Fishermen in the North look forward to leaving EU

Reduced quotas, red tape and restrictions have been disastrous, industry leader says


In Portavogie on the Ards peninsula a new flag is flying proudly among the British union and Red Hand of Ulster flags fluttering from the lamp posts in this overwhelmingly unionist and loyalist fishing village in Co Down.

It’s the “Fishing for Leave” ensign hoisted on the masts of many of the 40 or so trawlers that berth in this harbour.

This is staunchly Brexit territory. Sitting on a bollard beside his trawler, the Golden Emblem, Harold Young says he doesn’t know of one fisherman who voted Remain in the referendum on whether or not the UK should stay in the European Union.

Because of EU regulations and quotas he is mainly restricted to fishing for Dublin Bay prawns – more technically termed nephrops and also called the Norway lobster – and now believes there is a chance he will be able to catch whatever the sea offers up.

Some years ago he was fined £20,000 (€22,000) for breaching a whitefish quota he had at the time, so the decision to get away from the bureaucracy of Brussels gladdens him. “Like the farmer, the fisherman should be able to land whatever is in season,” he says.

Good living

If the mackerel or the herring are running, then he should have permission to fish for them, as well as for Dublin Bay prawns, plaice, cod, sole, whiting and hake.

Young is 72 and started to fish when he was 15. While he owns the Golden Emblem, he leaves it to a skipper and crew mainly of Filipinos, Indians and Nigerians to do the trawler work for him.

His grandfather, father and family fished but he can’t get a Portavogie crew for his boat. Maybe the vote to quit the EU will bring back local interest, he says, especially if the trawlermen have more waters in which to hunt and net fish. “You can make a good living from fishing if you put the effort into it,” he adds.

The reduced quotas, red tape and restrictions of the EU mean it has been disastrous for Northern Ireland trawler owners, skippers and their crews, he says. He is guardedly optimistic of a better time coming for the Northern fleet. “I hope it works out but I suppose it depends on who is doing the negotiating,” says Young.

And that is crucial, agrees Dick James, head of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers’ Organisation, which is headquartered in Portavogie, but has offices in the North’s two other main fishing ports, Ardglass and Kilkeel, both also in Co Down. “Unless our politicians are extremely weak in their negotiating, then we have got a hell of a strong hand to play here,” he says.

James, like Young, is 72. From the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, he has been with the organisation since 1983, after previously working in the industry in the south Pacific.

Law of the sea

James opens up a huge chart of northern Europe which shows how the new dispensation might operate. “The EU is going to lose a lot of ocean to us,” he says with satisfaction.

James explains that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the UK will have a 200-mile (320km) territorial sea limit in open waters as a result of Brexit.

Because Britain and the Republic are so close, no such limit can apply in the Irish Sea. Instead an equidistant rule operates. For instance if the distance between the British and Irish shorelines at a certain point is 40 miles then the exclusion zone for each state in that case will be 20 miles.

Under UNCLOS the UK would be entitled to fish whatever will be the determined allowable catch in its expanded exclusion zones. If the UK did not have the capacity to harvest the entire allowable catch then through agreement, other states would be permitted to fish the surplus of the allowable catch.

“But the reality is that there will be no surplus,” says Mr James. “We have got a fleet that is more than capable of catching the resources within our economic zone or, if we haven’t, we will have in a very few years.”

James asserts that there is no danger of British and Northern Ireland trawlers destroying the fishing grounds through greed and over-fishing: “Nobody is more conservation-minded than the UK government. Compare it with Spain, compare it with France, and we are bloody saints.”

There are 117 trawlers registered in Northern Ireland, according to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. The total value of landings into Northern Ireland ports is about £25 million while the value of all fish caught by Northern Ireland registered vessels inside and outside the UK is about £56 million.

The department estimates that in 2014 gross turnover in the fish-processing sector in Northern Ireland was just over £77 million.

The EU’s maritime and fisheries fund from 2014 to 2020 promises £13.71 million for the Northern Ireland fishing industry while payments in 2015-16 under the European fisheries fund were close to £6 million.

Bigger quotas

James is sure, however, that the financial gains from bigger fish quotas, more “user-friendly regulation” and that bigger Atlantic Ocean to fish, will hugely outweigh the loss of that support.

But, he says, there is a worry that the fishing industry could be sacrificed to other concerns such as protecting the City of London and maintaining UK access to EU markets as part of the overall Brexit negotiations. Part of the quid pro quo for having access to the various EU markets, he fears, might be Spanish, French and other EU-registered trawlers continuing to fish UK waters.

He knows there will be a lot of horse-trading in the weeks, months and maybe years ahead. But the bottom line is that the British government and Northern Executive must take advantage of this opportunity, he says. “It should be an exciting time for Northern Ireland fishermen,” he adds. “It should be a time when we combine our efforts to allow the UK to make the best of the rich hand it has been dealt.”

James says with regret that he won’t be central to the Brexit fisheries negotiations. Towards the end of this year he is to hand over control to a new man or woman, while continuing to play a smaller role in the industry. “I wish I was 20 years younger,” he says. “I would love to be getting into the negotiations but a brave new world needs a brave new set of people.”