Money runs dry as gales keep Kilkeel boats tied up for a month
Storm-hit fishermen are calling on the Government to reinstate a hardship fund as several hundred workers have been forced to sit idle because of the weather.
Northern Ireland's fishing fleets have barely made it to sea this year, with trawlers forced to stay tied up in port by storm after storm.
Concerns over the impact of the tumultuous weather on the industry have been voiced by the fish producers organisation ANIFPO, which warns that fishermen and their families face hardship this spring.
It is calling on the agriculture minister to help fishermen with a similar gesture to that given to blizzard-bit farmers last year.
One Kilkeel trawlerman told the Belfast Telegraph that it is a month since he last put to sea because of the incessant storms.
Meanwhile, the calmer interludes between the storms never last long enough for the prawns that are the mainstay of the Northern Irish fleet to re-emerge from their mud burrows on the ocean floor, according to the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers' Organisation spokesman Alan McCulla (below).
He said the fishing fleet faced horrendous conditions this time last year but it wasn't until publicity grew about the losses of snow-bound hill farmers that the Department of Agriculture agreed to a hardship package for fishermen facing similar losses.
Now ANIFPO is calling on the Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill to reinstate the hardship scheme, which repaid the fishermen the dues they had paid to the harbour authority.
"Fishermen do not want to become subsidy dependent," he said. "But we're faced with a situation where the rules governing fishing are being complicated by mother nature and the gales of wind. Everything seems to be conspiring against us at the moment."
Mr McCulla said several hundred fishermen are being forced to sit idle in Kilkeel at the moment, unable to earn money to support their families.
It takes a few days for the sea to settle and for the prawns to re-emerge after a storm, so it is a waste of time for fishermen to put to sea at that stage, he said.
Trawlerman David Campbell, skipper of The Antares, said he faces overheads of £1,600 a day if he puts to sea and doesn't bring in a catch – £1,000 of which is fuel cost.
"I was out for two weeks in January and that was it," he said.
"The last time I brought in a catch was four weeks ago. I went out for a couple of days after that and I caught nothing.
"I've never seen weather like this – it's just one wind after another, winds from every direction.
"It's tough at the present time. Everybody's just depressed. When those weeks are lost, you just can't get them back again," he said.
Mr McCulla said there is a danger that some trawlermen will take a chance and put to sea when bad weather is forecast, putting lives at risk. "We could get to a situation where things are that tight that people will want to take a chance. Thankfully they are backing away from that choice at the minute."
Minister O'Neill said the severe weather is probably having the greatest impact along southern coasts.
"The local industry is also going through a challenging period with this poor weather, which is in addition to hurdles they face as a result of the new Common Fisheries policy. That is why last year I announced a package of measures that will assist the industry to respond to these challenges," she said.
"We are only six weeks into the fishing year and it is far too early to say if the current severe weather will have any lasting impact on the fleet. The main fishing session is from April to September and the majority of the prawn catch is taken at that time," she said.