Fischler, grinch of the seas, gift-wraps dry season for fishing communities


If the European Commission was seriously interested in conservation, it would have tackled industrial fishing and policy loopholes, writes Lorna Siggins

Dr Franz Fischler bears more than a passing resemblance to Santa Claus, but the jovial agriculture and fisheries commissioner didn't come to last week's EU council in Brussels bearing gifts. Nor was he expected to. However, his Commission did achieve a "miracle", according to Northern Ireland's fishermen's representative, Dick James.

"There are representatives here of every fishing industry in Europe," Mr James told Christopher Booker of the Sunday Telegraph, a seasoned EU observer.

"And for the first time they are united in one thing: a complete hatred of the European Union. This is no way to decide the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people."

In the event, the outcome was predictable, with the more vocal member-states like Spain and France securing a far better deal in terms of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and quotas than smaller states like Ireland. As Booker noted over the weekend, what made such unity all the more remarkable was that the Commission had been trying to buy off opposition from one country after another.

Spain secured access to the North Sea and the Baltic - and has the Commission's tacit support for access to the Irish Box, the State's 50-mile exclusion zone which was established when Spain, with Europe's largest fleet, joined the EU in 1986.

The only state to get no concessions at all was Britain, Booker noted, as the Commission's proposed draconian restrictions apparently had one purpose - to force northern Europe's largest remaining fleet, the 400 Scottish whitefish boats, off the sea and out of business. And because many of these Scottish fishermen are seen as traditional supporters of the Conservative Party, the British Labour government stood idly by.

The measure which has so angered the Scottish fishermen - and now Irish vessel owners and crews in the west and north-west of the State, from Rossaveal, Co Galway, up to Donegal - is the Commission's plan to impose fleet restrictions. Having failed to sell the idea of fleet cuts of up to 40 per cent, the Commission distanced itself from that concept, accused governments of misinterpreting its motives, and put its political weight behind another measure of effort limitation, known as "days at sea", in the interests of conservation and "saving the cod".

Like the unresolved Irish Box situation, which has fishermen in the south-west and west so worried here, the days-at-sea limitation exposes the hypocrisy of the European Commissioner's interest in conserving fish stocks. Though pan-European environmental groups have accused it of not going far enough, "days at sea" could have the same effect on fishing communities as past EU agricultural policies had on small farmers. Bigger boats with sufficient quota and capacity to survive on nine days a month will relocate, depriving their native ports of valuable landings. Smaller vessels - as in vessels under 80 feet, comprising the bulk of the Irish fleet - will not be able to do so, and will be forced out of business.

As Mr Seamus Bovaird, industry representative from Greencastle, Co Donegal, remarked after a fishermen's meeting in the north-west port yesterday, the devil is in the detail.

"If you check out the days-at-sea allowances per gear type you can see the reality. A boat towing 100mm mesh gets nine days because it is fishing in the sea area where these so-called measures to protect cod are going to apply.

"But a 'soup boat' or industrial vessel, technically targeting sandeels and pout for fishmeal, and towing 20mm mesh, gets 23 days and kills everything in its path."

Industry representatives know that if the Commission had been serious about conservation, it would have tackled industrial fishing as well as several loopholes in the CFP, such as flag-of-convenience vessels, mainly owned by Spanish and French interests. Neither of these two issues rated on the Commission's agenda, and it further muddied the waters with its intervention on the Irish Box.

Conspiracy theorists may have their own views on why the row over the box arose less than two months before the final council was to decide on the shape of "blue Europe" for the next decade or so. Legal opinion prepared for the EU Council had all the hallmarks of Spanish influence, despite denials by Dr Fischler. Having raised it, the Commission then left it to Ireland and Spain to try and sort it out.

"They told us during the Nice Treaty debate that smaller states would not be rolled over," said Mr Lorcan Ó Cinnéide, chief executive of the Irish Fish Producers' Organisation (IFPO). "But throughout the week, the Irish negotiators were being hammered, and there was little or nothing we could do about it. It's something I will remember when the next referendum comes up for the Constitution of Europe."

The Government delegation put a lot of energy into preparing for this final council, and the Minister may feel that the industry is now reacting in a rather begrudging fashion. A ministerial advisory group, chaired by former IDA boss, Mr Padraic White, sat for several years and produced several reports, with industry input, emphasising conservation measures.

That close liaison between the Minister, Department and industry appears to have been fractured over the weekend by Mr Ahern's own response to the outcome. No one can blame a politician for trying to put the best gloss on a pretty bleak situation. But by describing it as a deal which safeguards the future of thousand of jobs, and by claiming on RTÉ Radio that the industry welcomed it privately, Mr Ahern has alienated some keen supporters in the marine sector.

Curiously, the Minister also claimed that the Irish overall quota was far higher than the 4.4 per cent (despite having 11 per cent of EU waters) cited over and over again by his own advisory group.

It begs the question as to the Government's long-term plan for the marine sector, and the quality of the Taoiseach's so-called intervention "on the margins" at the EU summit in Copenhagen earlier this month. To the coalition's credit, it did support two schemes to renew the whitefish fleet which were introduced under the previous administration.

However, several of those fishermen who are due to take delivery of new vessels are talking about cancelling orders. They have not forgotten that this is also the Government that put a severe dent in Ireland's negotiating position by allowing a 144-metre supertrawler, the Atlantic Dawn, to fish off this coastline, when it was originally built to fish in international waters.

It all fits in neatly with the European Commission's long-term plan, articulated by former commissioner, Ms Emma Bonino, in 1996. That plan involved a fleet of fewer, larger vessels landing directly into urban markets - largely bypassing coastal communities and providing the European consumer with cheaper fish.