Boulders spell out a stark message


Fishermen say their protest is aimed at the European Commission and member-states who have no regard for Irish stocks, writes LornaSiggins.

Fenit fisherman, Mr Liam O'Sullivan issued a message to his Spanish colleagues over the weekend: "You have our fish, so go back and land them in Spain. That's how we feel about it now."

Mr O'Sullivan's stark warning came as the Kerry port confirmed it was one of three southern harbours preventing non-Irish vessels from landing catches.

The latest action began on Friday night, when large boulders were moved into place at Dinish Island in Castletownbere, Co Cork. Dinish is base for the Spanish-owned fish company, Eiranova - owned by Spanish multinational, Pescanova - which has three vessels on the Irish register and tranships the landings to Spain. Some of the boulders were painted with letters spelling "Spain out".

The obstruction was to prevent trucks getting into the pier. "Our protest is not directed against Eiranova personally, and in fact its three boats haven't landed in here in several months anyway, while other Spanish vessels have," said Mr Ebbie Sheehan, fisherman and fleet owner in Castletownbere. "This is aimed at the European Commission, and those member- states which seem to have no regard for the state of stocks in Irish waters." By Saturday morning, both Dingle and Fenit were voicing support, although there was no official endorsement from the industry's united representatives who are due to meet the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Mr Ahern, on Thursday.

Fenit's action predates the current protest, said Mr O'Sullivan. A fire on board a Spanish vessel several weeks back had precipitated fears of a pollution risk to the oyster beds in Tralee Bay.

"The situation was brought under control but there was genuine concern about a fuel leak for a while, and there are 200 part-time fishermen dependent on those oysters." he said.

Kerry fishermen were galvanised by the enforced tie-up shortly before Christmas, when the quota for four whitefish species expired. This situation was subsequently eased for two of the four species, partly due to a prawn quota surplus offered by fishermen in the North. "We had had a year of poor prices and bad weather, and December was looking like one of the better months to make up on lost earnings. Then we got the order to stop fishing. That same weekend, 11 Spanish flagship vessels - some French-registered - landed in here to Fenit with an articulated truckload of fish each. One of the boats had 12 tonnes of megrims alone," said Mr O'Sullivan.

The subsequent outcome of the EU Fisheries Council 10 days ago and the "positive" interpretation of that by Mr Ahern has fuelled fishermen's anger. The Irish Box issue is unresolved, and Spain has so far sent in no new list of 40 vessels, indicating that it now intends to ignore the restrictions in the 50-mile exclusion zone.

The Box faces further pressure from the second controversial issue agreed at the EU council - the new "days at sea" restrictions imposed on vessels fishing in EU fisheries area VI, extending from the north-west Irish coast to the west of Scotland. "Most of the Donegal boats can't survive on nine days a month, but those that are big enough will have to move down here.

"So much for Dr Fischler and his conservation," says Mr Sheehan. "A three-year-old child could understand that this arrangement just doesn't make any logical sense.

"We want to conserve fish because we have new boats due in here next year which will require repayments over 15-year periods. You don't make that sort of financial commitment without regard for the future of the stocks on which your vessel will depend.

"Over 50 per cent of the landings into this port is transhipped from Spanish boats to the European market. If the Irish Box opens up, that percentage will rise to 90 per cent, and there will be an increased effort of the order of 300 to 400 per cent in area VII."