The number of patrol days cancelled by the Naval Service this year due to a lack of sailors is already four times greater than in the whole of 2020.
The figures are the starkest illustration to date of a personnel crisis which is directly impacting Ireland's ability to protect its own waters. Earlier this year, Ireland had to rely on a European Union ship to help patrol its fishing zone for the first time this year due to a lack of personnel.
According to the latest figures from the Department of Defence, almost a third of the 503 planned patrol days up to the end of May this year were cancelled.
A total of 148 days at sea were lost in the first five months of the year, including 101 due to “personnel issues” and 47 for “mechanical reasons”.
By comparison, during the whole of 2020, 28 patrols days were lost due to personnel issues and 53 for mechanical issues.
The figures come at a time when the Naval Service is under greater pressure than ever due to the final exit of the UK from the EU in January and the increased numbers of EU fishing vessels in Irish waters.
As of May 30th, four of the Naval Services’ nine ships had not carried out a single patrol day this year.
This includes two vessels, the LÉ Eithne and Orla, which were placed into reserve in 2019 due to lack of personnel, and the LÉ Niamh which was damaged by fire last October.
One ship, the LÉ Ciara cannot go to sea until all of its crew are vaccinated "due to small shared spaces" aboard, the Defence Forces said.
The last time all nine ships were in service in a single year was in 2018.
A Defence Forces spokeswoman said the impact of Covid-19 is to blame for the spike in lost patrol days so far in 2021.
In 2019, an average of 17.5 patrol days were cancelled every month. This dropped to 8 per month in 2020 before rising to 30 per month this year.
The Naval Service has a current strength of just over 800 personnel, 300 fewer than its establishment strength.
The Government and the Defence Forces have introduced a number of measures to try retain sailors and recruit new ones, including a loyalty scheme which offers recruits a bonus of up to €10,000 over four years for seagoing duties.
Last month a “pop-up” recruitment event , described by the Defence Forces as a “proof of concept exercise”, was held in Dublin. It attracted expressions of interest from 27 people.
It is hoped events to mark the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the Naval Service in September will also generate interest. The events include “meet the fleet” days in Dublin and Cork at the start of the month.