounts.

There was sporadic violence as desperate fishermen confronted bailiffs. Prosecutions and court challenges followed, but, legally, ownership was held by the Shaftesbury estate which had leased the rights to a foreign company. They had been handed down through aristocratic families since Charles II granted them to Lord Donegall in 1661. “Although I was a mere country curate,” Fr Kennedy told the BBC in 2007, “there was a major social problem and I felt that as a priest I had a commitment to do what I could to resolve the issue.” Though he knew nothing about eel-fishing, he learned fast, managing to galvanise his parishioners into raising enough money to acquire a shareholding in the Anglo-Dutch company, giving Fr Kennedy a seat on its board of directors.

Within seven years his fishermen’s co-op had won complete control of the fishing rights. By 2000 turnover was £5 million a year, but eel numbers in the Lough were dropping. Eight years later turnover had halved and it has continued to fall. The fishermen receive roughly half, with the rest going to the co-op which oversees the granting of fishing licenses, monitoring of quotas, collection and transport of eels each morning to the sorting and packaging sheds, from where they are sent to Holland, Germany and Billingsgate in London.

In the 1980s 500 families were catching eels on Lough Neagh and the Bann but declining stocks have whittled this to 100. Without the 80 million elvers (baby eels) Fr Kennedy has stocked the lake with, there would be far less.

Elvers (baby eels) had become so rare in recent years that they were selling for $3,000 a kg in the USA, but last month in the Severn River in England the elvers suddenly returned in their millions and millions, and the price dropped temporarily to $30 a kg. It was the biggest catch in 30 years.

The co-operative’s success, though admirable, is a source of envy for eel fishermen of the Republic where commercial eel fishing was outlawed in 2009 in an EU-led response to the drastic decline of eel stocks, estimated to have fallen by 95 per cent in the Atlantic and 99 per cent in the North Sea. Nobody quite knows why: the Gulf Stream shift associated with global warming might be a factor, allied with parasites and chemical contamination.

The hope is that once numbers improve the ban can be lifted, but as only Norway and Ireland have outlawed eel fishing this is hardly likely. Eels don’t return to the same feeding grounds and so banning eel fishing here increases yields elsewhere.

Meanwhile the ESB is churning up vast amounts of eels in its hydroelectric turbines each year. It’s estimated that Ardnacrusha’s turbines kill 20-30 per cent of the eels that come down the Shannon on their epic return journey to spawn in the Sargasso sea. Some eels bypass the turbines along an old river channel and the ESB claims it saves about 40 per cent of eels by trapping them in nets in Killaloe and transporting them around Ardnacrusha in tanks.

Fr Kennedy, 82, was inspired by the worker-priest movement in France where priests took regular jobs in the community to identify with parishioners. He can look back with contentment on one of the most extraordinary clerical ministries: from peace-worker among warring fishermen and company bailiffs, to liberator of Ireland’s sovereign rights and eventually business mastermind.

His co-op has paid £70 million to fishermen in the past 25 years. But the EU may prove as daunting a rival as James I who last stripped locals of fishing rights upon the defeat of Hugh O’Neill in 1604.

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