Foreign fleet takes £2bn in fish and leaves bad feeling


"FLAGSHIP" was not a derogatory term in west Cork vocabulary when I first met Danny "Boy" O'Driscoll in Castletownbere some years ago. We were sitting in a pub not a stone's throw from the pier where the first Irish registered Spanish vessels were tied up.

Those "flagships", if they were called that back then, were going to give employment in the port. The fish they caught in Irish waters would be processed in a new factory built with Spanish money. Spain had revived its historical ties with Castletownbere to gain a foothold in the European Union, and a Fianna Fail government had welcomed the initiative with open arms.

The benefits seemed obvious. There was little thought for the long term implications. So what was exercising Danny "Boy" O'Driscoll's mind most the day I met him was the accidental death of a dolphin in a net.

Life at sea has become much more sophisticated since then. Not only has there been a revolution in fishing methods, due largely to new technology, but the pressure to feed a rising world demand has resulted in some of the most ingenious methods to circumvent the EU's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

Spain, with the largest fleet, was the first to recognise "flagshipping" as an obvious loophole. By registering a vessel in another EU member state one could avail of that quota. Some 160 such ships are now on the British register, many of them fishing off the Irish coastline. Ten are on the Irish register.

Unlike regular Spanish vessels, this "flagship" fleet appears to work by rules of its own. The fact that many of the vessels have been arrested several times over appears to be no deterrent. Fines have multiplied, but insurance schemes still cushion the blow. There have been continual reports of aggressive behaviour towards other craft - often smaller wooden Irish vessels. Irish skippers say they are being driven off their grounds, as do the Cornish gillnetters who have mounted a campaign in Britain to force the government to take action.

Britain raised the issue last year during the Irish EU Presidency - with less than lukewarm support from the Government here. Having already attempted to remove "flagships" from its register, the British government is faced with a £30 million compensation bill following a European Court of Justice action by the owners.

That Ireland should be so cautious on the issue is difficult to fathom, given the level of illegal activity. The first Naval Service seaman to die on duty, Mr Michael Quinn, lost his life trying to rescue a grounded "flagship" which had put to sea despite a gale warning - and which had been arrested six times.

Almost half of last year's detentions by the Naval Service were"flagships". Yet, at best, only five per cent of the fleet out on the grounds can ever be inspected, because of a shortage of naval personnel.

The abuse is getting worse. Fish has been transhipped and gear transferred from one vessel to another, to minimise lost sea time. Secret holds are still being used. Logbooks are becoming works of fiction. The most recent trend is where skippers leave fish type and quantities unrecorded, unless they are boarded. It is reliably estimated that some "flagship" skippers are under recording catches by a factor of 1,000 per cent.

The Naval Service, with its own computerised fishery protection information system, is constantly trying to secondguess the next dodge. The EU Commission has acknowledged the problem by granting Ireland financial support for surveillance and control. Ironically, under pressure after the infamous fish war with Canada two years ago, the EU has taken tougher action on Spanish activities abroad. Recently, a Spanish vessel caught with a falsified log off the Canadian east coast had its licence to fish revoked for the rest of 1997, faces a permanent loss of its licence, and a fine of up to 242,000 ECU.

Yet the EU member state with the second largest Community sea area is attempting to cut back on its own protection capacity and appears to have lost its voice in Brussels, Some Irish fishermen now put more faith in Britain to pursue the "flagship issue", and the Irish South and West Fishermen's Organisation (IS&WFO) has established links with its Cornish counterpart to this end.

All the while the estimated £2 billion worth of fish taken annually by non Irish vessels from these waters is rising. There will be more clashes at sea. As the IS&WFO has pointed out, this is the hidden cost of being "good Europeans".