Battered by Covid-19, the fishing industry nervously awaits Brexit outcome

Battered by Covid-19, the fishing industry nervously awaits Brexit outcome
Battered by Covid-19, the fishing industry nervously awaits Brexit outcome

Prime Irish monkfish sold for fishmeal at 10c a kilo was one of the fishing industry’s setbacks due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Industry representatives say a temporary tie-up compensation scheme was “designed to fail”.

Future management of rich marine resources is coming into sharp focus, as Britain withdraws from the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

We can expect “skirmishes at sea”, but hopefully nothing like the Pirates of the Caribbean and sword-twirling Capt Jack Sparrow characters on the decks of galleons.

Ocean Week 2020
Ocean Week 2020

However, as Sparrow once said, “not all treasure is silver and gold, mate”.

The treasure, in this case, may be the 64% of the lucrative mackerel fishery and 43% of prawns caught by Irish vessels in British waters.

In that context, as new marine minister Dara Calleary told the Irish Examiner earlier this week, Britain withdrawing from the CFP is a “deadly serious threat” to livelihoods of Irish fishing communities.

Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation (KFO) chief executive Sean O’Donoghue believes that a “no-deal” Brexit would be particularly challenging for “blue Europe”, with potential for many sea skirmishes, over coming months.

“It’s not just Ireland that is affected by British withdrawal from the CFP though, as I believe the French fleet will up the ante,” O’Donoghue predicts.

“You could have flashpoints everywhere from Rockall to the North Sea to the Celtic Sea and English Channel, with the British Navy, the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency, the Dutch, French and Belgian navies out at sea, and our Naval Service having an enormous area to control,” says O’Donoghue.

Already, there have been some clashes. Two years ago, French and English vessels were in dispute over scallop grounds in the English Channel. Recently, Scottish fishermen reported a number of incidents which they believe are symptomatic of an effort by certain EU vessels to hold on to traditional grounds.

A German-registered Spanish gillnetter which was filmed allegedly trying to foul the propeller of a Scottish vessel west of Shetland in early June was detained this month near Rockall by the Naval Service patrol ship, LÉ William Butler Yeats, for separate alleged breaches of EU fisheries legislation.

Figures speak volumes about the value of Irish waters to EU fleets, with Castletownbere, the largest whitefish port, being a transhipment point for foreign landings. A Bord Iascaigh Mhara “snapshot” of the industry records the value of seafood at over €1 billion, with first sale value of fish landed into Irish ports at €424 million in 2019.

While Irish landings were valued at €291m of that total, non-Irish landings were quoted at €133m.

Displacement to Irish grounds of European vessels with quotas in British waters is another negative aspect of Brexit. In the past few weeks, there have been anecdotal reports of Spanish gillnetters who never normally fished off the Irish south-west coast showing up on whitefish grounds.

“It is as if some track records are being laid down by the Spanish, who have always been much better at this than Ireland,” said a seasoned industry observer.

Fisheries biologist Dr Peter Tyndall of the National Fishermen’s Development Group says Brexit is an opportunity for Europe to accept that Ireland suffered a serious injustice in the original EU access deal.

Ireland had 24% of EU waters on accession, and was allocated just 3.8% of the total allowable catch in 1983, but was offered access to the European market.

Those percentages have changed as the EU has grown, with Ireland now having 10% of the sea area, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs Brexit fact sheet. By value, Ireland accounts for 36% of the average value of landings from the Irish Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), followed by France (18%), the UK (16%), Spain (15%), and the Netherlands (8%).

“So, if Britain wants to play hardball, then the quotas given to the British-registered Spanish vessels for stocks off the Irish west coast should revert to Ireland,” says Dr Tyndall.

Founding editor of the fishing industry’s monthly The Skipper publication Arthur Reynolds believes that recognition that Ireland has a moral right to greater access to its own waters must be central to any Brexit negotiations.

“Germany didn’t have to open up access to Ruhr coalfields. France didn’t have to open up access to its vineyards. Ireland and Denmark were the only two member states with a surplus of fish when the CFP was drawn up,” Reynolds says.

Reynolds cautions that he is not talking about increasing catches to an unsustainable level to compensate Ireland, but about a more equitable share out among EU coastal states of the existing resource.

The Covid-19 pandemic may have knocked Brexit off headlines, but it also exposed how dependent the British fleet is on the European market — a market which collapsed from March, when restaurants closed.

“So Covid-19 shows that Britain needs to be able to secure value for its fish,” Dr Tyndall says.

Castletownbere Fishermen’s Co-op manager John Nolan was disappointed to see how protectionist some EU partners became.

“Our Irish whitefish industry is largely export-led, and we experienced a situation where prime Irish monkfish could not be sold in France, and we ended up having to let it go for fishmeal at 10c a kilo,” Nolan says.

The EU had signalled that member states could relax State aid rules. But the temporary tie-up compensation scheme, eventually introduced by former marine minister Michael Creed, was “designed to fail”, says Irish South and West Fishermen’s Organisation chief executive Patrick Murphy.

“I don’t begrudge the beef farmers the €50m which the outgoing government has given them, but it beggars belief that an industry like fishing where people risk their lives to produce food should be treated in this way,” Murphy said.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine said the tie-up supports would range from €6,000 per month for a maximum of two months for the very largest vessels over 24 metres, to €500 per month for a maximum of two months for the very smallest vessels under six metres in length.

“That sort of money would barely cover insurance costs,” said an east coast vessel owner of the scheme, which covered only two of the months of June, July and August. He said it did not acknowledge the efforts of skippers who took a responsible course of action in tying up from mid-March. “When markets closed, the only place to store fish was in the sea, and not in cold storage,” said the skipper, who did not wish to be named.

Overall, some 65 applicants (about 3% of the entire whitefish fleet) were offered the compensation in June.

Worse was to come, however, as some inshore boats had applications rejected for a failure to produce evidence of sales notes, through no fault of their own. This documentation is the responsibility of buyers to return, and for the State’s Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) to monitor.

The National Inshore Fishermen’s Association said this anomaly has wider and serious implications, as it suggests the State was not accurately recording the inshore sector’s full economic value.

New marine minister Dara Calleary has been told in no uncertain terms by industry organisations that a more robust compensation scheme must be considered.

Offshore renewable energy

As if Brexit and Covid-19 aren’t enough, the new government has ambitious plans for offshore renewable energy, which has proved contentious in certain British coastal areas.

Fixed offshore wind farms earmarked for the east Irish coast could have serious impacts on the valuable whelk fishery on the Kish bank and the prawn grounds off Co Louth.

A 30-year strategy for offshore renewable recently published by the Eirwind consortium says the fishing industry has to be treated as the “primary stakeholder”, and recommends a forum be established between the two industries which would focus on issues such as regulations for fishing vessels to work as guard boats, shared interests in marine conservation, and best practice in compensation against loss of livelihood.

Eirwind is an industry-led collaborative research project, aimed at developing a blueprint for offshore wind development in Ireland. It is part of MaREI, the SFI Research Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine at University College Cork.

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