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Ireland: The fishermen of Killybegs

June 2, 2011 | For years the Irish fisheries have been in a crisis from which there is little escape. The fishermen look out over rich fishing grounds, but they are cleared by other fishing fleets. No wonder the EU is so unpopular here.

He is sleepy, his eyes look tired, and yet he still has the strength for outbursts of anger. Denis Carbery had been sailing his trawler for ten days, sailing 150 nautical miles into the North Atlantic, and barely had a minute of quiet. As a skipper you can only rest for hours on the high seas. Still, he would like to get out again immediately. "I'm fed up," he growls in the steering position of the "Atlantic Quest" and fires a few letters on the table. "Even more rules, even more regulations from Brussels, this damn bullshit is driving me crazy." The hard work at sea is a piece of cake compared to what he has to grapple with on land. “It's all bureaucratic harassment,” complains Carbery, who has been fishing for 27 years. "Somebody should blow up Brussels one day."

Many of the sixty or so captains of Killybegs, Ireland's largest fishing port, think like him. Most of them - they usually only own one ship - had invested large sums of money years ago. But the business is no longer worth it. The low fish prices are just as troublesome as the fishing quotas that the EU Commission allocates to the EU member states every year. "In the last two years the prices for cod, whiting, haddock and saithe have fallen by forty percent," says Carbery, "and you don't get much for mackerel anyway." The uncontrolled cheap imports from non-EU states are to blame for this. "And then Brussels has been reducing our catches over the years."

The big and the small

And so things are gradually getting tight for Carbery, who five years ago with his brother bought the “Atlantic Quest”, one of the smallest boats in the harbor with a length of twelve meters. The two of them paid 2.5 million euros for it, the fishing license cost him another million, and for each net that might last two years but can break on the next trip, he has to put down 15,000 euros.

As long as the prices and quotas were right, Carbery says he was able to bear the costs. He could also easily pay his crew, six men who have worked for him for a long time. But now the debts weigh on him. And the banks, which were still lending generously before the Irish financial crisis, are now mercilessly insisting on punctual repayment. He might last a year, at most two. Then it's over. Killybegs is a small town on the southwest end of Donegal, the northernmost county of Ireland. About 2500 people live in this inconspicuous village on a sheltered bay of Donegal Bay. There is a small church, a number of pubs and hotels and a tiny museum, in which you can see what is perhaps the largest carpet loom in the world (the Donegal carpets made here were once delivered to the Vatican, the White House and Buckingham Palace). However, the port is more spectacular: nowhere else in Ireland are so many trawlers registered as here; they catch over sixty percent of the fish marketed in Ireland. At least that's what Sean O'Donoghue says, and he knows his stuff. He is chairman of Killybegs Fishermen's Organization (KFO), the largest lobbying group and the largest producers' association for Irish fishermen.

And nowhere else on the island are there so many fish processing factories and wholesalers: Here, almost a thousand employees fillet and pack the fish that have been landed and deliver them to the supermarkets. Some of the goods come from the twenty large trawlers of the deep sea fleet, which are primarily after so-called pelagic species such as herring, mackerel or horse mackerel, fish that live in the open sea. The skippers of these trawlers go far, sometimes into the waters of Morocco and Mauritania and sometimes even as far as Senegal. They are the wealthy among the Killybegs fishermen. They are still doing pretty well, although their ships (which cost up to twelve million euros) are now in port from April to September. "A few years ago they were on the road for nine months," says O'Donoghue, "but they are now stuck for six months because of the quota restrictions."

The situation is very different with fishermen like Denis Carbery, who are restricted to a radius of 100, maybe 150 miles, and whose vessels make up about forty percent of the Killybegs fleet. They mainly catch whitefish, as they call it: whiting, haddock or saithe, and sometimes mackerel. They were especially hit by the drop in prices. But that's not the only reason they're angry. What also annoys them is the competition that is clearing the fish stocks off their coast before their very eyes. Spanish, French, Danish, British, Dutch and German fleets, sometimes also Portuguese and Norwegian, with state-of-the-art equipment and gigantic barges. "There are fish factories out there that have extremely high quotas," says Carbery, "and we little ones are left out." Only this morning he met a Dutch ship with a Dutch crew, but which was sailing under the German flag. "They have apparently bought the quota from a German company," that is how it is when fishing is fully commercialized. "These are all corporations while we are still working here ourselves."

He has nothing against a quotation. "Of course there have to be rules," says Carbery. "I myself have the greatest interest in ensuring that the stocks are not fished empty", he says he wants to earn his living with it in twenty years. But who makes the rules? Who enforces it in whose interests? And which authorities check whether they are being adhered to?

No tradition, no interest

“The EU ripped us off from the start - and our politicians didn't notice what was going on. You weren't interested either. "The 43-year-old local politician Thomas Pringle quickly gets going when he talks about Ireland's accession negotiations with the EU. They were run at the beginning of the 1970s, when the EU was still called the European Economic Community (EEC). In the EEC's founding treaties in Rome, the resource fish was not mentioned at all, he explains. "Fishing only became interesting to the Community when Ireland, the United Kingdom and Denmark joined. Because these states had rich fishing grounds to offer."

With their accession in January 1973, the EEC declared the fishing grounds to be common, which may be used by all member states. In 1977 it expanded the fishing zone from 12 to 200 miles and introduced fishing quotas in 1982. The allocation was calculated on the basis of the previous fleet and fishing capacities. This system was particularly disadvantageous for Ireland - at that time the Irish fishing industry played only a minor role.

For centuries, the British colonial rulers and large landowners in Ireland had only promoted agriculture and tended to hinder fishing - the Irish farm workers had to ensure the food of the British proletariat. Even during the mid-19th century famine, when a million Irish people starved to death, food was exported to Britain; The poor could not use the abundant fishing grounds because they lacked the means for boats and equipment.

Because there was no fishing tradition, the Irish government did little to help Irish fishermen during the accession negotiations. In addition, she was under great pressure. "Garret FitzGerald, who was on the Irish negotiating commission at the time, confirmed to me in writing that Brussels had issued an ultimatum," says Thomas Pringle: "If Ireland does not release its fishing grounds, it will not join." FitzGerald, twice Prime Minister of Ireland in the 1980s, may have exaggerated. What is certain, however, is that in the negotiations with Brussels at that time, as in all subsequent negotiations, the Irish government paid more attention to European subsidies from the Structural Funds and to agriculture. KFO boss Sean O'Donoghue also sees it that way, who otherwise has very different views than the leftist Pringle. "The negotiations were not carried out optimally on our part," says the committee strategist, who worked for the Dublin Ministry of Fisheries for a long time, "there was often a lack of expertise and commitment." But that is different now: "We sit on many international committees and can have a professional say." But is that enough? Pringle, who has been an independent MP in the Dáil Éireann, the Irish Parliament, since the last election at the end of February, has doubts. who grew up in Killybegs. “But the Irish fishermen only have a quota of four percent. Is that fair? "Wouldn't the whole system have to be changed?

A question of democracy

Not even the EU Commission doubts that the existing quota system fails to achieve its goal - sustainable management of fish stocks. In its 2009 Green Paper for a new fisheries policy, it states that almost ninety percent of the stocks in EU waters are overexploited and around thirty percent are outside “safe biological limits” and are therefore threatened with extinction. So far, the EU has not come up with a simple remedy for this depletion. The political processes are complex, the lobbyists have great influence - and so the current debate (which should lead to a new Common Fisheries Policy in 2013) is likely to result in the principle of “relative stability” being retained. In other words: if at all, then all national fishing fleets must restrict themselves equally.

For Kevin McCorry, this is not a sensitive strategy. The former lawyer, who was an active member of the Northern Irish civil rights movement in the 1960s and now writes papers and opinions for the EU-critical People's Movement (including on the EU's fisheries policy), has long been concerned with the problems of Irish small-scale fishermen. He does not get involved because he has personal interests, but because "all the deficits of EU centralism", as he puts it, come to light. "The people who know the waters and the fishing grounds best have nothing to say," he criticizes. As long as they are not given a say, "all new approaches will fail," says McCorry, recalling the Easter Rising in 1916, when the Irish rebelled against the British colonial power. At that time, too, it was about the right to "determine one's own fate", he quotes the declaration of independence from 1916. "At that time, the laws were made in London, today the regulations come from Brussels." In contrast to the War of Independence, which began soon after 1916, the enemy is no longer so easy to identify. "At that time he was marching through the streets of Ireland in uniform." Meanwhile, however, the power structures are more anonymous, embedded in a set of rules that reflect the prevailing conditions and systematically favor large capital. And that is supported by the country's conservative parties. “It's about democracy,” says McCorry. So the question: Who decides?

Once no, once yes

The Irish people have made two decisions in the past two years. The first time in June 2008, when a majority rejected the Lisbon Treaty, which stipulated an even further liberalization of the market. And then again in a second referendum in October 2009, which was already under the sign of the financial market crisis and which led to the result hoped for by Brussels and the other EU governments (which themselves did not risk referendums).

Like McCorry, Thomas Pringle had firmly advocated a no. "In Killybegs," he says, "the number of votes against was almost one hundred percent in the first referendum, and we still got around eighty percent in the second vote." Donegal was the only county in Ireland that defied all the promises and threats ("We are being kicked out of the EU!"). It was also a vote by the fishing community against their own government.

Because the Irish government has always accepted the fishing quotas that the EU Council of Ministers decides every December for the next year without question and notifies them to the skippers on a monthly basis. “I don't know if I can even go out in May,” says Denis Carbery in April. In general, Carbery doubts the sense of the centrally prescribed measures. Because, in his experience, they hardly contribute to the preservation of the stocks. The orthodontist Sean O'Donoghue also shares his criticism. "The quotas are based primarily on estimates by scientific institutes, and they are often wrong," he says. "Five years ago, for example, our members registered large stocks of mackerel off the coast, but the Commission nevertheless reduced our quota by twenty percent the following year."

The EU, he complains, only follows so-called scientifically collected data, which, however, do not correspond to the current knowledge of the fishermen. "Two or three years later we always get right." Incidentally, the reverse is also sometimes the case: “We repeatedly warn when the population of one or the other species is falling dramatically. Then the fishermen reduce their catches of their own accord. "But nobody lists.

Ninety percent go dead overboard

A fundamental problem with the quota system is bycatch. Because only what the fishermen land is counted. The stupid thing is: You don't just go online with the permitted varieties and quantities, the mesh size of which is strictly regulated. But mostly much more. He recently pulled out fifteen tons of blue whiting on a train, says Carbery. "But I only had a permit for half a ton." So his crew had to throw the prohibited amount overboard again - and all the other fish that had accompanied the school. Almost all of them were dead by then. The EU Commission has now recognized that bycatch is a problem: around 90 percent of all fish caught in EU waters would be uselessly destroyed, states its 2009 Green Paper.

"There is no simple solution to this problem as long as the fishing quotas are set centrally and allocated monthly," argue the fishermen from Killybegs. But there must be a limitation, they see that too. Without cuts, the reasons would quickly be fished empty, and even more fish on the market would drive prices down - at least as long as the EU allows the import of cheap fish from developing countries that are bred or caught under mostly questionable social and ecological conditions becomes. On the other hand, the Irish small-scale fishermen would have nothing against an end to the EU agreements with third countries, which would allow the large EU fleets to plunder the fishing grounds of developing countries Agreement has taken away livelihoods, ”says Kevin McCorry , the leftist attorney.

So you also advocate more control. But only on the same terms. In Killybegs, Manus O'Boyle says, "There are more inspectors than on the entire Spanish coast". It is not only there that the state authorities look the other way: "The whole surveillance is a joke." He is addressing another structural deficit in EU fisheries policy: the quotas are set in Brussels; However, it is up to the individual states to check whether they are being observed. And sometimes they don't take it too seriously.

Long term solutions only

Manus O'Boyle isn't a fisherman, but he knows the industry. For 22 years, the father of four children had made nets and earned a lot of money in the process. He was involved in the development of new types of nets (the midwater swimming trawl with the escape window for smaller fish, which is now used throughout Europe, was invented in Killybegs), had repaired nets up to 1,500 meters long in Norway, Denmark, France and Britain - and was two years ago laid off. In the past, the webmakers would hardly have been able to cope with the orders and would have worked endless overtime. But since many skippers have given up because costs are rising and earnings are falling, and the others are now having their crews mend the mesh themselves or leaving with worn nets, the business has collapsed.

"A few years ago the network industry still had 125 employees, today it is perhaps 40," says O'Boyle, who is now making his way as a self-employed carpenter. But a few years ago everyone in Killybegs would have believed in a future: "The port provided employment, around 7,000 people made a living from it, from Glencolumbkille in the west to Donegal Town in the east," he remembers. But today? "Today you can no longer find a young person who is interested in fish." Like in old times. "The boys all run away," says O'Boyle, who looks after four football teams in his free time: "They prefer to emigrate." Like in old times.

So is everything going bad? Sean O'Donoghue isn't that pessimistic. The orthodontic manager relies on marketing strategies: "We have to find niches, focus on quality and finally develop a label that signals to the consumer that there is good, fresh Irish fish here." Kevin McCorry proposes a different strategy, even if he does not really believe in the reformability of the EU: more pressure from below. He and his colleagues on Ireland's southeast coast - the fishermen there are even worse off than those in Killybegs - started an initiative a few years ago. The Reclaim Our Seas Alliance (Rosa) now includes many small-scale fishermen from France, Scotland, Belgium and Ireland. She repeatedly calls for demonstrations in Brussels and is gradually being heard there. Rosa member Thomas Pringle also relies on alliances: "Even the small EU states can form a lobby if they join forces."

Such long-term projects will probably come too late for indebted skippers like Denis Carbery. And possibly also for social cohesion. “For as long as I can remember, we've always had foreign crews in Killybegs: French, Spanish, Dutch, even Russian and African,” says O'Boyle, “and there were never any conflicts. Killybegs has always been a little bit cosmopolitan. But that can change quickly. "(pw)