Three years on from the Brexit poll NI fishermen still determined to leave EU
Will exit free our fisheries industry or could a no-deal leave them in deep water?
For nearly 50 years Northern Ireland's fishing industry has felt trapped by European Union restrictions on catch quotas and the rights of foreign trawlers to operate in local waters.
But Britain's decision to leave the EU and the effect it will have on local trawlermen now looms large on the horizon for many local skippers.
Will Brexit ultimately allow our fleet to free itself from the net of Brussels bureaucracy?
Or will local fishermen, who depend heavily on selling highly profitable local prawns to European countries, instead be left in deep water to face the introduction of potentially crippling new export tariffs?
In April 2018, industry officials told the NI Affairs Committee that an estimated 92% of local fishermen had voted to leave the EU in June 2016.
However, fishermen now face the very real prospect that, if there is no Brexit deal, they will be banned from entering Irish and European waters.
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In effect, this could mean that local boats will no longer be allowed to fish in large parts of the Foyle and Carlingford loughs. But even with the threat of being kept out of lucrative fishing grounds, some pro-Brexit skippers believe that being freed from EU bureaucracy could instead open up new markets in countries like China.
However, for some local boats, there may be dangerously choppy waters ahead if EU chiefs decide to impose new import tariffs on our biggest and most economically important fishing export, the Dublin Bay prawn (nephrops).
With the prospect of punitive tariffs and being excluded from traditional fishing waters, Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organisation (NIFPO) chief executive Harry Wick says that - three years on from the Brexit vote - local skippers are more determined than ever to leave Europe.
"There will be a period of adjustment, I have no doubt about that," he admits.
"I would very much like to have a sensible access arrangement with the rest of Europe.
"But if we have to rely on our own territorial waters, our fleet can evolve to take advantage of that.
"The larger EU vessels won't be here and we will have access to the fish that they were allowed to catch."
‘For skippers like me it is all the EU bureaucracy and its rules and regulations that really kills us’
While the majority of local skippers believe that leaving Europe will bring benefits, there remains a sizeable minority for whom Brexit could mean financial uncertainty.
As one of the youngest skippers in the Northern Irish fleet, Graham Cully, is unsure how Britain’s departure from the EU will impact on the lives of his young family.
With his wife Jeanette and two-year-old daughter Gracie to provide for, the 34-year-old is anxious for the Brexit issue to be resolved.
When he started out as a deckhand in 2000, Graham had already missed the financial bonanza that the 1970s had been for local fishermen.
“At one time the Cully family had five or six boats fishing. Now there’s only me,” he says.
Having joined his first boat, the XL, as a 16-year-old novice, within two years Graham found himself searching for a new deck after it became the latest in a long line of local trawlers to be decommissioned.
Despite the fact that he is now captain of his own £250,000 boat, Green Pastures, the financial future for the young skipper is not all plain sailing.
“It’s hard for a young fisherman. Even before you have your own boat you need to buy a licence which could cost anything up to £200,000,” he says.
“On top of that, you need to pay for a quota which will cost you between £300 and £500 every week.
“The more you want to fish, the more you will have to pay.”
While a deckhand in the 1970s could expect to land the equivalent of £4,000 for a week at sea, in 2019 the financial haul for a local fisherman is substantially less with an average annual wage of around £20,000.
“For skippers like me, it is the EU bureaucracy and its rules and regulations that kills us,” says Graham.
“Every year they seem to change something, whether it’s the size of the nets or something else.
“We can’t just be skippers. We have to be computer wizards because the powers-that-be are always introducing some kind of electronic computer log system or some other form of electronic paperwork.”
The 34-year-old, who fishes with his father John, points to the fact that the Northern Ireland prawn fishing fleet is at its capacity.
“Even if they increased our prawn quota, we couldn’t benefit from it as we already lift as many prawns as we need.
“My prawn quota last year was 100 tonnes and that is as much as I need. As long as they don’t cut our quotas, I am happy.”
While the majority of UK fishermen are anxious for the UK to leave the EU so that catch quotas can be buried at sea, the young Portavogie skipper is concerned that EU chiefs’ threat to impose new import tariffs on prawns could potentially sink many of the local fleet.
“Around 80% of the Northern Irish fleet catch prawns which are then exported to France, Spain, Italy and other parts of Europe,” he says.
“If the EU imposes an import tariff, some predict it could be as much as 12%, it won’t be the fish buyers or the processors who will end up paying for it. It will be us, the fishermen.”
Graham clings to the hope that, even if the existing European market dries up, there could be other global markets which will open up and provide a new income for the lucrative Northern Irish prawn catch.
“Some say that China is a potential market and that they are interested in our prawns,” he says.
“Who knows what will happen. All I know is that we need some kind of certainty. I have Polish and Latvian deckhands. I’ve no idea what will happen to them once Brexit is sorted out, one way or another. Will they be able to work on my boat or not?”
He remains sceptical that local fishermen will be a priority for the Government in negotiations with their EU counterparts.
“The only thing I feel certain about is that even though the majority of fishermen voted to leave to regain control of our waters and to do away with the bureaucracy, it is probably not what we will end up with,” he says.
“The fishing industry accounts for a tiny percentage of the UK industry and the politicians don’t see us as being important.
“We fear that whatever happens with Brexit, we will end up at the bottom of the net as usual.”
However, DAERA has said as part of its Brexit preparations all necessary legislation is in place to ensure the management of the local fishing industry following the UK’s departure from the EU.
“After exit, financial support for the industry under the European Marine and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) will continue and all EMFF projects approved before December 31, 2020 will be fully funded,” it says.
‘We want a deal for access, but one that’s fair to NI vessels’
In September 2018, a House of Commons select committee published the report: Brexit and Northern Ireland Fisheries.
The document shows that the Northern Ireland fleet had 327 boats in 2016.
More than 29,400 tonnes of fish were landed into ports in the UK and abroad by NI registered vessels that year, with an estimated value of £41.6m.
In Northern Ireland itself, 19,500 tonnes of fish were landed in local ports with an estimated value of £28.7m.
Kilkeel was the largest fishing port in Northern Ireland with a 96-strong fleet; another 50 trawlers were based in Portavogie; 42 sailed from Ardglass while the remaining 139 trawlers were scattered across a series of smaller harbours throughout the region.
In 2016, Kilkeel trawlers landed just under one third (32%) of all fish caught by the Northern Ireland fleet. Portavogie boats accounted for just under one quarter (24%) of the overall catch, while Ardglass vessels netted just over one fifth (21%). Only 23% of the total value of fish were landed in the other ports.
The industry employed more than 700 full-time fishermen, with a further 175 part-time deckhands.
A geographical employment breakdown shows that Kilkeel employed 435 people on its trawlers and Portavogie 255.
Another 123 fishermen were based in Ardglass harbour, while the remaining 62 worked in a series of smaller ports across the north including Belfast, Ballycastle, Bangor, Carrickfergus, Larne, Derry, Portaferry, Strangford and Warrenpoint.
A further 371 people were employed by 14 fish processing companies which prepared the catch for market.
In 2014, the fish processing industry was estimated to have an annual turnover of £84m.
The EU is an important export market for the Northern Ireland fishing economy and represents 36% of the total value of its sales.
Shellfish accounted for 76% of the fish landed by local trawlers.
Dublin Bay Prawns, also known as nephrops, make up almost half of the entire catch (48%), with 72 trawlers fishing exclusively for the species while another 30 boats fish for prawns and other fish species.
Herring and mackerel account for 17.5% of the catch with white fish species, haddock and cod, accounting for 6.5%.
Currently these fish species are subject to catch limits set by the EU.
Shellfish, excluding Dublin Bay Prawns, which are not subject to EU catch limits, are also financially significant to the local fishing fleet. In 2016, scallops and crabs accounted for one fifth (21%) of the total value of fish which were landed by the fleet in Northern Ireland.
The Westminster report concluded that, while the UK’s decision to exit the EU leaves the local fishing industry facing a series of important challenges, it offers potential opportunities for Northern Ireland’s fleet.
One of the biggest challenges facing the local fleet is a severe shortage of Northern Ireland-born fishermen.
The majority of deckhands currently working on local trawlers come from Eastern Europe, mainly Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.
A Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) submission to the NI Affairs Committee found that 53% of those employed on local fishing boats come from outside the UK.
The Westminster committee was told that 24% of all workers come from within the EU.
If, as expected, the UK exits the EU, some skippers are concerned that, if they are banned from employing EU fishermen, their boats will be unable to be put to sea.
A sizeable number of those currently employed by the local fishing boats come from the Philippines and Ghana.
However, EU restrictions mean they are currently only allowed to work on vessels fishing 12 nautical miles out to sea.
Harry Wick accepts that the shortage of locally born deckhands can’t be blamed on the EU and that changes in modern society have brought difficulties for those who chose to make their living from the sea.
“Traditionally, generations of families would fish the same boats. Fathers would hand boats and the fishing life down to their sons. However, that’s just no longer the case in this modern age.”
He estimates that in the 1970s a deckhand working on a local fishing trawler could expect to earn £700 per week.
“That is the equivalent of £4,000 per week in today’s money. There’s no doubt that there was a fantastic living to be made from fishing in the 1970s.
“Today, with the state the industry is in, it now means a deckhand will earn on average £400 per week throughout the year.”
However, Mr Wick remains confident that, despite no imminent sign of a post-Brexit agreement on fishing rights, there is still potential for the local fishing fleet to boom after departure from the EU.
“We want a negotiated deal for access, but one that is fair to UK and NI vessels and not the unfair arrangement we have at the minute. We will be negotiating with the whole of Europe in that regard.
“There are areas in Irish territory and waters that we would like. There are areas in our waters that they would like access to.
“But we’re not going to have 70/30 or 80/20 splits like we’ve had in the past.”
'If we got back half of what we want, it would be a huge boost for local fishermen'
Leslie Girvan was a fisherman for 42 years. He first went to sea as a deckhand in 1959 at the age of 16.
"The first boat I worked on was the Summer Rose skippered by Frank McDonald.
"I had been training as an apprentice chef but when I saw the money my friends were making as deckhands, I decided that fishing was the job for me."
While his home port was Kilkeel, Leslie found himself hunting for fish all over the world, often as far away as Reykjavik, Iceland.
"In the summer time we would fish for prawns, in spring it was cod and in autumn it was the herring season."
At the entrance to Portavogie harbour, a statue bearing the names of 29 local fisherman who lost their lives at sea is a stark reminder that the ocean is a dangerous master.
The 75-year-old witnessed at first-hand the very real dangers of making a living from the sea.
"In September 1968, I was on a trawler called the Briar on the east side of the Isle of Man.
"We were fishing for herring and it was nearing sunset that evening.
"There was another trawler travelling behind us. But the sun was in the skipper's eyes and he didn't realise how close he had come to our boat. He rammed straight into us and the Briar went down in a matter of minutes.
"Thankfully the crew of the other boat were able to get us on-board their boat just as the Briar was going down. We never even got our feet wet."
On two other occasions, trawlers Leslie was fishing on were accidentally rammed by other boats.
But while the life of a fisherman was often hard, Leslie reminisces that it provided a good living for those prepared to face the dangers of life at sea.
"Deckhands made a very good living in those days. Fishermen were kings back then."
By 1974 Leslie had become a skipper of his own boat, Star of Hope.
A year later Britain joined the European Union's Common Market.
However, the veteran skipper believes it wasn't until the establishment of the Common Fisheries policy and the introduction of catch quotas in the early 1980s that signalled the start of a slow and steady demise of Northern Ireland's fishing industry.
"The central plank of the Common Fisheries policy was to allow all European fishermen equal access to our fishing waters and our catch.
"But if there is only a certain quota of fish that is allowed to be caught in our waters, how do you allow European fishing boats equal access to those waters? They did this by getting rid of as many of our fishing boats as possible."
Leslie believes EU chiefs adopted a deliberate policy to drastically reduce fishing quotas to force local fishermen out of the industry.
"They cut the quotas year on year so that we couldn't survive.
"In the mid-1990s, they began to offer incentives for local skippers to decommission their boats.
"For skippers who were nearing retirement age, who could see quotas getting reduced every year, it was an offer they couldn't refuse and many men took the decision to haul up their nets for good."
More than a decade ago, the veteran skipper was one of more than a dozen fishermen fined for breaking EU fish quotas.
At the time, the court was told that severe financial hardship caused by European fishing quotas led fishermen to cheat the system.
While the Kilkeel captain pleaded guilty to the charges, he insists that he was punished as a warning to others.
"Every fisherman in the UK did what we did. The authorities turned a blind eye to it for decades because they knew it was the only way fishermen could survive.
"But they decided to make an example of particular fishermen in every part of the UK. In Northern Ireland, it was us."
By the time he finally hung up his own oilskins in 2001, Leslie Girvan had up to five fishing boats at sea at any one time.
Despite having been retired for many years, he maintains a strong bond with the local fleet and was a strong supporter of the UK's decision to leave the EU.
While he remains optimistic that the good times could return if the local fleet regains control of Northern Irish waters, he remains sceptical that fishermen won't be sold down the river for political gain.
"Maybe I'm just an old cynic. I'm totally in favour of Brexit, but I don't believe there is anything that fishermen hold dear that the government won't trade away if there is something more important to them.
"Be sure one of thing, the fishing industry will be sacrificed, if it comes to that.
"I hope we get our waters back. If we got back half of what we want, it would be a huge boost to local fishermen.
"But the French are saying there will be no trade deals unless fishing arrangements stay as they are.
"Who knows what will happen.
"Fishermen just want out. We want our waters back in our own hands."
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