Irish fishing sector fears choppier waters in Brexit’s wake

Uncertainty on future causing jitters and highlighting existing concerns over fishing ports

Picture postcard images of two Atlantic fishery harbours in the stillness of winter would suggest they have more to unite than divide them.

In the State's largest fishery harbour of Killybegs, Co Donegal, and the top whitefish port of Castletownbere in west Cork, the prospect of Brexit is causing sleepless nights.

Both the lucrative pelagic (mackerel/herring/horse mackerel) fleet and the whitefish sector fear the impact on a €1 billion industry of restricted access to stocks shared with Britain. Ireland shares 40 such stocks with our nearest neighbour, and Minister for Marine Michael Creed has said Brexit poses a "serious challenge".

There is also the very real prospect of yet more EU vessels being allocated quotas off this coastline due to displacement from British waters. The Irish South and West Fishermen’s Organisation has said the Government must ensure fishing is a priority in the Government’s Brexit strategy and renegotiate the Common Fisheries Policy.

The industry has many concerns: the impact of seismic testing for oil and gas on grounds such as the Porcupine Bank; fears about the total ban on discarding at sea by 2019; and the hazards of a dangerous occupation.

Almost 40 Irish boats have been lost at sea in the past 20 years, most of them wooden whitefish boats. Some 42 crew died at sea in one decade alone to 2012, according to a Health and Safety Authority (HSA) analysis showing the average age of those who died was 38.

One of the most recent drownings was a crewman from Egypt. During the Celtic Tiger, "safer", better-paid and more predictable work on construction ashore led to labour shortages, met by foreign nationals from several African states and eastern Europe. However, the International Transport Federation, which has lobbied for better conditions, has claimed there has been widespread exploitation.

The State's Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) takes a different view, saying it is "aware that the vast majority of the fishing industry fully support the Government's efforts to resolve this issue".

Unhelpful ‘raids’

The Irish Fish Producers Organisation (IFPO) chief executive, Francis O'Donnell, says the industry has sought to engage with the State on work permits. However, recent raids by the State have been "unhelpful", he says. Armed gardaí and dog units were despatched on October 5th to Howth, Co Dublin, and Castletownbere as part of a joint operation involving Garda, Revenue Commissioners, the Workplace Relations Commission, the Naval Service and SFPA. One skipper described being confronted by a Garda with a machine gun.

A statement issued afterwards by the Garda on behalf of “Operation Eggshell” said that no evidence of human trafficking, slavery or labour exploitation was found among 41 fishing vessels inspected. It confirmed a “relatively small number of suspected breaches” relating to work permits, employment law, immigration and tax, were identified. O’Donnell lodged a complaint with the Garda Ombudsman, describing the use of armed gardaí and dogs as “disproportionate”, “degrading” and “provocative”.

In spite of having much common ground, the industry is unable to speak with one voice. Stiff competition for small quotas, and a perception there is one rule for the larger players, based in Killybegs, and another for much of the rest of the fleet, have encouraged this divide. Some 87 per cent of the available quota for pelagic species is shared out among 23 vessels based in the northwest, including a number owned or controlled by Atlantic Dawn Ltd.

The approach taken by the EU and State back in 2002 towards facilitating inclusion of the Atlantic Dawn in the Killybegs fleet at a time of EU restrictions on fleet size, and the retention of certain capacity entitlements after the vessel was sold in 2007, has exacerbated disillusionment within the sector.

Atlantic Dawn Ltd has denied industry claims it has been given an asset worth at least €135 million. It has confirmed it has “reinvested significantly in the industry”, including “major expansion of freezing and cold storage facilities in Killybegs” and also in fishing vessels.

Several owners who did not wish to be identified claim the company is trying to take advantage of its dominant position. One owner confirmed to The Irish Times they had several approaches from Atlantic Dawn Ltd, seeking to buy, or take a stake in a pelagic vessel on condition it would only land into Killybegs. “Ports like Castletownbere and Ros-a-Mhil provide much-needed employment in peripheral areas and they need all the landings they can get. The idea Killybegs can hoover in landings may be good for south Donegal but not for the rest of the coast.”

After the recent EU fisheries negotiations, Creed had emphasised the State wished to retain quota as a public resource, and to avoid the individual transferable quota system which leads to privatisation and control by major players in other countries. However, sections of the industry here fear the Atlantic Dawn case is encouraging privatisation “by stealth”.

Castletownbere's other big challenge – one shared by Dingle, Co Kerry – is its proximity to grounds traditionally fished by Spanish and French vessels.

When a Fianna Fáil administration granted a lease to Spanish multinational Eiranova to establish a controversial transhipment point in Castletownbere in 1979, the IDA granted over IR£0.5 million on the condition that 115 jobs would be provided by 1983. It became known as the "peseta port".

Eiranova built a factory on Dinish island and was also granted five licences for vessels fishing off the Irish quota. The promised employment did not materialise at sea or ashore.

A staff of 30-35 still works in the Dinish premises – now handling shrimp and managed by a representative of the family firm’s younger generation, Jorge Andrade. He takes a very positive view . “We handle mainly shrimp, velvet crab and scallops but we also hope to handle some hake caught by longline, as we favour quality over quantity,” he said.

This summer, Castletownbere was declared Ireland's "top" fishing port, with its value of landings overtaking Killybegs. However, Bord Iascaigh Mhara confirmed the 73 per cent of the €113 million worth of catch landed there in 2015 was by "foreign", or other EU, vessels. It also confirmed over 75 per cent of landings into Dingle are by foreign fleets.

Spanish vessels land regularly into the west Cork harbour and fish is transported directly out, yielding no added value to the local economy. So when Creed announced a €21 million harbour development, there was a mixed reaction. Creed noted there had been a 242 per cent increase in landings by “other EU fleets” since 2010 from 409 to 1,400 tonnes.

“These increased landings by other EU fleets create economic opportunities for the processing and supply industries to take advantage of and will over time build a larger and stronger marine economy in the Castletownbere area,” he said.

Spanish competition

Castletownbere vessel owner Margaret Downey says, "So many Spanish boats are coming in here and trucking fish straight out. So who is this extra harbour space really for? And then we have Brexit, which could affect absolutely every fishery we have."

The Spanish interest in southwest Irish waters is not all negative, as Castletownbere Co-op manager John Nolan points out. Access to the Iberian market is important for the Irish industry, and the co-op works with Spanish family-owned supermarket chain Mercadona.

“That business has contributed €10 million to the co-op’s turnover of €55 million – which has grown from a turnover of about €600,000 annually when I started here 34 years ago,” Nolan says. “At the same time, we have been badly treated as a coastal state with 22 per cent of EU waters, and our waters will be the largest when Britain leaves,” Nolan says. “So Brexit should be used as an opportunity to renegotiate the entire Common Fisheries Policy, and that’s an opportunity this government should seize.”

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

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