Ireland caught between Brexit and the deep blue sea
KILLYBEGS, Ireland — Along the docks in this small coastal town, fishermen all tell the same tale: Ireland should follow Britain out of the EU.
County Donegal skippers like Michael Callaghan have long learned to contend with rasping North Atlantic gales and 30-foot waves — but nothing prepared them for the political shock of Brexit, and the threat it would pose to their livelihoods.
Trapped in port by an approaching storm, the 44-year-old trawlerman has time to lament what he sees as bleak prospects for the Irish fishing industry. His latest haul of Atlantic horse mackerel was caught to the north, in Scottish waters, and his survival depends on continued access to those lucrative British fishing grounds.
As he unloads a silver stream of fish into a chute from his 51-meter trawler, the Pacelli, he explains he has little hope of Irish politicians coming to his rescue, as Brexit raises existential questions about where he can catch and sell his fish.
“Fisheries isn’t of huge economic value to Ireland Inc., so there’s no appetite in Dublin to look after coastal communities, especially fishermen,” he says, as he offers a tour of the boat. “We’d have to leave the EU to wrangle any of our power back.”
According to the Irish government, the fishing industry posted sales of €891 million in 2015 and employed more than 11,000 people, but Callaghan reckons Dublin is only out to protect big U.S. technology investors such as Apple and Dell.
“The Irish government is in complete denial [about Brexit],” he says, stepping between a tangle of gear and pulleys on his way to the bow. “They’re running around like headless chickens trying to make friends with Donald Trump to keep multinational corporations happy.”
Britain and Ireland: the trawling tango
His views are far from unusual in Killybegs, the deep water port in northwest Ireland that is home to the country’s biggest fleet catching mackerel, whiting and herring.
Like much of the Irish economy, fishing is interwoven with Britain, and the fishermen have shared stocks in the Irish Sea, Celtic Sea and North Atlantic for centuries.
Officials say Irish fishermen catch 64 percent of their mackerel, 52 percent of their cod and 39 percent of their scampi in British waters. If Britain decides to impose its full sovereignty — which could stretch out as far 200 miles from parts of the country — that would pose a huge challenge for the Irish.
“With a hard Brexit, at the most stark, over a third of our fishing efforts would be removed because they come from U.K. waters,” says Michael Creed, the minister for agriculture, food and the marine. He insists Dublin is taking action to upgrade the industry, rolling out €240 million by 2020.
Michael Callaghan Jr. believes Ireland should follow the U.K. out of the EU | Kait Bolangaro/POLITICO
The Killybegs fishermen, however, also fear the closure of British waters would send more French and Spanish trawlers into Irish fishing grounds.
Annual seafood exports to Britain are worth €65.5 million, out of total overseas sales of €554 million. While the exports to the U.K. are smaller than those to France and Spain, the greater problem is Britain is the prime route for exporting almost all of Ireland’s seafood. Tariff barriers at U.K. customs would present a fatal logistical barrier. To take one example, that would place a duty of 15 percent on every horse mackerel crossing the border.
Callaghan also points out the fish caught in cold, northerly Scottish waters were simply worth more.
The most prized specimens, weighing up to 450 grams, are caught in Scottish waters in the northeast Atlantic in a stock shared between Norway, Ireland and Scotland. Japanese buyers will pay about €3 per kilogram for mackerel that spawn near Ireland’s south coast but only reach their optimal weight further north, off Scotland.
“If we had to fish mackerel in Irish waters, they would be worth 30 percent less. It would be a huge hit,” Callaghan says.
Under the Common Fisheries Policy, EU countries have access to all the bloc’s waters and resources, which are distributed via a quota system. However, countries have the right to impose restrictions on their territorial waters, which extend 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) off the coast.
Sean O’Donoghue, CEO of the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation, one of five European trade associations that met the European Commission’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier last month, also stresses exclusion from Scottish waters is almost unthinkable.
“The fleet here knows the Scottish fleet as if they were their neighbors, so it’s going to be a very difficult divorce,” he argues.
An industry gutted
The Murphy family has been fishing off Donegal for two generations. Below decks on their white and red trawler, Menhaden, Larry Murphy and his son, Ryan, are preparing for a 5 p.m. departure to chase mackerel off the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, about 400 kilometers north.
“After the U.K. leaves, Irish waters are going to become more crowded with EU vessels,” says Ryan, nursing a mug of milky tea. “Maybe I’m a bad European, but I don’t feel European at all.”
The father-son duo recently took the third generation on a fishing trip. The elder Murphy hopes one of his grandsons will follow the family trade, but acknowledges an eventual EU-wide renegotiation of quotas after Brexit could jeopardize his plans.
“We already have a lower quota than we should,” he says. “Why should the Spanish be allowed in our waters?”
Fresh horse mackerel from the Pacelli is unloaded at the Sean Ward Fish Exports factory | Kait Bolongaro/POLITICO
While talk of “Irexit” laces sailors’ conversations in northwest Ireland, Dublin remains committed to the European project.
“Obviously, we’re all chasing access to a finite resource. The biggest [question] is a question of access and we are — for better or worse — hitching our wagon to the EU for the long term,” says Creed, the minister.
But he acknowledges Brexit threatens Ireland’s rural communities most.
“There’s not going to be a Google or Apple that lands down in Killybegs,” he says. “People there have to play to the resources they’re given and the biggest resource they have is the sea.”
In Killybegs, the ocean is the dominant job provider. The fishing industry — including producers, processors and services — employs approximately 1,200 people, many of them itinerant, while the population in the broader area is only 2,341. As speculation about the sector’s future mounts, fishermen are worried. With good reason. POLITICO encountered Dublin bankers visiting to inquire about the loans they had underwritten.
Some Irish eyes still smiling
Not everyone is living in fear, however. In the neighboring hamlet of Dunkineely, Donal Cannon ties a cord into intricate knots, skilfully weaving a net big enough to cover a soccer field. The net is destined for a trawler in Scotland and the master craftsman is unfazed by the U.K.’s departure from the EU as early as 2019.
“Brexit won’t change a thing. I haven’t thought about it at all,” he says, cracking a smile. “What should we be worried about?”
Kevin Downey would like Ireland to regain sovereignty over its traditional waters | Kait Bolangaro/POLITICO
In the worst case scenario, Scottish fishermen would have to start paying 8 percent tariffs on his nets after Brexit.
But fish processors are bracing for impact.
Back in Killybegs, fishing tycoon Frank Doherty is highly concerned. The lanky fisherman built Premier Fish Products from scratch. Over the past 30 years, his empire has grown from a single wooden vessel to a company with a €3.5 million turnover, including two trawlers, two processing factories and 80 employees. It exports all over Europe, Asia and Africa.
Standing outside his processing plant, his main fear is uncertainty about Brexit. “If the EU does a hard Brexit, then it’ll be harder for Ireland. Ireland is caught between the EU and the U.K. … Something will change, but we don’t know what.”
The Irish have reason to be worried. The British government and influential pro-Brexit lawmakers have been vocal about wanting to regain full sovereignty over their waters. George Eustice, the British fisheries minister, has slammed the EU quota system as unfair to U.K. trawlermen.
However, the departure is likely to prove more complex. A House of Lords report in December warned the U.K. would have to come to arrangements over shared access. Many observers also note Britain is dependent on the EU market for selling its fish, which limits its opportunities to go it alone.
The Irish government knows the Brexit stakes are high — particularly in relation to the potential economic and security fallout of a hard border with Northern Ireland — and is pushing to maintain the status quo. “We need a trade deal with the U.K. that works for us and for them,” Creed says.
Perched on the first mate’s chair on the bridge of Menhaden’s sister ship, the Sea Spray, Kevin Downey reflects on his 35-year fishing career.
“My heart hopes our governments will work it out, but I wish the Scottish fishermen the best of luck,” he says, looking out over the bay. “I think [the U.K.] is doing the right thing. If our fishing industry is going to survive, Ireland should follow suit.”