IT IS natural to have sympathy for communities whose ambitions and traditions are threatened by the shortages and escalating costs stalking the world we have created.
Most people would put our fishing communities in that category, imagining a sort of maritime idyll. A modern Old Man of the Sea, only online and far, far bigger, using far more modern vessels than the tragic skiff in Hemingway’s classic novel.
Maybe a less-worn Spencer Tracey skippering a super trawler with sat nav and, like Ireland’s first super-trawler the Atlantic Dawn, 28,730 horsepower engines, a huge
factory-freezing plant with purse seine nets 3,600 feet in circumference and 550 feet deep; its trawl nets 1,200 feet in breadth and 96 feet in height, all utilised by a crew of more than 60. Effectively, a sea-emptying, mass slaughter house for fish and any marine life unlucky enough to be caught in its path.
Though there are a whole range of levels in commercial fishing, the net result seems to be the same everywhere. Stocks decimated and many species on the border of sustainability, if not below it.
Species facing extinction despite scientific and peer group warnings.
Too much technology chasing too few fish.
There are responsible commercial fishermen who would observe constraints to protect what is left of the seas’ great bounty, but sadly there are far too many with no regard for the necessity of sustainable fisheries.
One report, published in the scientific journal Nature at the start of this decade, warned: “Only 10% of all large fish — both open ocean species including tuna, swordfish, marlin and the large ground fish such as cod, halibut, skates and flounder — are left in the sea.
“Since 1950, with the onset of industrialised fisheries, we have rapidly reduced the resource base to less than 10% — from the tropics to the poles.”
According to the World Wildlife Fund, bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean and east Atlantic Ocean are nearing extinction because of illicit fishing. The WWF has called for an immediate end to tuna fishing.
We all know the tragic story of Canada’s eastern cod fishery, closed nearly two decades ago while the Newfoundland communities prayed for stocks to recover. They have not and the fishing communities are just memories and a great world resource is gone.
The EU has been an active participant in all of this, leasing African fisheries, destroying local stocks and the livelihoods of local communities by using technology capable of catching fish faster than they can reproduce.
Like modern Roman legions, the European trawlers came, saw and conquered completely.
This is not a fish story any more; it is about putting the preservation of one of humanity’s great food sources before the insatiable appetites of commercial fishing.
Yesterday, the Irish fishing industry held protests over how imports and fuel prices are destroying incomes. They have a valid argument and deserve support, though their plight is not unique.
They, no more than farmers who were forced to turn vast swathes of farmlands into industrial monocultures, are not to blame. Their actions are a response to the consumer demands we all make. And, unlike our farmers, membership of the European Union has not been a happy experience for our fishing industry.
Whatever aid might be considered for fishermen, it must be linked with measures — and policing — to make fisheries sustainable and productive for our children. It is relevant to ask what Ireland can do on its own to save this great resource. Little enough in reality; all the more reason to strengthen our links with Europe.
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