Northern Ireland fishermen say the number of cod in our waters has risen noticeably — yet they still face strict quotas on how many they can catch.
Fishermen from here are in Brussels today to highlight the impact of potential changes to their quota as the EU reviews its Common Fisheries Policy.
Among their concerns is the dumping of cod overboard so they don’t breach strict rules on how many they can land. But after today’s meeting, the EU may place a ban on cod being caught at all.
A fisherman from 50 years ago would barely recognise the industry today.
There are the ever-dwindling quotas or limits on days at sea which mean that for much of the year you have little choice but to keep the boat in the harbour. And the practice of having to tip unwanted fish over the side of the vessel to avoid being penalised would raise a few eyebrows.
EU quotas for whitefish — such as cod, whiting and haddock — have been cut year after year as scientists insist stocks are being overfished in the Irish Sea.
Everyone has had to turn their attentions to nephrops, or prawns, which now make up more than 50% of the catch being landed in Northern Ireland.
And it also means that if you pick up other fish in your nets when you’re targeting prawns, you can end up being penalised by losing some of your days at sea, which is why we have discards.
It’s a practice that doesn’t sit well with fishermen, but they often don’t have much choice. It’s also frustrating given the higher number of cod now being noticed.
Neil McKee said he once caught some cod when he was fishing out of North Shields and was told it would cost £1,600 to rent a cod quota — yet the fish would only fetch £900 at the quayside.
“We physically had to dump that fish,” Neil said.
“We offered to give it to the Fishermen’s Mission to raise money and we were told ‘you can, but you have to have quota for it’. So it would have cost us £1,600 just to give it to the Fishermen’s Mission.
“It used to be lovely to see the big cod sitting in the net, now we have to throw them out. If my father was still around and I was to tell him that we’re designing a net to catch prawns but let fish out, he’d say I was totally mad.”
Cod is now regarded as a ‘choke stock’ — fishermen say that because it is becoming more plentiful, it keeps turning up in the nets and curbing the ability to fish for other species.
With the EU review of the Common Fisheries Policy, that choice to discard the cod may not be open for much longer.
Fishermen in Kilkeel have been trying to figure out ways of catching prawns but not cod.
“If the net comes up with a lot of cod in it, it’s panic stations — what do I do with this?” spokesman of Anifpo (the Area North Ireland Fish Producers Organisation) Alan McCulla said.
“The more cod avoidance measures you take, the more days at sea you are allocated. We’ve carried out a lot of modifications, such as big panels in the nets and in different parts of the net.”
The EC wanted the fishermen to use a particular configuration, though fishermen in Kilkeel say it might work elsewhere but it doesn’t work in the Irish Sea.
They have been trying out all sorts of experimental net designs to find that perfect net that will keep the prawns but let fish escape. Prince Charles has visited Kilkeel to find out more.
“It’s taken a while, but the fishermen believe they may have found that net design they’ve been looking for,” Mr McCulla added.
“The top mesh is a different shape — that makes all the difference, allowing the fish to escape and retaining the prawns.”
They’re also lobbying for fisheries management to be based on the overall mixed fishery, arguing that fish stocks come in cycles and as one declines, another rises. Alan said haddock used to be scarce but as cod stocks declined, haddock increased.
There are more changes looming, including the Marine Bill and the arrival of offshore windfarm projects. Both could potentially affect current fishing areas.
There are concerns over whether windfarms could ruin key fishing grounds.
In the last few years, fishermen have earned extra money by using their trawlers to guard seabed cables from disturbance or take scientists on surveys at sea.
By Linda Stewart
Kilkeel is a bit of a mystery. It’s not a natural harbour, yet rose to become one of the most important ports in the British Isles.
Such a community has built up round the harbour that it now boasts boat-builders, electronics firms, lifeboat builders, fish and prawn factories — a whole network supporting fishing.
Yet commercial fishing only really got going in the mid-19th century, even though fish were abundant in the bay.
The first pier was built in 1866 but became inadequate almost as soon as it was complete as it could only accommodate 24 vessels.
Over the years the harbour expanded hugely — with a revamp in the early 70s doubling its size.
Even at quieter times of the year the harbour is a hive of activity, lined with bustling processors, factories and worksheds.
One processing firm alone — C-Fish Selling Ltd — employs 56 people to wash and weigh prawns, de-leg and offshell them, tray and freeze them for bagging.
Managing director Anne Cousins says her family had a fishing background but were also auctioneers. They moved fish from Portavogie and Kilkeel to Grimsby until the fish quota plunged.
The lorries were sold off and the company diversified into scampi.
Anne and her son Michael, who is a director, are worried about the impact proposed windfarms will have on prawn supplies.
Anne said: “We think there are a lot more fish than the scientists are saying. We would like to move forward, employ more staff and do more processing but our hands are tied with the quota.”
Many vessels are refurbished, even salvaged from the seabed; second-hand boats overhauled to modern standards — but the worksmanship is entirely local, said skipper Trevor Annett.
One such craftsman is Ian Newell, who started off with local engineering firms but carried out boat work in the evenings and expanded from there to build a workshop overlooking the slip.
“In the last couple of years with the price of prawns going up, everyone has been a bit more optimistic. Before that, they were only doing essential work but now that things are looking up, they are keeping their boats in good condition,” he said. “If they are not earning the money, they are not going to spend any money.”