Few contemporary Irish writers can give voice to a sense of place on the Atlantic seaboard in the way Mary O’Malley can, and no more so than in a recent poem inspired by a long walk during the early days of Covid-19.
t describes how she stopped on a bridge as Galway hookers hoisted sails in the sun, how she watched as the vessels “criss-crossed slowly, monarchs dancing”, and how she “walked on, lifted out of grief”.
Now sculpted in stone as part of the Galway poetry trail, Lockdown Aubade can be read at the Claddagh basin, overlooking what was once Ireland’s oldest fishing village. At its unveiling by the writer Donal Ryan this summer, O’Malley explained how the image of the traditional craft had reminded her of her late father, a Connemara fisherman who had taken her to sea in his púcán when she was small.
Dedicating the poem to “muintir na mbád, muintir na mara agus m’athair” — as in the people of boats, of the sea, and her late father — she slipped in a reality check for those listening closely.
“The Irish fishing community has, I think, been almost decimated,” she said.
She wasn’t to know then — few did — but O’Malley’s comments had remarkable prescience. Even as she spoke, officials in Brussels were in the final stages of approving a scheme that may hasten that “decimation”. Several days later, the European Commission confirmed approval for an €80m scheme under State aid rules to scrap up to 60 Irish fishing boats, equivalent to almost a third of active vessels in the Irish whitefish sector.
That was overshadowed by heated debates involving the agricultural sector that same week, as the Government finalised sectoral emissions targets under the Climate Action Plan. The scheme to scrap whitefish vessels — the third such decommissioning scheme in so many years — has no link to the climate plan or conservation of stocks.
As industry leaders such as Aodh O’Donnell of the Irish Fish Producers’ Organisation (IFPO) and John Lynch of the Irish South and East Fish Producers’ Organisation (IS&EFPO) point out, the fish in these waters will continue to be caught by other EU vessels with larger quotas than Ireland’s.
Overall, EU stocks are in a far healthier state than two decades ago. A recent study led by the French scientific agency Ifremer found that 72pc of fish populations are not overexploited in the north-east Atlantic area and fish biomass was 33pc greater in 2020 than at the beginning of the 2000s.
However, the share-out is uneven. France is catching 56pc of what is landed, compared with 4.6pc for Ireland, according to 2017 figures quoted by Ireland’s Marine Institute.
“The foundation was poor from the start, and it’s just not an easy place to be any more,” says Caitlín Uí Aodha, who grew up in a similar Irish-speaking coastal community to O’Malley’s, but 220km away from Connemara in Helvick, Co Waterford.
Uí Aodha is talking about Ireland’s original accession to the EU, which led to equal access by all member states to a European “blue pond” — with Irish waters being some of the largest and biologically rich.
“But we can’t keep blaming the EU when we did this to ourselves,” she says. “Successive governments have done relatively little to commit to developing this indigenous industry. And now, with Brexit, it is very hard to see how viable it is any more for the single boat owners, the small family companies.”
Uí Aodha, who trained with Bord Iascaigh Mhara to become Ireland’s first qualified female skipper and was the first woman to secure a State grant for her own fishing vessel, has experienced both success and heartbreak through her strong connection with the sea.
Just over a decade ago, her husband Michael Hayes and crew members Kevin Kershaw, Wael Mohamed, Attaia Shaban and Saied Ali Eldin died after their 21-metre vessel, Tit Bonhomme, ran aground at Adam’s island in Glandore harbour.
In 2014, she named a new prawn trawler she had acquired after the couple’s youngest daughter, Dearbhla. The vessel supplies catches to the Iasc Seafood Bar in Dungarvan, which she opened in the early days of Covid-19. However, increased regulations, fuel prices and Brexit-related quota losses have piled on the pressure, she says.
“I think my family has been involved in fishing since before the Famine,” she says. “My grandfather fished, my father, brothers, cousins… and now maybe I am the last one in that line.
“If farmers in Munster — a beautiful green province — were told that they had to sell off their farms to one or two investment companies, there would be an outcry, but that is the agricultural equivalent of what is happening here. And once you surrender your licence, there is no way back in.”
Brendan Walsh has been fishing since his early teens, and now works the family owned 23-metre vessel A La Garde de Dieu from Kilmore Quay, Co Wexford. Like Uí Aodha, he is looking at the figures for the decommissioning scheme, but hasn’t decided yet.
“We fish prawns, mainly on the Smalls and Labadie Bank, and though Brexit didn’t affect our share on the south coast, we did lose out on whitefish quota,” he says.
“Fuel has tripled in price, and our Government is giving no subsidy even though the EU approved use of existing European maritime and fisheries funds for same. Fuel has gone from 30 cents a litre in 2020 to €1.15 to €1.16 a litre this summer, with a recent slight dip to 90 cents.
“It means a six- to seven-day trip can cost you between €8,000 and €10,000 in diesel, so you’d be thinking twice about buying any new gear,” Walsh says. He is availing of two one-month voluntary ‘tie-ups’ — stopping fishing — this year, which were funded under Brexit compensation.
“Sometimes it feels as if the fuel issue is worse than Brexit,” Walsh says.
“I’ve been lucky with crew as I have had the same lads for a good while — many vessels have problems as it is not such an appealing job for young people.
“But if I didn’t have phone and internet connections on the boat, which is an extra €7,000 cost, you wouldn’t get crew at all,” he says.
“Still, you look at the number of French and Spanish boats landing into Irish ports now — they are out off our coast 300 days a year. There’s never a check on them, whereas there are some EU ports where we wouldn’t be welcome.”
Ciaran Whelan, who fishes the 24-metre Willie Joe, is from Duncannon, Co Wexford. His brother Willie died with
fellow crewman Joe Sinnott when their scallop dredger, the Alize, sank suddenly some seven nautical miles southwest of Hook Head on January 4, 2020.
“We spent 60pc of our time in British waters before Brexit, but now we can’t land there anymore and so we could travel 24 to 36 hours to discharge the catch,” he says. “It means fuel costs are as bad as Brexit, and we didn’t qualify for any Brexit compensation — so we have asked to meet Minister for Marine Charlie McConalogue, but haven’t even had an acknowledgement.
“If these family-owned boats are taken out of the fleet, it will have a massive knock-on effect on everyone from shopkeepers to lorry drivers and mechanics to marine suppliers,.
“My eldest daughter, 13 years old, wants to be a marine architect, but I can’t see a future in fishing for my sons, nine and seven years old, even though they have saltwater in their veins.
“It was a great career, and we held our own for as long as we could, but it just gets harder and harder.”
Stevie Joyce, fishing from Ros a Mhíl, Co Galway concurs. The south Connemara harbour has lost at least 20 vessels from the local co-operative in recent years, he says.
“The Porcupine Bank to the west of us is a valuable prawn fishery, but it is closed to us now until October or November as the Irish quota is only 500 tonnes,” he says.
“We used to be able to do some quota swaps with France, but the French boats are back on the Porcupine now and I hadn’t seen them out there for at least seven years,” Joyce says.
“The Spanish are out there too, and there are Irish boats from south and south-east ports coming round there because of Brexit.
“We did a voluntary tie-up in June, and we are just back from the Bay of Biscay where we were targeting albacore tuna before the quota expired. I could buy fuel in Douarnenez in France for 76 cents a litre as it is subsidised for EU boats, and is about 72 cents a litre in Spain, whereas the Irish Government won’t give us any help,” Joyce says.
Dr Kevin Flannery, formerly a fisheries official in Dingle, Co Kerry, and an expert in rare fish, believes that there is an urgent need for an inquiry into how fisheries management has been handled by the Government.
He notes that trading company Shetland is buying up vessel tonnage to keep for its fishermen, who may need it later, and believes Ireland should not be scrapping viable vessels permanently.
“In reality, an Irish skipper would be better off now taking the decommissioning money and buying a vessel registered in France to fish from its quota,” Flannery says.
“The Spanish have been doing this for years, and now the Dutch are at it too. You take one well-known Dutch fishing company and it has a turnover equivalent to the total turnover of the Irish fleet.
“Our politicians always seem to view fishing as a problem rather than an industry which could help us with food security.
“The late maritime historian John de Courcy Ireland used to quote the French philosopher and essayist Julien Benda, who wrote about la trahison des clercs — the treason of the educated. That’s what we have happening here,” Flannery says. “People will be driving around the west coast and wondering where all the Irish boats have gone.”
John Lynch of the IS&EFPO says Ireland’s last hope is in the upcoming review of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy — but he isn’t holding his breath.
Aodh O’Donnell of the IFPO says: “We have the best and most productive waters in Europe,” arguging that the Government has a duty to initiate development plans for those left in the fleet.
“Irish fish producers have contributed to the sustainable management of fish stocks, while others have been able to exploit resources in our rich waters,” he adds. “Decommissioning is our Government’s solution to a historical legacy of failing to deliver for industry and coastal communities.”
How Brexit slashed our fishing quotas
Before Britain withdrew from the EU, about a third of fish caught by the Irish fleet was in British waters. Despite a strong fight by the Irish industry, the fleet’s two main fisheries, mackerel and prawns, were cut by 26pc and 14pc respectively in the Brexit deal.
Since then, the Government and Marine Minister Charlie McConalogue have pledged to reverse the quota losses, but McConalogue’s political focus has been on a quiet retreat with compensation from the €5.4bn Brexit Adjustment Reserve (BAR), of which Ireland is due to get more than €920m.
A whitefish decommissioning scheme to take out 60 vessels and ensure the viability of those remaining in the game was recommended by the Government’s seafood task force last October. The EU has approved this as one of several Brexit compensation schemes. It comprises €60m in direct payments to vessel owners and their crews, and €20m in tax benefits.
Direct grants will be calculated on the basis of the gross tonnage of the scrapped vessel. This ranges from a basic €3,600 per gross tonnage to €12,000 per gross tonnage, depending on how reliant a vessel is on quotas that have been reduced due to Brexit.
Already, BAR funds have been drawn down to support a temporary tie-up of fishing vessels affected by quota losses for up to two months during this summer. Short-term aid has been approved for fishing co-operatives to offset reductions in turnover.
A separate “blue economy” scheme for micro-enterprises involved in coastal tourism, marine leisure and sport and renewable energy initiatives are also intended to help soften the blow — though there is a fear that such funding might find its way to businesses not directly affected by Brexit.
The main compensation is targeted at shrinking the Irish whitefish fleet for the third time in several decades.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/fishings-future-people-will-wonder-where-all-the-irish-boats-have-gone-41956162.html Fishing’s future: ‘People will wonder where all the Irish boats have gone’