State on watch to protect sea borders amid Brexit fears for fishing

Industry concerned about ‘flashpoints’ over access to waters if UK leaves EU without deal

The Irish Naval Service and Air Corps are being primed to protect Irish sea fishing areas and vessels in a no-deal Brexit amid industry fears of tensions between EU and non-EU trawlers.

The UK crashing out of the EU without a deal would shut off British fishing waters to Irish trawlers and deprive the domestic fleet of access to lucrative fishing grounds that account for a third of the Irish catch.

The exclusion of fishing fleets from other EU member states from British waters would in turn increase the number of French, Spanish and Belgian trawlers in Irish fishing waters.

Sean O’Donoghue, chief executive of the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation, one of the country’s biggest fishing industry groups, warned that there would be “flashpoints” in the Irish Sea and waters off the north-west and south-west Irish coasts if no arrangements are put in place in the event of a no-deal Brexit.


He questioned the capacity of the Irish Naval Service and Air Corps to patrol Irish waters and manage possible tensions between EU and UK fishing fleets should the UK leave without a deal on October 31st.

"It is a bit of a joke to be honest. If you look at the zone between the UK and Ireland. You are talking about 3,000 kilometres of sea border between us and the UK, which has to be patrolled," he said.

“In a no-deal scenario and crash out you will see flashpoints everywhere. There will be chaos and mayhem on November 1st if there are not some sensible arrangements made between the EU and the UK.

Tensions in the fisheries industry will be “the first manifestation of Brexit,” he said, pointing to how French and British boats clashed over scallop fishing last year as a foretaste of what would be to come after Brexit.

Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe was asked whether the Naval Service and Air Corps had sufficient resources and equipment for surveillance and other missions along the coast after Brexit.

"Prudent planning in relation to all situations that may require a Defence Forces response, including by the Naval Service and the Air Corps, is undertaken by the Defences Forces in the normal course of events," he said.

Disorderly exit

“Furthermore, my department continues to monitor the ongoing situation to ensure that both it and the Defence Forces are fully prepared to address any potential issues that might arise in the defence area as a consequence of Brexit.”

A Defence Forces source said that air and maritime “assets” would be “primarily focused on supporting and delivering sea fisheries protection-related services” but that the requirements would depend on whether the UK leaves the EU in a disorderly exit.

“Clearly the nature of Brexit will dictate how the resources are tasked,” he said.

Fisherman John Lynch, owner of the Eblana trawler based at Howth, Co Dublin which fishes the Irish Sea and off the south coast, said that he expected a hard Brexit to "create conflict" over access across sea borders.

"The first place to see a huge problem will be the Channel between the UK and France. This will immediately see ports in France being blocked by protesters and goods, including Irish goods, will not get into Europe, " he said.

“Other issues, including in the Irish Sea will arise between fishing fleets and protection vessels. There will almost certainly be increased patrols on the median lines of the UK and the EU.”

Irish fishing trawlers catch between 60 and 70 per cent of their mackerel catch and 40 per cent of their catch of Dublin Bay prawns in UK waters.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent