‘We want the Government to fight for us’: Fishermen to protest Brexit-related cuts

Flotilla to sail up the Liffey to highlight drop in quotas after Brexit and EU changes

A flotilla of fishing vessels is sailed up the Liffey on Wednesday to protest against large Brexit-related losses outside a sitting of the Dáil at the convention centre.

 

A flotilla of fishing vessels is to sail up the Liffey on Wednesday to protest against large Brexit-related losses outside a sitting of the Dáil at the convention centre.

The Government faces a backlash from fishermen, as their anxiety at multi-million-euro losses due to Brexit quota cuts has been compounded in recent weeks by new EU directions that require them to weigh fish on the pier.

I’ve said this to the Taoiseach and the Ministers: I’m not interested in their sympathy. I’m interested in action

In a sector that employs 16,000 people, the mood is restive and many fear ruin.

“To put it in weather terms, we’ve been hit with not alone one tsunami but a second tsunami and that’s the problem,” said Seán O’Donoghue, chief executive of Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation, the trade body for the State’s biggest fishing port in Co Donegal.

“I’ve said this to the Taoiseach and the Ministers: I’m not interested in their sympathy. I’m interested in action.”

The East Link bridge will be lifted to allow the flotilla comprising more than 100 vessels up the river to Sir John Rogerson’s Quay. It comes one month after a similar flotilla sailed into Cork Harbour and as fishing communities staged a protest march to the constituency office in the city of Taoiseach Micheál Martin.

In advance of the demonstration in Dublin, the Taoiseach met the chiefs of five fish-producer organisations on Monday to discuss the crisis besetting the sector.

Their protests follow a sharp downturn in business last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, when the closure of restaurants at home and in key export markets caused prices to drop by between 30 per cent and 50 per cent.

A recent Bord Iascaigh Mhara report showed that the value of the seafood economy declined by €142 million to just under €1.1 billion in 2020 as the sector confronted severe disruption due to a succession of lockdowns in Ireland, Europe and Asia.

Losses

Now the industry faces yet more losses because of the Brexit trade deal between the EU and UK that was settled last Christmas Eve.

That agreement averted the economic chaos that would have come with a no-deal Brexit. But the Irish fishing sector was quick to say its outsized burden was not acceptable. The deal will cut €43 million per year from the value of Irish fishing stocks by 2026, a 15 per cent cut from the value of the State’s 2020 quota. This is part of an arrangement in which European quota with a total value of €199 million moves to the UK from EU member states after Brexit.

“Ireland was hardest hit by the quota transfers to the UK from the EU,” said a report last week from the Government-appointed Seafood Task Force, which is charged with proposing measures to mitigate the impact of the Brexit deal.

This group, chaired by former Bord Bia chief Aidan Cotter, said Ireland’s quota cut “compares unfavourably with other EU member states which, proportionally, contributed far less”.

Flotilla at Dublin Port on Wednesday. Photograph: iStock
Flotilla at Dublin Port on Wednesday. Photograph: iStock

The task force, which includes industry representatives, is advancing plans for a “cessation scheme” to tie up some 220 vessels hit by Brexit losses for one calendar month between September and December in return for a payment to reflect lost income. It found “substantial” public spending would be needed, saying it should come “to the greatest extent possible” from the EU Brexit Adjustment Fund. The Government expects to receive more than €1 billion this year from the fund.

The Brexit impact on the sector is immediate, with 60 per cent of the cuts taking effect in 2021. Valuable mackerel and prawn quotas will drop sharply. The value of the mackerel quota will fall this year by €15 million and by €27.5 million in 2026, the task force said. The quota value for prawns will fall this year by €4.93 million and by €8.22 million in 2026.

You’re expected to take the fish out of a box that’s iced, put it into a box that isn’t iced, weigh it and then put the ice back into the fish again

“They’re squeezing us too much,” said Séamus O’Flaherty, who runs 19 vessels from Kilmore Quay in Co Wexford.

“We came out with the worst deal of the lot and all the Government could say was that it could have been worse… We were disproportionately hit because the EU knows that our Government are so weak on fishing that they’ll get away with anything.”

Burden

Minister for the Marine Charlie McConalogue insists he recognises the impact of the Brexit deal. “When he met with EU fisheries ministers [last] week he made clear that Ireland will be seeking a review of the historic relative stability sharing arrangements within the EU in order to compensate for the imbalance in the quota transfers under the [trade and co-operation agreement with UK],” a spokesman said.

But there is little prospect of a speedy breakthrough, even if the Minister’s European counterparts are open to persuasion on his demands to rebalance the Brexit burden. The question is likely to be wrapped into a looming renegotiation of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, which won’t begin until next year and new quotas are not due to be set until December 2022.

In any event, fishing rights and quotas are always hotly contested in Europe. It is quietly accepted in Government circles such talks will present a big political challenge, given historic cuts and the new Brexit cut from the overall EU quota.

The European Commission’s move in April to require catch to be weighed on the pier instead of in factories or a buyer’s premises is a further source of rancour in fishing communities. The decision followed a 2018 audit that is understood to have found “significant weaknesses” in controls over the weighing of stocks.

But Mr O’Donoghue in Killybegs said the move smacked of “stone-age” practices: “You’re expected to take the fish out of a box that’s iced, put it into a box that isn’t iced, weigh it and then put the ice back into the fish again.”

He criticised Brussels for not publishing the audit, saying it left fishermen having to “prove our innocence” against findings they had not seen.

There was no comment from the Commission, whose stance, according to Mr McConalogue’s spokesman, is that it is “not legally possible” to release the report.

Mr O’Flaherty in Kilmore Quay said fishermen want Ministers and the EU to “wake up” to their anxieties. “We basically want the Government to start fighting for us,” he said.

“We’re allowed to catch 15 per cent of the fish that’s in our waters. That is just ridiculous. We’ve put up with it up until now because maybe the fishermen were just not united [before Brexit cuts]

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