Will Europe manage to save its fish stocks? And what will happen to the fishermen? Do Irish fishermen have a future? That’s all right here on Reporter.
Neily Kavenagh and his brother Seamus ride the rough waves of the Atlantic as their small fishing-boat heads out for lobsters, crabs and some small bait fish. But that’s all they are allowed to fish.
They don’t have a problem with the tough weather and working conditions. Setting out at 4 and bringing back the catch at 10 in the evening is all par for the course for these hardy fishermen from Arranmore Island off the Irish coast.
But they have a problem with fishing rules: Neily’s great-grand-father went out salmon fishing here, as did his grandfather and his father before him. But a fishing ban on wild salmon was issued by Brussels and Dublin in 2006 and it hit the tiny fishing community on the island harder than any monster wave. Since then, Arranmore’s economy has seriously stalled.
Neily reminisces on how things used to be, “We do get angry, it was our way of life”, he says. “It was our livelihood for the 16 to 18 families on Arranmore that held the licence, the right to fish wild salmon. And then there’s the crew-members… the fishing ban affected a lot of people. So I think we’ve got a right to be angry. There was no other employment on the island other than fishing.”
The island is peppered with empty houses, the ghosts of Arranmore families forced to abandon their Island homes to seek another future abroad. Many headed for Dublin, London, Australia and America.
But it’s not just about the salmon. Shortly after the ban, mixed stock fishing was closed and drift netting was also banned.
A fourth generation fisherman, publican, lifeboat commander and island leader, Jerry Early blames the European Union for threatening the very existence of Arranmore’s community: “What we had was once a very vibrant harbour with 20 to 30 boats. They have taken the heart and soul out of this little harbour where I spent the happiest days of my life. They have taken this away from us, away from me, and this is unforgivable. I am so about what they have done and I hear the cries of ghosts on this pier.”
Jerry went to Brussels with the local priest to alert them to the disastrous impact of EU policies. He painted a picture of the skeletons of fishing boats and told them that in seven years, the island’s population had almost halved. Today, just four full-time fishermen remain, among the few that refused to exchange their fishing licence for EU compensation money.
They still hope stocks will recover and fishing bans might be eased for small-scale coastal fishery.
Huge international trawlers are not allowed to fish within twelve nautical miles of the coastline and changes to the European Fisheries Policy have prolonged this period of protection.
“We met a factory-ship (a huge fishing trawler) just 20 to 25 miles west of Arranmore Island and it was just working off our area and we called them on the VHF” said Neily. “He was hunting for mackerel, was fishing for mackerel, at the time while all the Irish boats were tied up, which we thought was very strange for a boat from another EU country, fishing off Arranmore with all the Irish boats being tied up…”
But despite his complaints, the problem of overfishing remains a serious one: 39 percent of stocks in the Atlantic and 88 percent of stocks in the Mediterranean are over-exploited. The European Union have to take drastic action in order to avoid total collapse.
But Jerry says Europe should not blame the small fleets. He served with the lifeboat crew for 29 years and is still passionate about serving the community. He maintains that wild salmon stocks have recovered, pleading with the Irish government to lift the ban. By his reckoning, the fishing of just 3,000 salmon a year would keep the island afloat economically.
“First of all, we dispute the science,” he says. “We are arguing for a five year pilot scheme. We have the nets, we have the boats, we have the ocean. But we have an ocean that we are not allowed to fish. It is like telling a farmer that he has a field but that he is not allowed to plough. It is crazy, it is nonsensical and it is going to be the death of this island.”
For the first time ever, not a single baby was born in Arranmore last year and one of the only two primary schools faces closure.
The teaching arrangement is unusual to say the least. One teacher takes care of several age groups ranging from 4 to 11 in a single class in two languages: English and Gaelic. Gaelic is declining, so turning Arranmore into a ghost island would be culturally and linguistically damaging for Irish heritage.
Shirley Gallagher is, like Jerry, equally determined to get Arranmore back on its feet. She calls herself a “changemaker” and quit a well-paid management job to settle back on her home island. She has a clear vision of building a future for Arranmore: “The way I see it, with the future of jobs on Arranmo