Fears for the future of the wider community of Castletownbere are deepening, as stakeholders claim a lack of government support for the fishing sector as fleet decommissioning continues
IRELAND’S decision to join the EU 50 years ago was, from a fishing industry perspective, a poisoned chalice.
Half a century later, Britain’s decision to leave that very same institution, and the resultant decommissioning deal for fishers, will mean a further loss of quotas, as well as widespread job losses on land and sea, too.
The latest ‘deal’, according to John Nolan, chairman of the Castletownbere Fishermen’s Co-operative, will cost more than money. ‘It could,’ he said, ‘mean the loss of our soul.’
With the approval deadline for decommissioning in its final throes, John described the latest quota cutbacks, and scrappage deal, as something that is ‘eating away at our hearts and taking away our hope.’
Initially, the post-Brexit decommissioning deal was worth €60m nationally, but the figure was revised upwards to €75m.
Taking the fact that Castletownbere Fishermen’s Co-operative has a turnover of €60m per annum, the manager said they will, in the months and years to come, be left counting the cost to the industry and rural coastal communities.
‘When we joined the EU in 1973,’ he said, ‘we got no quotas and here we are now, 50 years later, being destroyed again by Brexit.
Out of the 220 boats operating in the Irish fishing industry, John estimated that 70 fishers could ultimately take the decommissioning deal, but BIM are now saying that the number of boats ‘approved,’ under the decommissioning deal, is closer to 57.
Initially, it seemed as if 19 boats in Castletownbere would apply and be approved, but the final number could be 15 or less.
John is adamant that the Irish government failed to represent the industry correctly in the Brexit negotiations and, once again, countries with strong fishing interests – such as France and Spain – fared a lot better.
The impact of Brexit and decommissioning is far reaching. It is affecting ancillary businesses such as Jason Sheehan’s chandlery on Dinish Island.
Jason said that in its 20-year history as a family business, this is the toughest time it has faced.
‘Decommissioning will,’ he said, ‘have a massive knock-on effect – not just on Castletownbere but all rural, coastal communities around Ireland.
‘There’s just too much quota lost from what we had to begin with – it’s not going to be sustainable.
‘In places like Castletownbere,’ he added, ‘there isn’t enough in the tourism industry, or in aquaculture, to take up the slack in what we are going to lose.
‘It is going to have a serious effect on my business,’ he told The Southern Star. ‘In real figures, it could mean a 40% reduction in trade.
‘People won’t be spending the money that they had previously.
'The cost of everything, as we know, has gone sky high. It’s much more expensive to keep boats on the water, with insurance and fuel and everything else.
‘That all has a knock-on effect and I don’t think it is being properly taken into account by our State bodies, the very organisations that need to keep us on the water, and keep these rural communities going.’
Jason said he doesn’t think the political will is there to find a solution. He said that is ‘disappointing’ given the fact that local fishers can look out the door and see Japanese boats, fishing bluefin tuna, while they have zero quota.
‘Our quota is being cut year-on-year, even before Brexit, and you are looking at more foreign boats coming into our waters every month,’ he added.
From a conservation point of view, he says it doesn’t make sense. ‘We are being crucified and, from what we can see, it is more or less a free-for-all for everyone else.’
Jason doesn’t believe his ship chandlery will be around for the generations to come. ‘It will end with me – that’s guaranteed,’ he said.
The fishing industry has never been as successful as the farming community in getting its message across.
John Nolan explains how far-reaching Brexit and decommissioning really is.
Commenting on the drop in quota, he said the government is presenting that as a 15% loss, but he believes the cost is far greater.
‘When you drill into it,’ he said, ‘there were pluses and minuses in Brexit. France got 4,000 tonnes of extra fish in the North Sea, we didn’t get a kilo, and when you put the pluses and minuses together, the real cost of the loss of fishing opportunities in the EU means that Ireland is paying 40.5% of that.’
As far as the actual scrappage deal goes, he said, the Irish fishing industry negotiated €12,000 a GT, (gross registered tonnage).
‘But now we are getting offers from the Department of Marine and BIM and they are being cut to 50%,’ he said, ‘so in addition to killing us by having to take decommissioning, they are now killing us financially.’
The co-op manager said some boats are going to be left with bills still outstanding even after their boats are taken away. ‘They will be left with money owing to the banks,’ he said.
Alan Carleton said he and his father had considered decommissioning their boat, the Syracuse.
‘We, initially, were taking decommissioning, but our offer was bad,’ said Alan. ‘It was half of what the boat was valued at, so we are now thinking about renegotiating with the banks to extend our loan and go back fishing.’
Alan said he finds the prospect ‘depressing’ because so much quota has been lost through Brexit, with Ireland losing the biggest share.
‘If enough boats don’t accept the deal being offered,’ he said, ‘the less fish will be there to go around for everyone else afterwards.
‘The whole point of decommissioning,’ he added, ‘is that whatever boats would leave the industry, there would be enough fish for the other boats to be viable afterwards.’
Decommissioning will hit the local economy hard, he said, it will impact the bars, the engineering firms, the painters, ship chandlers and the fish factory.
‘It’s all work, and the less fish that’s there and the fewer boats means less maintenance for people to work on afterwards.’
The owner of the award-winning SuperValu supermarket in Castletownbere, Chris Downey, believes families and businesses throughout the area will be affected.
In 2017, he said they invested €2.1m in their shop in Castletownbere. ‘I don’t see us being affected immediately but the next generation – our three girls – may not have a future here on the Beara peninsula if the fishing industry is to continue its demise,’ he said.
Chris spoke about his own family’s long-term involvement in the industry. ‘Fishing really isn’t a job,’ he said, ‘fishing is a disease. It’s a way of life. I don’t think the people in government understand that. They don’t understand the sacrifices that people make. Dads and mothers are not with their children at birthdays and parties and special occasions.’
He recalls sitting in a car on the pier, waiting for his dad to return. ‘Sometimes, unfortunately,’ he said, ‘dads didn’t come home. The sacrifice is huge. They go out in bad weather, they miss family occasions, and someone with a swipe of a pen is knocking quota and is asking them to decommission their boats.
‘I think they should come down here and have a go and then they wouldn’t be long changing their minds. We are giving away a valuable resource,’ he concluded.
Just recently, the Irish actor Colin Farrell – who, at the beginning of his career, filmed Ondine in nearby Kilcatherine – described Castletownbere as his favourite Irish town.
Fishing is in the town’s DNA, but people are beginning to wonder how long that will be the case.
John Nolan said the signs of decline are already evident. ‘Take a walk downtown and you will see a fishing community that a government study said is 95% dependent on fishing for its economic survival.
‘We will see shops close, pubs close and restaurants close,’ said John, who believes the correct response is for Irish people to become angry.
‘Our fishing industry is sustainable, yet we have to look at big French, German, Spanish and Dutch boats continuing to fish here while our boats are tied up, or broken up, and decommissioned.
‘It is sad for our industry, and there is no replacement industry,’ he concluded. ‘We are losing our young people.
‘We have seven national schools on the Beara peninsula, and there were only 14 new admissions this year. We could lose our sense of community.
‘We really need to start batting more for Ireland if we want to make fishing communities, like Castletownbere, survive,’ he added. ‘But that will only work if we fight for Ireland and fight for our fishing industry.’
Patrick Murphy of the Irish South and West Fish Producers’ Organisation, gave his personal insight into the decline of the fishing industry.
‘Myself and my father fished out of Baltimore,’ he said. ‘At the time, there were 30 boats fishing there. That is now down to two or three. We have lost all those boats.
‘The same could be said for Schull. There were 200 people working out of a fish factory in Schull and that’s gone. ‘What could happen, here in Castletownbere, could be a repeat of what happened in those two ports in my lifetime,’ he said.
‘That’s a sad indictment of our country, which has the richest fishing resources in Europe, with 29% of the waters.
‘We don’t have a viable industry here – not because we don’t have the fish, but because of a political decision that gave 25% of our fish to the UK in a Brexit deal, and we are suffering as a result.’
Standing in front of two of the huge trawlers that are due to be decommissioned, Patrick Murphy brought the reality of the deal home when he said: ‘They are going to be cut up into scrap metal.’
He said these boats are worth hundreds of thousands of euros if they were to be sold ‘as is’, but the decommissioning scheme doesn’t allow them to be valued like that.
John Nolan believes the scrappage scheme equates with a loss of hope. ‘As a result of Brexit, we were offered a decommissioning package which left us with no choice but to accept.
‘Decommissioning means you are taking a person out of his livelihood forever. You are asking him to cut his boat up into pieces.
‘That is a huge mental problem for people that have worked on a boat for 25 or 30 years and are being asked to break the boat up.
‘It is a loss of jobs, but on a bigger scale,’ he said, ‘it is a loss of our soul.
‘It actually eats away at our heart and it takes away our hope.’
FFers meet with Beara fishers
A SERIES of meetings between Fianna Fáil politicians and key fishing sector representatives in West Cork took place recently.
The discussions, which took place in Castletownbere, focused on a range of pressing issues facing the fishing industry, including quota sharing, decommissioning, and regulatory challenges.
‘It’s no secret that the fishing sector has faced unprecedented challenges over the past couple of years,’ said Deputy Christopher O’Sullivan, who hosted MEP Billy Kelleher.
‘It’s essential that our MEPs have a clear understanding of these issues, and I’m glad Billy – who is no stranger to West Cork or the fishing industry – came to these important discussions.’
Stakeholders at the meetings included fishermen and processors, who took the opportunity to express their frustrations and concerns directly to both Deputy O’Sullivan and MEP Kelleher.Among the critical topics discussed were impacts of Brexit, the urgent need for Ireland to increase its quota share across various species, the importance of timely payments for those who participate in decommissioning, and the high level of regulation and policing faced by the Irish fishing sector.
‘Brexit has had a major impact on Cork’s fishing industry due to quota reductions,’ MEP Kelleher said.
‘Any changes in fishing policy must take into account Brexit and the changing migratory paths of fish species. Fishers want to see a sustainable future for themselves, their families, and the wider community.’
Deputy O’Sullivan said his goal is to fight to ensure the sector can thrive despite the challenges faced.