I made the journey today (18th January) from Donegal to Limerick for the gathering of 57 fishermen / vessel owners who find themselves facing a financial ‘lose-lose’ situation due to the current terms of Ireland’s fleet decommissioning scheme.
As the representative of the IFSA, I did not participate in their private meeting as these men needed to discuss the biggest decision of their, and their families’, lives, but I wanted to simply show my support, and sympathy, to this group of people who find themselves staring into the abyss of financial ruin due to a situation not of their making.
Although privately I was invited to attend the meeting by some of those present, I felt there was a need to respect the confidentiality of the personal financial matters that would be discussed.
With the support of other industry bodies, Patrick Murphy (IS&WFPO) is to be commended for facilitating this meeting regardless of which, if any, organisations the men involved subscribe to - this is a time that these people deserve and need the support of everyone in the industry.
The first thing to bear in mind with regards the current situation is that the need for a vessel decommissioning scheme is not the fault of the Irish fishing industry but it arises as a result of a total abdication of their responsibilities during the BREXIT negotiations by the Foreign Affairs Minister, the Marine Minister and the senior DAFM officials who combined to not fight Ireland’s corner which resulted in the loss of vast amounts of Irish quota in Irish waters.
This left the obvious scenario of too many vessels for not enough quota and the EU Commission granted Ireland permission to proceed with the enacting of a decommissioning scheme which was intended to be a ‘compensation’ to those who would have to exit the industry (remember that word ‘compensation’ as it will arise quite a lot later in this article…).
And so, 57 vessel owners nationwide expressed an interest in volunteering to scrap their vessels in the scheme and, by doing so, are helping the remaining fishermen and the remaining two-thirds of the Irish fleet who will now have enough quota to keep their businesses sustainable.
In theory the decommissioning scheme should be a straightforward business operation - you need ‘x’ number of vessels to go; you pay ‘x’ amount per gross tonne (GT) and the vessel is removed from the register and is subsequently scrapped and the owners are left with a cheque from which to clear the vessel mortgage and all other associated vessel debts, and hopefully the owner will be left with some deserved money which will be an amount reasonable enough to compensate him for giving up his vessel, his way of life and his future income.
But that would all have been before the ‘bean counters’ in DAFM or BIM, or both, set about drawing up ‘terms & conditions’ that are not so much a slap in the face to the outgoing fishermen but more along the lines of a kick up the arse…
These conditions, so complicated that it would require legal aid to comprehend them, seem to have been intentionally designed to ensure that the outgoing vessel owners, despite leaving voluntarily, are to be shackled with huge vessel-related debt even AFTER they have been paid a paltry decommissioning sum.
I can’t claim to be any sort of expert on these T&Cs, but based on the information I have been given from various sources, let’s take an approximate look at just some of the T&Cs of this ‘compensation’ scheme:
* The price to be paid per GT seems to vary between 8,000 and 12,000 euros but is dependent on a range of other criteria that have been dreamed up;
* Whilst previous decommissioning schemes, both here and in other EU states, generally tried to scrap the oldest and most inefficient fishing vessels, this present scheme pays the maximum rate for vessels under 15 years of age and, if your vessel is more than 15 years old then 1% of the decommissioning money per year over 15 is deducted (up to 15%);
* A form of ‘league table’ has been included in the conditions which basically says that if the top demersal vessel in the fleet grossed a certain amount and your vessel grossed say 20% less than that vessel, then your decommissioning payment is reduced accordingly;
* And there’s more, the value of the vessel’s general target species comes into play and if, for example, one vessel landed mostly low value round haddock then his payment will be reduced as opposed to the vessel that landed a selection of prime fish. In this regard it should be mentioned that vessels who made considerable earnings at the squid (before we lost access to Rockall) cannot include these earnings in their application because squid is a non quota species…;
* Any vessel who received BIM Safety Grant Aid in the past five years will also have that deducted from the final payment;
* And…. the one that has enraged most people … any vessel that was a beneficiary of the tie-up scheme in the past two years will have that money deducted from their decommissioning payment.
This is beyond unfair as those vessels were paid monies which the Minister liked to call a compensation but they were simply a substitution of your revenue from catching the monthly quota you were entitled to with a supposedly equivalent amount of money.
Demanding the repayment of this should, all things being equal, mean that the fishermen be entitled to repayment of the quotas they didn’t catch under the tie-up scheme.
This is, in my opinion, nothing more than a breach of contract - you paid me not to catch my quota during a certain period in the past and now you want the money returned, therefore I want my quota returned.
The are even more conditions (too many for me to understand) attached to the Letter of Offer which the 57 vessel owners have received and which has left these fishermen with the Catch-22 situation of trying to carry on in ventures which are no longer viable due to lack of quota, or to take the decommissioning offer which, after all the deductions, will leave them with not enough funds to clear the vessel’s debts for the hull, electronics, gear etc never mind to leaving a small nest egg in ‘compensation’ to the fisherman for voluntarily walking away from his traditional way of life.
Whatever the Minister thinks this package is, it is certainly not compensation and the air of despondency and frustration was evident before today’s meeting.
Since the BAR fund was established to compensate Irish fishermen as a result of BREXIT, not one cent has actually been paid in genuine compensation — the tie-up scheme was only a substitution for not catching your entitled quota; the fuel subsidy scheme was in full flow in the fishing industry of every EU fishing nation EXCEPT Ireland, and now fishermen have a decommissioning scheme that is designed to punish instead of compensate.
At the time of writing this, the outcome of today’s meeting and the decisions arising is not yet known but its clear for everyone to see that if fishermen are being asked to leave voluntarily then they must be correctly financially compensated and be allowed to leave with their dignity intact.
IMAGE: Are we looking at the sunset of the Irish fishing industry due to strangulation from red tape?