Troubled waters: fight for survival as tide turns on 14,000 fishing families

The tragic events of the last 10 days have left the southern coastal community plumbing the depths of grief, loneliness and despair. Caroline O’Doherty explains why fishing is a riskier business than ever.

IT’S not the sound of crashing waves, howling gales or creaking timbers that fishing communities fear most. It is the sound of silence.

Nothing is more devastating than the radio call that goes unanswered, the mobile phone that does not ring or the emergency beacon that refuses to bleep.

Silence struck dread into the heart of skipper’s wife, Mary Bohan, nine days ago when her husband, Ger, aged 39, failed to ring as he usually would to report on the day’s fishing and let her know he was ok.

The Kinsale, Co Cork-based trawler man would ask about herself and their four children, chat about the day’s events, confirm his next port of call and go back to the wheel of the Honeydew II before wrapping up his chores for the night.

When he last spoke to Mary late on the night of Wednesday, January 10, however, they talked mainly of the tragedy unfolding off Dunmore East in neighbouring Co Waterford where the news had broken, just hours earlier, that a trawler, the Pere Charles, had sunk and all its five crewmen were missing.

Ger told Mary he would shelter from the high seas and stormy winds that were ripping across the south coast, and, in the morning, he and his crew of three would probably head for Dunmore East to join the local fishing vessels in the search.

The Honeydew II never made it to the search grounds. Sometime early on Thursday morning, it is thought about 3am, the 24-metre vessel entered the path of a wave that rose over twice the height of a house, from the heaving sea, and collapsed upon the helpless boat.

We know about the catastrophe that struck the Honeydew II because, against the odds, two of its crew survived. Viktoz Losev and Vladimir Kostvr, both from Lithuania, scrambled into a life raft as the broken boat succumbed to the sea.

Their skipper, Ger Bohan, and fellow crewman, Tomasz Jagla, a young Polish father-of-three, were trying to make for the second life raft.

They couldn’t get clear of the broken timbers, however, and Viktoz and Vladimir, whom Ger had ordered to take the first raft, tried to help but were wrenched away by the waves.

They would spend 15 hours together, hoping against hope that their crewmates had somehow reached the raft, but knowing in their hearts that even their own chances of rescue were slim.

Back on shore, in Kinsale, Mary Bohan had watched darkness fall and wondered why Ger had not called. When she tried to contact him, all she heard was silence. She did what every woman who loves a fisherman tries never to think of doing, and reported her husband missing.

The coastguard helicopter scouring the seas off Dunmore East was close to doing its last circle of the area for the night, when its crew spotted Viktoz and Vladimir’s distress flare. They were momentarily baffled as they had already accepted their search for the Pere Charles was a recovery exercise, not a rescue mission. By some miracle, could they have found a survivor? Or was another boat in trouble?

The answer was soon known; the recovery operation now involved searching for seven bodies.

THE names of Ger Bohan and Tomasz Jagla were added to the list missing from the Pere Charles: Tom Hennessy, a 32-year-old father-of-two, and his uncle, Pat Hennessy, 51, a single man, both originally from Co Kerry but settled in Dunmore East; Pat Coady, 27, a father-of-one originally from Duncormick in neighbouring Co Wexford but also living in Dunmore East; their neighbour, Billy O’Connor, a 50-year-old father-of-five; and new crew mate, Andriy Dyrin, aged 32, a father of one who had arrived from the Ukraine just a few months earlier.

Unbelievably, there would be another heart-stopping moment for the coastguard before a week was gone. Late the following Tuesday afternoon, after another day of frustration, when tumultuous seas hampered the search efforts, came a mayday call from another local trawler, the Renegade.

Its crew, Ken Doyle and Kevin Downs, from Duncannon, Co Wexford, just across the estuary from Dunmore East, were searching for their comrades when their vessel began taking in water. They abandoned the boat for a life raft and were winched to safety by helicopter, watching from above as, seconds later, the Renegade was swallowed by the swell.

WAVES of grief have washed over the coastal communities of our southern shores this past week-and-a-half, revealing in their ebb the extreme vulnerability of an industry that battles for survival not only against the weather, but also against harsh economic elements.

Fishermen are self-employed, and, if they don’t fish, they don’t earn.

For weeks leading up to Christmas, storm-force winds and high seas had kept boats tied up longer than usual, and longer than a man with a family to support can take.

The crew of the Pere Charles went out to fish in poor conditions because they had to.

Wednesday, January 10, promised a brief easing of conditions and Tom Hennessy and his crew jumped at the chance to fish.

January is a key month in the herring season, and, on a good day, a boat can net a fine catch in hours, without going more than a few miles from shore.

It went according to plan at first. By teatime, the Pere Charles had a healthy load of herring and was ready to head home. Minutes after confirming their position with the boat’s owner, Michael Walsh, however, who was in radio contact from the shore, a companion trawler fishing less than half a mile way, the Susanna G, received a call from the Pere Charles asking it to “stand by.”

The request is a standard precaution, usually followed by an all-clear or a more specific request for assistance. The Susanna G had no reason to believe the Pere Charles was in any real difficulty.

The next message from the vessel came from its EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon), an electronic device that activates when submerged in water, telling the emergency services the boat is in trouble and pinpointing its location.

It is a mystery, for now, how a modern, well-equipped, expertly-handled boat could disappear so quickly. The Marine Casualty Investigations Board will be tasked with finding an explanation.

Landlubbers may be tempted to ask if the crew were not taking too much of a risk going out at all, given the awful conditions that prevailed before their departure and the promise that there would be worse to come that evening. The sea, after all, is capricious and the window of opportunity afforded was small.

Lorcan O’Cinnéide, chairman of the Federation of Irish Fishermen, answers the question without defensiveness. “We are talking about an industry whose workplace is the sea,” he explains of the matter-of-fact attitude fishing families must adopt if they are not to be permanently paralysed by worry at the inevitable hazards their loved ones face. “It’s just dad going out to work.”

Fishermen do talk, however, about the regulatory environment they work in and how it might ease, or exacerbate, those hazards. There is frustration at the quota system that applies to their catch. If they have a quota for a week and don’t use it, they lose it — they can’t carry it over to the next week or the next favourable forecast.

There is also opposition to the controversial four-hour rule, which requires boats to give four hours’ notice of their intention to land, even if they are finished fishing and only an hour’s journey from shore. The rule allows inspectors time to reach the port if they have any suspicion about the size or make-up of a boat’s catch, but are the boats left at sea too long and unnecessarily exposed to dangers?

The authorities have been accused of prioritising policing over protection. John Walshe, a friend of Ger Bohan, has furthermore questioned why the navy’s vessel monitoring system (VMS) failed to notice that something was amiss with the Honeydew II.

VMS is a satellite system designed to keep a check on the movement of the fleet, primarily to detect infringements of regulations, but the Honeydew’s II position should have been relayed from the boat to the monitors four times in the period from when it is believed to have sunk to when the alarm was raised.

It would not have prevented the tragedy but, had it been spotted that something was wrong, Mr Walshe believes, the coastguard would have a better idea of exactly where the boat was when it sank.

The EU Common Fisheries Policy has long left fishermen feeling that the official attitude to their industry is that it should be patrolled rather than nurtured, tolerated rather than promoted. As the search continued for the men lost off the south coast this week, their counterparts in the north west were pleading to be allowed out for the annual mackerel run.

Delays in administration, which the Government is blaming on EU negotiations, have left Irish fleets without licences to fish while their British colleagues have been casting their nets for weeks. The frustration of Sean O’Donoghue of the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation was clear when he implored the Taoiseach to intervene.

“At this stage we have already lost three weeks of the new year and the... fleet cannot wait any longer otherwise they will face an economic crisis,” he warned.

TO be fair, there have been official efforts to assist the native fleet. Grants have allowed the decommissioning of many older, less efficient and less safe vessels, and improvements in technology ensure far better information on weather and sea conditions, and more reliable boat-to-boat and boat-to-shore communications.

But the 14,000 families who depend on fishing for their livelihood can justifiably sense a certain ambiguity in the way their industry is viewed. When the Atlantic Dawn was launched as the world’s largest fishing vessel by the late Kevin McHugh in 2000, government ministers applauded its scale and lapped up the Irishman’s triumph.

The super trawler has spawned massive controversy since, because of its ability to virtually empty the waters from sea-floor to surface in any area it fishes, while the small fishermen who make up much of the Irish fleet continue to feel dwarfed by all that the Atlantic Dawn and its ilk represent.

Fishermen have struggled to find their place in the industrial landscape of the Celtic Tiger, which has replaced the traditional with the hi-tech and the labour-intensive with automation. They have also struggled to find a berth in Government, without a full-

time marine minister.

Marine matters have been split between the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and the Department of Transport, with two junior minister, Pat The Cope Gallagher and John Browne, taking care of business.

It is arguably an odd attitude for the government of an island nation to adopt.

Both ministers visited Kinsale and Dunmore East to extend their sympathies and voice their support for the search operations, Pat The Cope wearing a tie dotted with anchors and other seafaring insignia. It was a small gesture of solidarity with a community which feels it is rarely heard in the corridors of power.

To not have a voice in the competitive world of modern commerce is almost like not having a net at sea. That is the other kind of silence which fishing communities fear.

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