Fishing industry’s slim margins generates perfect storm

Bord Iascaigh Mhara statistics conflict with International Transport Federation claims

Dangerous, dysfunctional and overregulated in parts: the fishing industry rarely makes headlines for any of the right reasons.

A passion for the sea and for hard and sleepless nights on a rolling platform are prerequisites among crew seeking a berth. Add in shrinking quotas for Irish vessels working alongside Spanish, French and Dutch in some of Europe's richest stock areas and it explains why many of the finest skippers and crew have quit, turning to construction jobs during the economic boom, or to the energy sector (oil, gas and offshore wind and ocean) in Ireland and abroad.

Whitefish vessels, comprising the bulk of the Irish fleet, were hardest hit by a Common Fisheries Policy introduced in 1983, backed up by a plethora of regulations, some completely unworkable, which led one French skipper to describe the European Commission’s management of the sea as being akin to “an aquarium plugged into a computer”.

Grossly unfair

Arthur Reynolds

, a former editor of

Irish Skipper

and former board member of

Bord Iascaigh Mhara

(BIM), says a “grossly unfair quota and catch structure” left the larger Irish vessels that survived “working far below efficiency”, with some skippers offering a fixed wage rather than the traditional “share” system based on value of catch.

Falling fuel prices in the past year and a high demand for fish eased the pressure in the past 12 months, but BIM, the Irish Sea Fisheries Board, estimated only 1,273 vessels out of a total of 2,202 registered vessels greater than 10m in length remained actively fishing in 2014.

It estimates total employment on vessels at 3,100, with non-EU fishermen accounting for about 5 per cent of this, or 155 for 2013.

Even if conservative, it is a fraction of the figure quoted by the International Transport Federation, which worked with the Guardian newspaper on its investigation.

The federation's co-ordinator Ken Fleming says he has information of up to 8,000 migrants in the sector, with 6,000 undocumented, but says this includes the seafood processing sector.

The sector lost its dedicated department back in 2007 and is subject to regulation by a number of departments and agencies.

Sources within the sector say there have been abuses of crew, but by a small number of vessel owners who would treat Irish crew as badly as any others.

BIM officials have been aware for some time of the impact of severe crew shortages, starting from about 2005, which led vessel owners to hire non-Irish labour: eastern Europeans and non-EU nationals from Russia, Egypt and the Philippines.

In fact, BIM has provided mandatory safety training for many of these crew, including some who may not have had “legal” work status.

Survival skills

Such training is mandatory for all fishermen, and every person who steps on a boat must hold a BIM-approved safety card stating they have completed Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) courses in fire fighting and survival skills, renewable every five years.

BIM says it was not its responsibility to check on employment status of applicants for courses, and candidates had to have a passport and existing STCW certification if applicable.

It says of the 1,214 individuals trained in 2015, some 1,081 were Irish, 54 were British, 38 from other EU countries and 41 of origin other than the EU.

Irish Fish Producers Organisation chief executive Francis O'Donnell says the industry tried to get a work permit scheme introduced as far back as 2006 and has a letter on file from 2008 from former enterprise minister Micheál Martin to Louth TD and Fianna Fáíl colleague Seamus Kirk, in which Mr Martin said officials from his department had begun "active engagement" to establish a "consistent position" for non-EU seafarers.

However, the Department of Jobs and Enterprise said on Tuesday that the work permit issue applied only to areas with “identified skills shortages”.

Just this summer, the issue raised its head again, when a safety working group initiated in the wake of the sinking of the Tit Bonhomme fishing vessel, in west Cork, made a number of recommendations to Minister for the Marine Simon Coveney.

Chaired by John Leech, it called for the Government to ratify and implement several conventions that would protect fishermen at sea: the STCW-F Convention, the Cape Town Agreement on the Safety of Fishing Vessels and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Work in Fishing Convention.


The Department of Justice says it established a project led by An

Garda Síochána

and involving a number of agencies last year, as it says the maritime industry, including fishing, was identified as an area of potentially high risk for labour exploitation and human trafficking.


It says groups involved include the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, the Apostleship of the Sea, the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, the

Workplace Relations Commission Inspectorate

, Revenue Customs Service, the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland, the department’s anti-human-trafficking unit, the Marine Survey Office, the British

Gangmasters Licensing Authority

, and Siptu.

Mr Coveney has now established a separate interdepartmental taskforce to examine the wide range of issues identified in the Guardian report.

International Transport Federation co-ordinator Ken Fleming says he is “disappointed” at this response.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times