Belfast Telegraph

'When it comes to how Brexit will hit fisheries, the not knowing is the worst thing'

It’s been an area of co-operation and also contention between Northern Ireland and the Republic. As the exit of the UK from the EU looms, Colm Kelpie finds out how fishermen whose catches cross sea borders are preparing for the changes ahead

By Colm Kelpie

Sitting in his office in Greencastle, Co Donegal, John O'Kane points to a map of Ireland and Britain. A line runs in a diagonal direction, from the border to the seas off the north- west of Ireland, across to the far north of Scotland and around Britain's eastern side, before snaking up and bisecting the Irish Sea until it reaches the border again around Warrenpoint/Carlingford.

That line marks the border of the UK's exclusive fisheries zone.

It creates sea boundaries with Ireland on three sides, dividing the Celtic Sea in half, the Irish Sea in half, and dividing an area to the north west of Ireland.

Currently, it's EU waters, to which Irish and other EU fishing boats have access.

What happens after Brexit, though, remains the big concern for men like Mr O'Kane.

"Access to waters, access to fishing, is one of our biggest issues," he says.

Mr O'Kane is general manager of the Foyle Fishermen's Co-Operative Society in Greencastle, about 30 minutes drive north-east from Londonderry along the picturesque Lough Foyle coastline. One side of the lough is in the Republic, the other side in Northern Ireland.

The Greencastle co-op is primarily a white fish co-op, specialising in species such as haddock, cod, monk and hake. Boats operating out of the port fish all around the coast, including the Irish and Celtic Seas, around Waterford and Dunmore East, as well as an area known as 'The Smalls', south east off the Waterford coastline.

"The Smalls is in UK waters," Mr O'Kane says. "There's a big prawn fisheries there, so the boats from Co Louth all fish prawns in the Irish Sea, they all fish prawns in the Smalls, the boats from Castletownbere go over to fish prawns in the Smalls.

"The prawn fishery is one of the biggest fisheries, after mackerel, within Ireland, the most valuable, so that's hugely important as well.

"If you draw a line down the Irish Sea, half of that is in UK waters as well."

The Co Donegal village has been synonymous with fishing for generations. It is the second-largest white fish port in Ireland after Castletownbere in Co Cork and boasts the National Fisheries College.

"If you look at a map of where we are in Greencastle, you are as far north almost as you can go," Mr O'Kane adds.

"A lot of the waters that we are fishing are UK waters, as much as you would think some of them are Irish waters.

"Even in our local grounds here, if you see a map of what is UK and what are European fishing waters, the UK takes up a huge amount of that. That is one of our biggest issues."

The fishing sector in Ireland has the potential to be hugely affected by Brexit, Agricultural Minister Michael Creed said in January, warning that the UK's EU withdrawal posed a "fundamental threat" to the Republic's fishermen.

He warned that the sector in the UK wants to see a "pulling up of the drawbridge" to ensure non-UK fishermen will no longer have access to the country's waters.

The figures explain why access to UK waters is so important for the sector here.

About 58% of all the fish stock that is taken from the UK zone is taken by non-UK vessels, according to averages from 2012 to 2014 provided by the Department of Agriculture.

Of the 1.1 million tonnes collected in the UK zone, 650,000 is captured by foreign vessels. What happens to that after Brexit is the big issue.

On average, it is estimated that about 36% of Irish landings are taken from UK waters.

For some species, that figure is substantially higher.

For example, some 64% of Ireland's mackerel catch is taken in the UK zone off the coast of Scotland, where they are at their fattest and most valuable, according to the averages provided by the department, while 39% of Ireland's prawn catch is from the UK zone.

The Irish Government has warned that the twin threats of access and quotas could lead to increased activity by other EU vessels in the waters around Ireland, threatening the long-term sustainability of Ireland's stocks.

"We may not be able to fish in UK waters, and if we're not allowed to fish in UK waters, and the French are not allowed to fish in UK waters, then we have a serious issue of displacement," Mr O'Kane says. "Those boats that will normally be fishing in what are UK waters, European waters at the minute, they'll all be pushed into the one area. That will be off the Irish west coast, and the south-west coast. You're going to have a much bigger fleet and a much smaller area. That will put pressure on stocks."

The UK has already fired its first Brexit warning shot, by announcing that it will be withdrawing from the 1964 London Fisheries Convention. The convention allows vessels from France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands to fish within six and 12 nautical miles of the UK's coastline.

Mr Creed branded the move "unwelcome and unhelpful", but said the process will take two years to be implemented. Fishing bodies, though, said the impact would be significant, unless Ireland's rights are protected.

The co-op in Greencastle exports about a quarter of its fish stock to the UK, with the remainder going to Belgium, France and the Republic.

For Mr O'Kane, it's not just access to waters that worries him. It's road access also.

Greencastle's geographic location at the far north eastern tip of Inishowen means that any produce shipped out of the port must cross the border into Derry.

"We're affected by that straight away. Even at the minute, the trucks that we send, there is a toll on them already when they enter the North and leave again," Mr O'Kane adds.

"Every truck that we send to Dublin - and we send to the Dublin fish market pretty much every day of the week - there is a cost involved in that as well.

"We have trucks that go to Spain, and they go through Larne/ Stranraer, so you would have the same thing."

Further down the village Gerard Kelly, sitting in his living room overlooking Lough Foyle, pores over fishing trade newspapers and documents he has collected over the years.

He was one of four fishermen to take a successful Irish Supreme Court case against the state in which it was declared that Northern Ireland boats have no lawful entitlement to fish for mussel seed in the state's waters.

He says the border issue and the transportation of fish stock is one of the big issues for the sector.

"Say we want to ship goods. Are we able to put a sealed tag on the back of a lorry and send it through the whole of Northern Ireland and UK into France without having a tariff? Fish is perishable. It needs to move reasonably fast. That is one of the main issues."

Both men fear the interests of the fishing community will be forgotten in the Brexit talks.

They lament the fact that the industry, as they see it, doesn't speak with a united voice, unlike the farming lobby.

"Farmers don't compete with each other," Mr Kelly says. "We're divided because we compete with each other.

"Fisheries is divided by its nature. Geographically we're out in the periphery. What we have ended up doing is cannibalising each other."

Nor are they confident in the Irish Government's efforts to ensure Ireland's voice in the Brexit talks - in relation to fishing - will be heard. Speak to anyone in the sector in Ireland and he or she will tell you it got shafted by Europe over the Common Fisheries Policy, Mr O'Kane says.

The seas around Ireland are among the most productive and biologically sensitive areas in EU waters, according to the Republic's Marine Institute.

The so-called Total Allowable Catches in the waters around Ireland under the EU's Common Fisheries Policy this year came to 1.3 million tonnes of fish, with an estimated land value of €1.44bn, according to data from the Galway-based institute.

Ireland's total share of this amounted to 234,493 tonnes, or €226m, although this does not include the inshore fisheries.

"Fishing has always felt that it has got a raw deal," says Mr O'Kane. "We've always felt that we've had too low quotas, too many boats fishing within Ireland. To have faith in our Government to deal with it, I don't think that any of the fishermen would believe that.

"We have one of the richest fishing grounds in Europe, and yet we have a very small percentage of what we're allowed to take out. We should have one of the best fishing industries within Europe."

A spokesman for the Minister said fisheries has and will continue to be given the highest priority by the Irish Government in the Brexit negotiations.

"Minister Creed is keeping close contact with the Barnier Task Force, Fisheries Commissioner Vella and like-minded member states including France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Belgium, and Germany to ensure that fisheries is kept front and centre in the Brexit negotiations," the spokesman added.

"There are serious challenges facing the fisheries sector in Ireland if the UK industry demands are given priority.

"Minister Creed has secured the support of the Government in linking fisheries directly with trade so that negotiations form part of the overall trade package."

The spokesman says the minister is also in the process of organising a meeting between representatives of the fishing industry and the Taoiseach to allow them to set out their concerns.

Francis O'Donnell of the Killybegs-based Irish Fish Producers Organisation is more positive about attempts to protect the industry.

"We're really in limbo at the moment," he says.

"In saying that, the EU clearly has it as a priority that fisheries is not to be separated from other trade issues.

"England is in a strong position in terms of managing their own fisheries. However, if the European Commission insist that it's tied in with trade in general, they have a big problem.

"There are 12,000 jobs directly involved in fisheries here, there's probably another 50,000 or 60,000 jobs in the ancillary businesses around fishing. We're small, we know that, and politically we're not that strong, but we moved early to get fisheries on to the agenda."

Mr O'Kane, though, says the uncertainty brought about by the Brexit vote is impacting on the sector now.

The Greencastle co-op was planning a major investment, but there is now a question mark hanging over that.

The plan was to build a new operation that would position the business for the coming decades, to hold on to existing markets, develop new ones, and attract new boats.

"That's under question now because we don't know whether our own boats will have access to fish in UK markets," Mr O'Kane says.

"Will we have to pay tariffs if exporting to the UK, will we have to find new markets within Europe - is that even possible? The currency difference, that has already hit us as well."

Mr O'Kane stresses the resilience of the fishing industry, and points to the tough years of the recession when fuel prices were high and often crippled the operations of many a fisherman.

"How a lot of the men survived through that, it was through sheer determination and pain and making losses," he adds.

"We had just come out of that in recent years. Men were getting back on their feet, and the whole thing was looking rosier.

"People were thinking now is the time to reinvest. Men were thinking there is a future, fish prices are decent, we're managing the quota a bit better than we used to, we're getting more value for our quota - young men are starting to come back into it.

"The outlook was brighter - but then Brexit hits.

"Suddenly you go from forward thinking, to the fact that you can't plan.

"That's the biggest problem with Brexit. It's the not knowing."

Belfast Telegraph