Naval patrols target Irish fishermen
In the first installment of a two-part investigation into the raw deal endured by Irish fishermen, ROISIN De ROSA reports from Dingle and Castletownbere in County Kerry
John Hand left his wife and four children for a ten-day trip at sea to earn their livelihood, through untold dangers, 400 miles from shore and a couple of days sailing to safe anchorage. Three days out to sea, he was arrested by the LE Deirdre, an Irish naval vessel enforcing flawed EU legislation in international waters, escorted to Cobh and detained. The owner was obliged to lodge a massive bail bond of £90,000 to secure the release of his ship and fishing gear. There was no catch. He and his crew had no income from a week working 24 hours a day. He lost the outlay for his trip of at least £5,000. His nets, costing at least £80,000, were cut, allegedly for `samples'. He was brought to court and charged like a criminal. Why?
John Hand's boat was the fourth tuna fishing boat to be arrested in the past four weeks. Last week, 12 Irish tuna boats were all boarded and inspected by Irish naval patrols. Boats were inspected before leaving port, and subsequently at sea, even twice in the one day. The inspections were to check that the length of nets on board, used for drift netting for tuna, did not exceed the EU regulation drift net length of 2.5 km. ``It's like driving to Tralee without a spare tyre. You have to have a spare net to repair damaged nets,'' said a very angry fisherman who had worked on another boat arrested earlier this month.
At the same time as John Hand's boat was arrested, there were 10 French and Spanish fishing vessels in Castletownbere unloading their catch, yet they were not inspected by either the Irish naval patrol boat nor the EU inspector, despite, according to eyewitnesses, blatantly dumping in the pier skips illegal mesh-sized monofilament net, used illegally to catch white fish.
The Irish tuna fishermen feel, somewhat justifiably, that they are being picked on, deliberately harassed and intimidated. A crew member on one of the boats arrested earlier says: ``They treated us like murderers when they boarded the ship and arrested us. The skipper couldn't even go for a piss without one of them going with him. Where did they think he was going to escape to?''
As he stepped on the LE Roisin last Friday morning for a ten-day patrol of the tuna fishing ground with an EU inspector aboard LE Roisin, the Minister of Defence, Michael Smith, denied that Irish naval patrols have a vendetta against the Irish tuna fishermen and claimed that the Departments of Defence and the Marine would continue to enforce EU regulations even-handedly.
However, the evidence suggests the opposite. There is abundant evidence that other EU fishermen are getting away with untold breaches of regulations, but the Irish naval patrols, unaccountably, seem only interested in the Irish tuna fishermen.
The fishermen in Cork and Kerry quote a litany of injustice, of inequity in treatment of EU member state fishermen. Over 30 boats have landed their catches in Castletownbere in recent days and have not been inspected. Jason Whooley of the Irish South and Western Fisherman's Organisation (ISWFO) complains that a sample of a French ship's fishing gear showed that its mesh was 25% smaller than legally permitted by EU regulations. Nothing was done.
Catalogue of unfair treatment
Irish fishermen's complaints about unfair competition within the EU are by no means limited to the tuna fishing. They allege constant flouting of EU regulations by other EU member fishing boats and especially their Spanish counterparts. Spain has the largest fishing fleet in the world, aside from China. The Spanish boats are mostly part of the Pescanova multinational empire, which is based at Vigo. The parent company, Pescanova, alone has a turnover of 457 million Euros, and employs over 5,000 people.
A French ship, the Madeleine, was prosecuted for fishing with nets which were too small, but the judge in the case did not accept the instrument of measurement (a rule is a rule) used and threw out the case. ``Spanish boats fishing for quota fish like monkfish and hake, will shoot 50 or 60 miles of nets, from Mizen to Mallin, leave them there and come back several days later,'' says John D. O'Sullivan, whose tuna boat was first out this season, and first to be arrested. ``When they haul these nets, over 50% of the fish are damaged or dead and must be thrown back. No naval patrols are stopping the Spanish boats from fishing spawning grounds in Irish waters. Irish patrols don't seem to care.''
Fishermen complain that a group of trawlers will box off a region with parallel nets and other fishing boats will not be able to enter the box. This behaviour has led to rammings. Three years ago, the Exodus, owned by Danny O'Driscoll, was rammed, and one of the crew was trapped in the abandoned boat and drowned. The Spanish skipper was fined £750, and the boat was back out at sea and caught ramming a further boat only days afterwards.
Dingle-based, Michael Hennessey, skipper of one of the boats arrested this year, puts the questions which all the tuna fishermen are asking. ``Why does the Irish naval patrol only inspect the Irish ships within the 200-mile EU fishing limit? And why does the patrol chase Irish fishermen into international waters, where EU regulations do not apply?'' The answers are by no means clear. Why do the Departments of Marine, and Defence want to single out Irish Tuna fishermen, and make an example of them?
The Tuna fishing industry
There are 18 Irish-registered boats licensed to fish for Tuna (nine based in Dingle and nine in Castletownbere) during the three-month season from June through August. The Albacore tuna, a deep sea fish, leaves tropical waters for this brief period and comes north. There is no quota on the tuna fish, but there is very considerable competition for a lucrative market, especially from processors in Spain and France.
The Irish use driftnets at night when the tuna come up to the surface, which is a far more efficient way of catching tuna than the method used by the Spanish vessels, which use hooks. The Spanish boats, however, do use driftnets for tuna fishing in the Mediterranean. Where there are 18 licensed tuna boats in Ireland, there are at least 60 or 70 Spanish boats, in addition to French, Cornish and Portuguese tuna fishing boats.
The EU restricted the number of licences for drift net tuna fishing and has banned driftnet fishing altogether by the end of 2001. The Irish fishermen consider this a deliberate measure by the Spaniards in particular to force them out of the market.
Jason Whooley (ISWFO) pinpoints the frustration the fishermen feel. ``Every time the Irish fishing industry get its head above water, it is dragged down again by the EU. As soon as we managed to get a small fleet able to hunt tuna, the EU slaps a driftnet ban on the industry.''
(Next Week: How the EU Common Fisheries Policy has proved disastrous for the Irish fishing industry