Cormac Burke, IFSA
A cynic once said “if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel then it’s probably a train coming” and, as the Irish fishing industry faces into another year, it’s difficult for any sector to see the slightest glimmer of light and it’s depressing to accept that all we can do is hope that things will improve.
Hope is good and its always important in all aspects of life to have a positive outlook - - - but at this minute in time tell that to the inshore men who’ve recently lost even more quota on top of the collapse of the international shellfish market; the inland fishermen who have been put out of work over the years; the demersal men who, even after going through three rounds of fleet decommissioning over the years still aren’t being given enough quota to make a sustainable living, and to the pelagic fishermen & processors who have seen their mackerel quota almost halved in the last six years and who also have a very small blue whiting quota but must helplessly stand by and watch the EU Commission give away thousands of tonnes of Irish waters’ blue whiting to any non EU nation who comes knocking on the door with an offer to give Dutch-owned vessels some Arctic cod.
Meanwhile the patronising EU mantra of ICES-advised ‘sustainable fishing’ attempts to tell us that the ‘level playing field’ of demersal quotas is fair when obviously the share-out of Ireland 18% / EU 82% of whitefish quotas within Irish waters is a far cry from justice for the Irish fleet.
And, more often than not, when a small increase in some species or other is announced for Ireland, it isn’t because the Irish share is being increased but that the EU Commission has just made the overall pie bigger and our tiny growth of our miserly slice of that pie is in reality nothing compared to the increase of the other nations’ slice within Irish waters.
At no point (and probably not ever since we joined the E.E.C.) do we ever see even a small increase of Irish quota in Irish waters for Irish fishermen at the price of a decrease to other EU member states.
The Irish fishing industry has, and is, being ‘conned’ - - not least as the fall guy for the Brexit ‘burden sharing’ that sees Ireland bleeding profusely while the rest of the EU suffered minor bruising but more recently with backroom deals with the EU Commission and non EU nations, and Irish industry representatives not even being brought to the table by our Minister until the details are almost finalised.
In your wildest dreams can you even imagine this scenario of secret negotiations taking place to trade away nationally-owned fish stocks with a non EU nation, without industry involvement, in the Netherlands, Spain or France? All hell would break loose, and the Minister involved in such clandestine plans would rightly find himself out of a job within 24 hours.
But the Irish industry has become so accustomed to being shafted at every turn that its now reached a point of just shrugging shoulders - - so much so that gone are the days when an Irish marine minister would return from the EU December Council with an embarrassed apology that we’d lost even more quota (but trying to soften the blow by saying “it could have been worse’), to the current situation where yet another ‘shit sandwich’ is delivered in a manner that provides nothing aside from the opportunity for our fisheries minister to paper over the cracks of the real losses by presenting PR spin of inaccurate news to pretend we’ve made some kind of gain.
How did we reach the stage that we have become so naive that we just allow our minister come out and praise himself for a 5% increase in some species and just make no reference to a 20% loss in some other species’ quota and not even pull him up on it?
The industry has reached breaking point and anger is on the verge of erupting into something more - - but what form will that anger take?
I’ve lost count of the number of times in my lifetime that the fishing fleet sailed to Dublin and Cork (at great personal expense to everyone involved) in protest and while a show of unity was good and while it got some badly-needed public support, these efforts ultimately gained nothing and probably not a single minute’s sleep was lost by any marine minister, civil servant, TD or Government party.
Maybe 2024 could be the year that the industry goes and dumps fish at the gate of Leinster House, block harbours or jam the M50, but with a Government-controlled anti industry media nothing would be achieved other than be described on the tv news as “right wing elements” (these days anyone who protests against government are simply dismissed as ‘right wing’ in an attempt to portray them as ‘cranks’ and not to be taken seriously).
Sad to say but the Irish fishing industry, in its current format, has become a poisoned chalice for any self-respecting politician but nonetheless it is a political potential ‘kingmaker’ football both here and in Europe and its clear that it is being used for political gain by some who are devoid of morals when the price at stake is ‘only’ the lives of Irish men and women who have worked in the seafood sector and kept entire coastal communities alive for generations.
Therefore if politics is the only way forward then the Irish fishing industry must quickly ‘up its game’ - - - must beef up the manner of its industry representation, and the industry must demand the calling to task of ministers and civil servants who are now, and have been for decades, selling out Ireland’s marine resources while the Irish industry goes hungry.
The days of constantly firefighting against yet another dodgy deal to steal Irish fish or to react to another enforced quota cut while others see theirs increased must come to an end and must be replaced with an industry not always forced to defend itself but one that is supported by its government and encouraged to proactively work towards a returning of some of the lost/stolen quotas - - and if deals must be done, then let them be done by the Irish industry to the benefit of Irish fishermen and not some other EU nation.
If, as is expected, 2024 is to be the year of a general election (as well as the local and European elections) then no matter what political persuasion you are or who you wish to vote for, this will be the opportunity for the people of this country to punish and call a halt to those who continue to intentionally damage the Irish fishing industry, to demand change, and to finally see a government that will represent Ireland’s cause to the EU and not the other way around.