Brexit threatens to damage Irish fishing grounds, committee hears

No deal changes to fishing rights could see ‘annihilation’ of coastal communities

Fears have been raised over the potential for significant ecological damage to fishing grounds if a no-deal Brexit drives more EU boats away from UK waters and into those off the Irish coast.

The Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture and the Marine has been told that recent successes in increasing fish stocks could be reversed in such a scenario.

The Irish South & West Fish Producers Organisation (ISWFPO) said vessels from mainland Europe are "anxious" to fish in more accessible waters along the continental shelf, mainly to the west of Ireland.

“Following Brexit [there is a] fear...that, following the expulsion of the 400 European vessels from UK Waters in a no deal scenario this will, potentially double or even triple fishing effort in Irish Waters, something [we] believe our fishing fleet will not survive,” it said.


With regard to ecological sensitivities, it said accredited scientific studies are needed to address “what may be the repercussions of the displacement of hundreds of vessels from British waters into Irish waters”.

"To permit this damaging of Ireland's biologically sensitive area will potentially undo all of the work carried out in the past 11 years by [fishermen] working with scientists where STECF (the European Commission's Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries) claim the majority of stocks have risen by 50 per cent."

Fears among those in the industry continue to rise as Brexit trade talks limp on. Earlier this week European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said fisheries negotiations continue to prove "very difficult".

“In all honesty, it sometimes feels that we will not be able to resolve this question. But we must continue to try,” she said.

With Ireland heavily reliant on access to UK waters, Patrick Murphy, chief executive of the ISWFPO said historical changes to fishing rights have already demonstrated the potential outcome of such upheaval.

When he started fishing, he told the committee on Thursday, there were about 30 boats in Balitmore, Co Cork whereas today there are none.

"That is the sacrifice that happened in the past. If I see that happening again then the likes of Ballycotton could be wiped out, even Union Hall could suffer greatly," he told the committee.

“These are jobs in the local communities that are not going to be replaced with anything else anytime soon. So that will mean less people in the garages, mechanics; less people in the schools...more closures of shops. It would be an annihilation of our coastal communities.”

This was reflected in data supplied to the committee by the Killybegs Fishermen's Organisation (KFO) illustrating how the sector accounts for vast bulks of local economies – 82 per cent in Killybegs, Co Donegal, and 86 per cent in Castletownbere, Co Cork.

It said an industry worth €1.22 billion could be cut to as low as €600 million with the potential for 6,000 job losses over two years, about 37 per cent.

In 2019, it said, Ireland exported €86 million worth of seafood produce to the UK, but imported €231 million. However, over a ten year period from 2006 to 2016, the UK’s fishing sector was dependant on EU markets for 74 per cent of its activity.

Chief executive Sean O’Donoghue said while the fleet could still catch what was required for the domestic market without UK territorial access, this represented just 10 per cent of the annual catch.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times