Where will they get the fish?

Harry Browne

Harry Browne


In the big courthouse just off the main street of Tralee, Co. Kerry, in front of just one spectator, José Francisco Santamaría and his trawler, the Monte San Roque, are getting bailed out.

A few days ago the ship was boarded and inspected by the Irish Navy nearly two hundred miles off Ireland’s south-west coast. It was catching monkfish, hake and prawns. The Navy watchers believed its actual fishing locations over the previous several days did not correspond with the entries in its logbook, and they took the vessel into port at Fenit, Co. Kerry.

European waters are not a free-for-all for fishing vessels, or at least they shouldn’t be. There are dozens of EU fishing ‘areas’, rectangles of varying size on the map of the sea, designated by a dizzying array of roman numerals and letters; fishermen are restricted in terms of which species they can catch, and in what quantities, in each. Off west Kerry and Cork, for example, areas VIIj and VIIk stretch south to the 48th parallel, roughly halfway to Spain, and within those areas about half the sole and plaice catch is restricted to Irish-flagged vessels, and Spanish boats have no quota for those species at all. Satellite tracking of vessels is one means by which national authorities monitor activities at sea, but the resources available for enforcement are widely acknowledged to be inadequate.

José Francisco Santamaría, an olive-skinned man in early middle age, is wearing a checked shirt and sports a Groucho Marx moustache-and-glasses combination. As everyone awaits the judge, he is chatting to the heavily pregnant translator. A garda and a fisheries inspector are here too. The prosecuting solicitor, a local man, is engaged in an elaborate welcome-to-Kerry parley with the defence man, who has been sent up from Cork by the Spanish conglomerate that owns the Monte San Roque. Their conversation takes on the usual Gaelic-football inflection that governs interactions between men from those two counties. When sufficient niceties have been observed, the prosecutor mutters that, you know, the bail amount is about €175,000, based on a formula derived from the value of the catch.

‘I think 174,768,’ the defence solicitor replies. ‘And it should be in the account within the next half-hour, if it’s not there already.’

Once the judge arrives it’s a routine process, complete with a few moments of procedural confusion. Santamaría and his ship are free. An appearance in court is, it seems, a standard occupational hazard in the operations of Atlantic fishing, Spanish style. It may take years for this case to play out.

Two and a half years ago, in Truro, Cornwall, a crown court case against a Spanish skipper took a rather different turn. According to a story in the British industry paper Fishing News in May 2006, José Fernández, aged 63, told the court: ‘If you wish to work in charge of a vessel sailing out of La Coruña, you can only do so if you are prepared to cheat.’ Fernandez said he had fished since 1976, and said it was ‘absolutely invariable’ for fishing firms in north-west Spain to demand that skippers ignore EU fishing laws. His British defence team said their enquiries in La Coruña suggested that the port authority and the auction houses were in on the act. Fernández’s trawler under-reported its landing of hake and claimed wrongly that most of the fish on board were unrestricted species.

An Irish fisheries official, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, said the crime being committed over and over again in the seas off the coast of Ireland, as elsewhere, could be summarized simply: ‘concentrated rape’. Why is this happening? The simplest explanation is that the demand for the commodity exceeds the legal supply, and so there is money to be made by breaking the law. European fishing fleets have a hungry market to feed. Indeed, in the early 1970s, as Ireland negotiated its entry to the EU, Irish fishermen were promised that a fish-loving continent was their guarantee of a profitable future. The people of Spain annually consume about 50 kilograms per head of fish and other seafood. That’s about six times more than the Irish do.

The Spanish fishing fleet contains thousands of ships. In Galicia alone the fish industry employs a quarter of a million people. One of the stories of Spain is the story of a fish-hungry people who have developed the means to feed themselves a kilo of fish a week, and for hundreds of years some of that fish has come from the waters of the European continental shelf that lies around the island of Ireland. When you visit Spain and dine in, say, Taberna Maceiras, a Galician-themed restaurant in Madrid, hundreds of miles from any sea, and you order the rich caldo gallego (fish stew) or the shellfish-studded paella, you are very likely to be enjoying creatures hauled from Irish waters.

Ireland’s fisheries, and their relationship to markets elsewhere in Europe, played an important role in this island’s pre-modern economic history. Medieval town charters, according to the marine historian John de Courcy Ireland, show that

herring, salmon and fish in general are included in the items upon which the citizens of places like Dublin, Drogheda and Youghal are entitled to raise taxes for the maintenance of their fortifications. An Italian map of Ireland in 1339 reveals the existence of three fishing banks off the coast of Wicklow, while at the opening of the sixteenth century … another Italian map shows three fishing banks off Arklow, one outside Dublin and two in the vicinity of Ardglass … As early as 1437 salmon and herrings are found in the list of Irish exports, notably to Brabant (modern Belgium).*

Fourteenth-century records show salt being shipped from Brittany to Donegal for curing herring. ‘By the fifteenth century,’ de Courcy Ireland writes, ‘the Irish sea fisheries were famous throughout western Europe and greedily coveted by foreigners.’ Local chieftains benefited from that covetousness, sometimes selectively: in the south-west it seems O’Sullivan Beare turned away English applicants for fishing rights along his coasts, doing a deal instead with Spaniards. And Irish ports and merchants were active in the business: a record from 1567 suggests Waterford was exporting fish to Galicia, Portugal, Andalucia and Biscay.

As England strengthened its grip on the island, such independent commercial relationships became difficult to sustain. By the early seventeenth century, London placed a tax on salmon, pilchards and herring exported from Ireland to places other than England. The Irish industry went into terminal decline, says de Courcy Ireland, ‘while French, Spanish, Scottish and English fishermen throve from fishing in our waters, and the government of the Netherlands was allowed special fishing rights here in return for paying £30,000 to the ever-impecunious Charles I’. Holland, then Europe’s commercial maritime nation par excellence, was keen to move beyond the herring-above, cod-below duopoly of its own seas and exploit the variety of Irish waters, especially salmon, hake, pilchards, ray, conger and ling – the last a source of valuable oil.

Ireland’s own fishing slumped to a subsistence level in a few coastal centres. The myth that Irish people neglected the seas during the Famine is corrected by figures from 1846 that suggest there were about 113,000 men and boys engaged in sea-fishing – 20,000 more than just a year earlier – on no fewer than 19,883 boats. They were, of course, very small boats, not capable of suddenly feeding an entire nation. De Courcy Ireland accuses Ireland’s leaders from the mid nineteenth century onwards, in London and Dublin, of a ‘trahison des clercs … turning their backs on the sea’. By the beginning of the Second World War, Ireland had ‘an insignificant fishing industry in a state of rapid decay’.

In the 1960s that began to change. Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM), a state agency established in 1952 to encourage the development of the industry, began to get serious under what is universally regarded as the dynamic leadership of Brendan O’Kelly, promoting both fishing and fish-eating and prioritizing the development of several key ports. There was rapid growth by the early 1970s, but still the industry had barely entered adolescence, let alone maturity, when it had to deal with Ireland’s entry to the European Economic Community.

The seas near Ireland were still being fished by our European neighbours. Under existing agreements, some foreign fleets could fish to within three miles of the Irish coast; for the rest, the limit was set at twelve miles. The local view was that the Irish industry needed a substantial exclusive zone in order to prosper. But the Common Market had already decided, in 1970, on the principle of equal access to all waters. When, during the Brussels negotiations in 1972 for Ireland’s EEC accession, Brendan O’Kelly spoke up for a more restrictive system, foreign minister Patrick Hillery had him sent home. That moment represents, for fishermen, a betrayal of their interests that rankles to this day: the story is told again and again up and down Ireland’s coasts.

Joey Murrin, from Killybegs in Donegal, was one of twenty fishermen protesting outside the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin as those negotiations drew to a close. With so few protesting, and tens of thousands of farmers marching in enthusiastic support of EEC membership, he knew ‘we hadn’t a hope’ of convincing the government that Ireland’s seas should be kept for Irishmen to fish. A few years later Murrin found himself around a table with the minister for foreign affairs, Garret FitzGerald, as Ireland began to plan how it would negotiate its way into a new European ‘common fisheries policy’ that would go beyond the principle of shared seas and attempt to make a rational division of the stock, based at least in part on the existing catches of each national fleet. The meeting was abandoned after twenty minutes when FitzGerald discovered his civil servants didn’t have adequate statistics. ‘We were unprepared, to say the least,’ Murrin recalls. Meanwhile, as John de Courcy Ireland writes, ‘People were beginning to realize, on newspapers at home and in the head offices of foreign fishing fleets, that the waters around Ireland held the only fishing grounds left in Europe which were not seriously overexploited.’

Brendan O’Kelly told the Irish Times in 1976 that a quota system would be unenforceable, and ‘might do great harm and might even be a disaster in some coastal areas’. He added: ‘All this is brought about because EEC countries destroyed their own waters by overfishing. They must not be allowed to destroy our fishing grounds too.’ O’Kelly’s preferred solution was the creation of an exclusive Irish fishing zone extending fifty miles from the coast. Incredibly, given EEC agreements, fisheries minister Paddy Donegan actually attempted to impose such a zone in 1977, but the plan was rapidly shot down in the European Court of Justice.

Meanwhile, the EEC extended the waters under its jurisdiction to 200 miles off the coasts of member states, from the previous twelve miles, and in 1983 the Common Fisheries Policy came into effect. Conservation of stocks was one aim of the new quota regime, alongside management of the market and of potential rivalry between nation states. At national level the quotas would be divided among regionally based producers’ organizations (POs). The POs would in turn divide those quotas among their member-skippers, each successive division carrying the weight of law: for a skipper, his annual letter from the PO is his licence to catch.

With 20 per cent of the EEC’s waters, Ireland got about 4 per cent of the overall catch. Joey Murrin describes this state of affairs with an analogy: ‘Imagine a farmer with a hundred good acres, but his neighbour comes in and farms it and takes away the produce.’ Another way of looking at it, though, is in terms of the Irish fishing fleet’s activity before the advent of the Common Fisheries Policy: the 4 per cent quota allocated to Ireland represented an increase on the fleet’s actual share of the catch at the time. France – a major European power with a much larger fishing industry – got about a third of the overall EEC catch. Spain, though not yet part of the community, was given some rights based on its traditional fishing in waters belonging to EEC member states, including for species it didn’t traditionally catch, putting it in a position where it could, for example, swap blue-whiting quota for hake quota, a permissible transaction between states. After Spain joined the Common Market in 1986 its quotas were expanded; as the years went by Spanish companies bought up parts of the French-flagged fleet, and with them parts of the French quota.

The problem, in retrospect, was less the percentage breakdowns between states than the cumulative quotas of individual species. Member states had, naturally, tended to inflate their own statistics when they went into Common Fisheries Policy negotiations, with the result that the combined allowable catch of individual fish species exceeded the historical catch. Now those inflated numbers had the weight of law, with the implied directive: Go out and catch ’em.


The waterfront of Dingle, Co. Kerry, on a rainy day as the summer winds down, is a grim spot. On the pier a few tourists mill around, photographing the bronze statue of Fungi, the solitary dolphin that lives in Dingle Bay and has become one of the town’s main attractions. There appears to be nothing going on here that bears any resemblance to commercial fishing. The Dingle fleet is down to about seven boats; one burnt-out trawler has leaned against the pier for years now. Around here, the locals complain, there are more fisheries inspectors than there are fishing vessels. In all of Spain, everyone repeats, there are just fifty fisheries inspectors, all based in Madrid.

Locals complain about the Spanish and the EU. But the real context for the decline of the fishing industry in Dingle, and in other Irish ports, is the rape of the seas, and the destruction to Irish fisheries is only a tiny element of the damage that has been done and remains to be done. Throughout the world, entire fishing regions have been depleted to the vanishing point – the disappearance of cod off Newfoundland, and the resulting destruction of centuries-old fishing communities, being perhaps the most famous example. An October report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank warned that the global fishing industry is unsustainable, with too many boats chasing too few fish; it also said the planet’s fishing fleet could be cut in half without reducing the overall catch. EU fisheries commissioner Joe Borg acknowledged in September that stock depletion in European waters was worse than the global average, and that the Common Fisheries Policy is part of the problem: ‘In its current form, the CFP does not encourage responsible behaviour by either fishermen or politicians … The management tools we use reward narrow-minded, short-term decision-making, which has now undermined the sustainability of our fisheries.’ The EU is now reviewing the CFP, and is contemplating rebuilding it around limits on fleet capacity, as measured in ‘kilowatt days’, as a more manageable and enforceable alternative to catch limits.

No one claims with a straight face that Irish fishermen have not been guilty of overfishing offences. But if the Spanish fleet has been committing concentrated rape, then Irish fishermen sees themselves as mere flashers. ‘There was a looseness in the industry,’ says Martin Howley, a member of the board of the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation (KFO) in Donegal. For years Irish boats fished over their quotas – quotas that, because of the scale of the industry and a shortage of inspectors, couldn’t be consistently enforced in ways that made them meaningful for conservation. Howley uses the past tense, but as recently as September a fishmonger in the south of the country gave a wink and told me the cod he was selling was landed when the skipper knew the inspector wasn’t around. And with the confessions come the rationalizations: ‘One Dutch trawler discards more than we’re supposed to have overfished in a year,’ says Howley.

The annual process by which total catch allowances are recalculated is known mockingly as the ‘Christmas panto’. At a meeting every December in Brussels – one that invariably runs through the night – the science meets the politics, and more often than not the latter wins. The gathered ministers treat the scientific evidence about fish stocks as though it were the enemy’s initial negotiating position, not a statement of marine reality. Joey Murrin recalls a session in Brussels in the late 1990s. Fisheries minister Michael Woods woke him in the middle of the night with the good news: having hitched its boat to the powerful Dutch interest, Ireland was going to benefit from an overall 10 per cent increase in the total allowable catch of mackerel. Murrin asked the nonplussed minister: ‘Where will they get the fish?’ Murrin is contemptuous of what he calls ‘paper fish’, the extra 10 per cent here or 20 per cent there that are demanded by the industry and essentially invented by politicians to placate fishermen – but are not, in reality, capable of being fished in a manner consistent with conservation.

Whatever about the utility of the quotas as set, there is no doubt whatsoever that in the past five years the numbers of inspectors – a corps of professionals, employed by the state – and inspections in Ireland have increased dramatically. As offences have been discovered, the Garda have increasingly been brought into play. Irish boats are more likely to face inspection of their catches in Irish ports than the foreign boats that may be landing fish beside them, for the simple reason that locally based inspectors are more likely to be on top of Irish boats’ quotas.

In every fishing port in Ireland the theory thrives that a coterie of civil servants in Dublin is keen to get rid of Irish commercial fishing, leaving the waters to the big EU players and the Irish ports to pleasure-boaters and tourists. The recent Cawley Report on the industry puts it understatedly: ‘A poor working relationship exists between the industry and its policymakers.’

The conspiracy theory gets legs from the expense that those policymakers have gone to over the past decade in expanding the inspection regime, while the industry itself has been in decline. Martin Howley complains that there are twenty inspectors based in Killybegs, where, thanks to reduced quotas, the fleet is tied up on the piers from St Patrick’s Day to the second week of October. (The winter months are the best that remain for fishing the Killybegs staple, mackerel. And yes, that tie-up means inspectors and fishermen have little to do for half the year other than glare at each other.) Among the inspectors, he says, ‘you’ve got older guys who are ex-fishermen, but then you’ve also got younger guys who are looking for their stripes and rub people up the wrong way.’ When you’re trying to get a fresh product to market, the prospect of an inspector taking the time to pick through your boxes for banned species and to weigh each element of your catch is likely to be a bit of a bad-rub, all right, especially if you’re convinced that your bigger foreign counterparts are rarely subject to any equivalent trouble.

Howley cites Norway, which is not a member of the EU, as the best-practice model. ‘Norway has quality-control officers, not counters and weighers,’ Howley says. ‘They catch abuse, where it exists, by following the money, inspecting 10 per cent of the fleet each year, with a full audit.’ As a result, he says, ‘There’s no black[-market] fishing in Norway.’

Meanwhile, Irish fishermen see Spanish and French boats fishing in spawning grounds for key species, feeding their domestic markets for small fish.


Some one hundred and fifty miles off the west coast of Ireland, where the sea on the continental shelf is no more than a couple of hundred metres deep, a dozen trawlers have lowered their nets, seeking demersal fish – those species that stay mostly near the bottom of these waters. (These are often called ‘whitefish’ and are the mainstay of the Irish industry other than in Killybegs, where the boats specialize in catching surface-dwelling ‘pelagic’ fish.) Right here it’s mostly hake, thousands of them spotted by the sonar on the boats above. Down near the sea bed the fish swim, their direction determining whether or not they will swim into a net and to their deaths.

The Irish boats are supposed to be using nets with a mesh no finer than 120 millimetres. Juvenile hake can dart between the weave of these nets and live to swim another day. But the Spanish and French boats have a derogation from the rules, based on the eating habits in their home countries, that allows them to use 100-millimetre mesh and catch some of the smaller fish. A few trawlers out here may even be using a still-finer mesh, 85 millimetres, catching everything that swims. Sometimes, if they are concerned about inspection at sea or in port, they will drop the too-fine nets to the sea floor when they have caught their fill, abandoning the evidence of their abuses and ready to show a set of legal nets in their place. Hundreds of kilometres of nets lie on the ocean bed here, wreaking further havoc on a marine environment already devastated by overfishing. To make matters worse, the vessels, having quickly scooped up tonnes of fish, often dump small ones overboard, where, being already dead, they re-enter the marine ecology as food for crabs instead of young fish with a reproductive future. Meanwhile, in their own waters further north and east, the Norwegians use 140-millimetre and 150-millimetre mesh. That’s what fishing for conservation looks like.

In his beautiful seafaring ballad ‘Shoals of Herring’, Ewan MacColl wrote of ‘the wild and wasteful ocean’, but of course the waste comes from above. The Celtic Sea, off the south coast of Ireland, used to be home to those shoals of herring. Donal O’Driscoll, who fishes from Dunmore East in Co. Waterford, recalls going up to a lookout-point one dark evening in the late 1950s and counting 113 foreign vessels fishing off the shore, just beyond the three-mile limit. ‘They were lit up at night, like a city laid out in the sea.’

Taoiseach Jack Lynch said in 1968 that there was herring enough in the Celtic Sea to feed all of Europe. He didn’t know what he was talking about: six years later the stocks were so depleted that herring fishing was banned there. The successive restrictions that have followed in more recent times, based on concerns about stock depletion as well as attendant ecological damage, notably on the where and how of fishing cod, tuna and salmon, have taken their toll on fishermen across the EU, not least in small Irish communities.

The tiny village of Brandon on the north side of the Dingle peninsula is one of Ireland’s genuine old-time fishing communities. Steve McDonagh writes that ‘a century ago as many as a hundred canoes used to fish from here, in addition to several larger craft, bringing in mackerel which were cured on the quays by women and children. The salted mackerel were sent in large quantities to North America …’* As recently as the late twentieth century Brandon was home to lucrative fishing within handy striking distance of shore.

Above Brandon Pier on a warm evening a retired skipper who prefers not to be named drains a pint of lager and recalls a more recent local boom-time, in the 1980s and ’90s, when the albacore tuna were thick in the water seventy miles off the coast, Ireland had a healthy 3,000-tonne quota and you could spend the summer hauling them in. (Another man, a deckhand on other boats, told of getting paid in thick envelopes of untaxed cash in those glorious tuna days.)

‘You could land away,’ the skipper says. ‘It was open house.’

Then it stopped. The tuna quota didn’t vanish – in fact it grew. But the EU ban on netting tuna – in favour of a long-line technique that protects dolphins but that our fleet, unlike the Spanish, has never mastered – means Ireland actually lands less than 10 per cent of its tuna quota. Nowadays nothing is moving around Brandon Pier except a couple of lads drawing cheers from their pals with their leaps into the cold sea.

The abuse of the fishing environment has come so easily to fishermen. Indeed, sometimes it seems as thought it were the default position. Joey Murrin from Killybegs tells a sad tale: ‘Fifteen or twenty years ago I had an office in the KFO, and a radio beside my desk where I could listen to the fishermen. I’d hear them say the likes of: “I have sixty boxes – I might bring in six or seven boxes out of that.”’ The rest of the catch, small fish deemed not worth bringing in, but hauled up nonetheless in those convenient 85-millimetre nets, were tossed over the side, dead. ‘It’s going to take a long time to recover from that,’ Murrin says.

If most fishermen are, unlike Murrin, in a state of at least partial denial, then most consumers remain ignorant of the shocking extent to which the seas have been depleted. As the Guardian reported earlier this year:

When chef Rowley Leigh appeared on [BBC] Radio 4’s Food Programme last week singing the praises of the anchovy, he said the best specimens ‘came from the Cantabrian coast, that bit of the Bay of Biscay on the north Spanish coast’. But those fisheries have been closed for some years after overfishing.


Kenmare Bay, as well as being one of the most beautiful spots in Ireland, is also a rich marine environment. As Kieran Lyons stands at the back of a small motor boat, steering it across the glassy waters where the mountains of the Iveragh and Beara peninsulas are reflected, under a small stone bridge and away from the shore, he is confident that the plastic-mesh ‘pots’ piled up in front of him – each about three feet high and a foot in diameter – will fill with shrimp, again and again, as the autumn stretches away. Later he’ll worry about baiting them, then about hauling up the shrimp. Today, in August, is all about choosing the right spot and tossing the pots into the relatively shallow water, with lines and buoys attached so they can be drawn up later.

Apart from a few that he’ll throw into the car to bring home and share with his wife, none of Kieran’s shrimp will be eaten in Ireland. His is a small operation, but the good shellfish in these waters have not escaped the attention of Éire Nova, a subsidiary of the Spanish company Pesca Nova, which has a big factory operation on the outskirts of nearby Castletownbere. His shrimp will end up on Spanish tables.

He’s got six hundred pots out here. Pesca Nova will supply bait, then pay for his shrimp, and they’ll send a van to his landing spot to collect them. On a good day in the autumn Kieran and his partner can haul up more than 10kg of shrimp from a twenty-pot line. On a good day he’ll get to about fifteen of his lines. Last year, with Pesca Nova paying upwards of €11 per kilo, a good day meant grossing upwards of €1,500? ‘That’d be a good day. There’s plenty of bad ones.’ And this year the days have got worse: the market is poor, and Pesca Nova is insisting that Kieran sort through his pots, tossing back smaller shrimp. He knows that this makes sense in many ways, not least ecologically, but with the company now paying only €7 or €8 per kilo, he finds himself working harder and earning perhaps a third of what he made last year.

Despite the sheltered waters, there’s a buccaneering air about this fringe of the Irish seafood industry. Perhaps it’s the neighbours suspiciously watching from a nearly bluff to see where Kieran drops his pots: there are no clear turf rights out here, and it’s every man for himself. Kieran has a licence but his catch is not subject to any quota.

Whole sections of this bay are criss-crossed with mussel beds, where the shellfish are being farmed. Kieran steers his boat between lines of buoys and drops his pots nearby where he reckons the wild shrimp will be roaming to avail of the mussel farm’s juiced-up, nutrient-rich environment. The water is pretty healthy around here now – if the deliciousness of the mussels available at a shoreside pub is anything to go by. But it hasn’t always been that way. A couple of big metal rings mark the spot where salmon was farmed here some years ago. After a couple of poor seasons the salmon farming was abandoned, but not before the locals became worried about the possible damage to the food in these waters from sea-lice and the chemicals used to control them.

Fishermen believe the recent ban on drift-netting for salmon was inspired as much by the political clout of the leisured gentlemen who angle them out of Irish rivers, and of the tourism interests who attract them, as by concern for preservation of the species. Such tourism is not taken lightly by the Irish government, and commercial salmon fishing was never more than a part-time fishery for the low-clout inshore fleet, the men who would otherwise live most of their lives on land and perhaps catch some lobster. At Brandon Pier the men recall how they would abandon their turf-cutting for a thirty-day season of fifteen-hour days netting salmon.

The men are convinced the ban on drift-net fishing for salmon would be unnecessary if only there were a political tolerance for the necessary measures to get rid of seals. ‘Kill all the seals,’ is a frank policy recommendation from one. ‘Or give them the morning-after pill,’ suggests another. Seals are an annoyance in the shrimp game – they can occasionally get into the pots – and they are worse with salmon. Kieran recalls, from his trawler days, nets full of chewed-up salmon, then some with only the head bitten off, then a few where a near-satiated seal had just nibbled off the skin, rendering the fish unfit for sale.

Salmon-farming needn’t make the mess that it did in Kenmare Bay. Marine Harvest, an Oslo-based company, controls close to half the Irish farmed-salmon market, with farms in Donegal for its ‘premium’ range – that’s the ordinary stuff – and at Clare Island in Mayo for the organic range. The differences between the two ranges relate to their feed and to the density of the fish in their cages. Like other farmed salmon, they are fed principally on fish-meal; although critics complain that this is a waste of fish, the industry says the meal is made from ‘bycatch’ that wouldn’t otherwise reach the human food chain – and that, moreover, salmon are far more efficient processors of feed than other farmed animals.

All of Marine Harvest’s fish earns the French Label Rouge, a quality mark originally created for poultry reared on pasture. The Mayo fish further qualify for the rigorous French organic standard, AB. The French connection is not an accident: French consumers, and costly French quality certifications, are at the heart of Marine Harvest’s marketing strategy. Irish consumers may continue to ask for ‘wild’ salmon, but elsewhere the word ‘Irish’ will do fine. This may have something to do with Ireland’s perhaps unjustified green image in foreign markets, in the ‘Ah, Kerrygold’ sense. French housewives may see the word ‘Irish’ and assume the salmon has been fished wild out of pristine Atlantic waters. In any case, Marine Harvest’s pursuit of quality marks has nothing to do with deceiving consumers, but rather with establishing that ‘Irish’ farmed salmon has some especially desirable qualities.

As another small motor boat weaves between large cages in Mulroy Bay off the shore of the Fanad peninsula near the northernmost tip of Donegal, hundreds of thousands of young fish are living up to the (possibly apocryphal) Latin origin of the word salmon – salmo, or leaper. Not only the water but the air above its surface is thick with pink-bellied fish throwing themselves around with crazed abandon. Two per cent of the volume of water in these ‘premium’ cages is fish flesh; to qualify as organic it would have to be half that density. These fish will never swim upriver – indeed, part of their unnatural life-cycle involves being shifted around in tanker-trucks – but there seems to be room in there for the creatures to express some part of their essential salmon-ness. Strong tides from the north Atlantic do much of the hygiene work, and also ensure the fishes’ muscles are toned to something like a desirable firmness. Another set of cages in nearby Lough Swilly lie fallow at the moment. Boosters insist that this sort of setting means that Irish farmed salmon is comparable to the wild stuff. And with nature doing so much of the work the costs are not prohibitive – just as well when consumers expect to buy salmon, like other food, at absurdly cheap prices.

Ireland produces as much farmed salmon in a year as Norway produces in a week. That, in turn, is a fraction of the overall aquaculture of China, which accounts for 70 per cent of the world’s farmed fish. In 2007 farmed fish constituted more than 40 per cent of global fish consumption, and there is no prospect of the small pockets of consumer resistance holding back the tide. The French EU presidency called in September for more EU development in this area – at present just 11 per cent of EU fish production is farmed, and this sector constitutes only 2.5 per cent (and falling) of global aquaculture.

But no one at the moment is pushing hard for very dramatic expansion in Ireland’s aquaculture industry, which has in fact contracted since its peak in 2002, hit by imports (salmon from Norway, mussels from Chile) as well as mismanagement and disease. There appears to be potential in rainbow trout and cod, and in shellfish: Ireland grows mussels and oysters as fast as or faster than anywhere else in Europe. It’s a small industry, with perhaps 1,900 direct and indirect jobs, and the most ambitious talk is of maybe doubling that figure.


There’s a buzz about the waterfront in Castletownbere. Colin Farrell is in town making a Neil Jordan movie about a fisherman who thinks he’s caught a mermaid in his net. Tourists mill about hoping for a glimpse of someone famous, or they grab the ferry across the perfect little harbour to Bere Island.

But the buzz can’t hide the changes in the town’s economy. It’s not the same place it was, say, twelve years ago, when on the dreary main street that lies right beside the busy pier complex you could find a SuperValu that was among the best-stocked in Ireland, full of tasty luxury foods – handmade pastas, imported and artisanal cheeses, undreamed-of between here and Mount Merrion. The air of cosmopolitanism came not just from the many Spanish fishermen and their families who had settled here – they’re still around – but from all the money around the place. That was the 1990s, the boom time, when nets full of tuna and salmon supplemented the whitefish catches that might or might not stick strictly to their legal limits. Nowadays, the salmon and tuna are gone and, with stocks collapsing, whitefish quotas are both much reduced and much more tightly enforced for Irish vessels. The SuperValu is still there, but you’re lucky to find a block of cheddar in it. The new art gallery facing the pier suggests that hopes for the local economy lie in upmarket tourism rather than fish.

Donal O’Driscoll and his four brothers settled here in the 1950s, when there was just an old wooden pier. Castletownbere’s port is sheltered, and you can come and go at all tides. In the early days the O’Driscolls didn’t go far: you could catch whiting, pollock, cod and hake within three miles of the shore. The Spanish would fish right up to the three-mile limit, mainly catching their beloved hake. There was little sense of competition – Ireland still hardly had an offshore fleet to speak of. But this place was a natural pick to be one of Ireland’s five main fishing ports when BIM set out its strategy for a brighter marine future.

There was no ice plant locally for years – they had to bring in ice from Cork – and the Spaniards didn’t land their catches at Castletownbere until the 1970s, when the pier was expanded. Nowadays, the main activity follows a peculiar rhythm: in a typical week O’Driscoll can look out his window between Thursday and Saturday and see as many as thirty Spanish-owned trawlers (sometimes French-flagged, five of them even Irish-flagged) come into the harbour, with, among other things, hake they’ve trawled and monkfish caught on long lines that can hook thousands of fish at a time. Most of the catch is loaded directly into refrigerated trucks that quickly hit the Cork road en route to Spain.

When Pesca Nova set up here in the early 1970s, the fisheries minister, Brian Lenihan, said it would bring 120 jobs. O’Driscoll says it never reached forty. The local Spaniards are well liked, he says; Spaniards crew on Irish vessels and no one takes exception, ‘and anyway a crewman has nothing to do with what his boss is doing’. But the town’s transformation from Irish fishing hub to Spanish transit point has hit like a winter storm. At the peak in the ’90s the local fishing co-op – the company, linked to the PO, that buys its members’ fish – had a membership of sixty. A private alternative, Fast Fish, had another ten to fifteen boats. That was more than seventy boats, sizeable trawlers of seventy to eighty feet in length. ‘Now there’s not a third of that,’ O’Driscoll says. And there is more decommissioning to come, this time a big tranche, officially subsidized and affecting most of the ports in Ireland: the industry is in the midst of negotiations that will see half of Ireland’s whitefish fleet taken permanently out of action. (O’Driscoll’s own hope now is to get a bigger boat and move out of whitefish into winter pelagic fishing.)

Within the space of a single generation, the vicissitudes of the fishing industry have transformed Castletownbere from sleepy backwater to officially sanctioned magnet-port to post-industrial strip in need of prettification. An official who watched the catastrophe unfold says its latter stages got no attention in Dublin: ‘During the Celtic Tiger no one gave a shit about the decline of these communities.’


Killybegs, on the south-west coast of Co. Donegal, has a few architectural highlights, such as the big white house that overlooks the harbour and accommodates the KFO, but its air of spatial disorder makes it appear immune to prettification. Much of the town sprang up with the ad-hoc planning that marked the 1980s, when Killybegs was the centre of a virtual gold rush. Many of the big local fishermen came here from other parts of the country.

‘We had money when everyone else in Ireland was struggling,’ says Martin Howley, sitting in his office in the white house. ‘Factory workers were doing hundred-hour weeks.’

The fishermen of Killybegs essentially invented the Irish pelagic industry in the 1970s. ‘If we hadn’t, Ireland would have no pelagic quota,’ Howley boasts. Whereas Ireland didn’t have enough of a record in catching whitefish to stave off the French and Spanish, the rapid development of the Killybegs fleet meant the country had a pelagic catch to point to when the quotas were being shared out in Brussels for the Common Fisheries Policy in 1983. Ireland now has over 16 per cent of the EU pelagic quota, based on the 1983 share-out and on the variations in the total allowances for various species that have taken place since that time.

The Norwegian-built pelagic boats tied up in the harbour here are of a different order from the whitefish trawlers of the rest of Ireland. They are not for day-trips to the shoals; they are more like factories on the sea, with high-tech fish-targeting equipment and sluices that carry the fish, mackerel mostly, into refrigerated sea-water tanks below deck. Without such tanks, it seems, there is little point in landing pelagic fish, which otherwise get too damaged in transit. Twenty-one of the twenty-three boats in Ireland’s pelagic fleet are here. With quotas falling – mackerel down 50 per cent in the last five years – they are now out about one hundred days a year, of which perhaps thirty days actually involve nets in the water.

During the gold rush – the extraordinary confluence of supply, demand, improved fishing technology and then, for a time, ample quotas – Howley was away at sea for perhaps 330 days per year. ‘My kids grew up and I didn’t see them.’ It’s not surprising that family breakdown is a common Killybegs story.

Howley freely admits that none of the trawler owners came from local fishing stock: he himself came from Mayo. No, none of them are passing on the business to their children. Forget any romantic notions about fishing as a sacred inheritance. Around here it’s a flame that burned all too brightly for just one generation: the declining stocks and quotas mean the pier here is not the magnet it was.

But the flame hasn’t entirely burned out. There is widespread agreement that there is still a future for pelagic fishing in Ireland. Unlike with the whitefish fleet, there is no decommissioning scheme for Ireland’s pelagic fleet, and the fishermen aren’t demanding one. The species they fish – pelagic fish include herring, sardine, anchovy and mullet, but around here it’s mostly mackerel – are surviving and there are hopes for their strong recovery.

In Donegal the main competition comes from Holland, the long-time EU leader in this field, and from non-EU states. Dutch-owned boats flying various flags catch probably half the EU pelagic quota. Dutch companies also dominate the wholesale market for pelagic fish: a lot of the fish caught and processed in Killybegs is bought by the Dutch. Dutch boats come here to the port and take processed mackerel away. (National quotas are irrelevant after the fish are landed.) There are five pelagic fish processors in Killybegs, but that is down from twelve just a few years ago.

The Dutch pelagic dominance does not spark the same resentment as the Spanish do with their massive whitefish role further south, partly because in the pelagic industry there are big non-EU players who must, it seems, be resisted. ‘We work with the Dutch, to fight Norway, the Faroes, Iceland,’ Howley says. Norway has successfully negotiated access to a quota of pelagic fish from EU waters, because some of the mackerel spawning areas are in Norwegian waters. ‘We get our share after Norway are appeased,’ Howley says. ‘They’ve managed their fisheries extremely well – but they’re a pain in the arse as far as we’re concerned.’

The main ambition for the Killybegs fleet and their EU counterparts is to get officials to increase their total allowable catch of mackerel. ‘Out at sea in recent times we have seen a huge resurgence of mackerel. We’ve got to wait for the science to catch up with the reality – but the lag is typically about three years. That’s too long whether the stocks are going up or down.’ (In November, after I talked with Howley, the EU fisheries commissioner acknowledged the ‘resurgence’ by proposing a significant increase in the mackerel catch, along with huge cuts in whitefish catches.) While fishermen’s livelihoods have not collapsed to the extent that they have in the whitefish fleet, and the Killybegs skippers probably had some savings to fall back upon, fishermen here have seen their quotas halved, while fuel prices trebled and the price of fish stayed about the same. The equation speaks for itself.

The Killybegs fleet has also faced bureaucratic troubles other than the quota. Ten years ago the pelagic fleet here was under pressure from the EU for being too big, part of the bureaucrats’ nascent effort to endorse ‘effort management’ in the face of failure to enforce catch quotas. With political help from Dublin, Killybegs wiggled out of trouble – and history suggests the town carries more weight politically than other fishing ports. The elevation of Donegal TD Mary Coughlan as Tánaiste is welcomed here, while elsewhere in the country it is believed the county’s influence ensures that the focus of Garda overfishing investigations will be further south.

But Killybegs is perhaps most notorious for its bit part in the shameful story of European fishing off the west African coast.

‘I recall in 1994 we had a visitor to Ireland representing 19,000 Senegalese in-shore fishermen,’ Donal O’Driscoll says. ‘He came here to ask us to please ask our MEPs to stop EU money going to Senegal to buy fishing rights there.’ This seemingly strange tale of unwanted Third World ‘aid’ – the purchase of fishing rights from poor African countries has been accounted by the EU as aid spending, and is scarcely unique in its unhelpfulness to the recipient – is worth explaining. Countries such as Senegal and Mauritania get more from the EU fishery budget than Ireland does, money that goes to those nations’ governments in return for access by EU boats to the waters off their coasts – a potentially devastating exchange for local fisherfolk. That official arrangement opened the door to a well-documented culture of backhanders that saw many European boats exceed the agreed rules with the connivance of local officials.

An international anti-poverty NGO, Action Aid, released a report in 2008 on the terrible human effect of EU fishing policy in Senegal: ‘years of over-exploitation of fishing resources have seriously affected the food security of millions of Senegalese’, the charity writes. And plans for further bilateral agreements that include fisheries, and may involve local flags of convenience for European boats, could make things worse.

Some of the travails of African fishing communities at the hands of the big fishing powers would look familiar in Ireland, so there is some small irony in the fact that the poster-boat for EU excesses off the African coast was an Irish super-trawler, the Atlantic Dawn, hailed by the national media when it launched in 2000 as the world’s largest fishing vessel, 145 metres long, with a crew of a hundred. Taras Grescoe, in his book Bottomfeeder, choosing his comparison carefully, says the boat ‘is on the scale of a good-sized destroyer’.

Its owner, Kevin McHugh, moved to Killybegs in the 1970s after the Celtic Sea herring fishery closed down, and came to embody the Killybegs boom. McHugh was so eager a decade ago to get into Mauritanian waters that he commissioned a Norwegian shipyard to build Atlantic Dawn without having secured an EU fishing licence for it; this was problematic, given that it would be an Irish-flagged pelagic vessel and, as noted above, the Irish fleet was already oversized. After a chaotic birth full of bureaucratic manoeuvres (including the extraordinary decision by Irish fisheries minister Frank Fahey to skirt EU rules by registering this unparalleled fish-catching machine as a merchant vessel), it began to trawl African waters, bringing in more than three hundred tonnes of small fish a day.

‘A lot of people would have seen McHugh as wrong,’ Howley says. ‘If so, everybody else was wrong too. The EU opened the door in Africa for the sake of the Dutch, the Germans, the British to some extent. McHugh saw it open and he went for it.’

When McHugh conceived the idea of the Atlantic Dawn he thought it could spend some months fishing an Irish quota before heading for Africa. By the time it was built the Irish catch was too small for such a boat to be viable locally. So it had to confine itself to Africa, where it was merely the biggest vessel in an EU fleet of forty or more ships.

Even for the biggest fishing boat in the world, working as just one ship in far-flung international waters poses logistical challenges, and the Atlantic Dawn came under pressure from local authorities. In 2005, after a coup in Mauritania, it was apprehended and the operating company fined a quarter of a million US dollars. McHugh died, after a mysterious short illness, in 2006. His dream-turned-nightmare passed into Dutch hands and continues to ply African waters.


It’s another very windy autumn day in Howth, Co. Dublin, and while the old couples in their anoraks are braving the weather for a walk on the pier, the fishing boats are tied up.

Still, the fish shops are full of fish – virtually none of it local, not much of it even Irish. Few things annoy Irish fishermen more than shops full of imported fish, especially the ones right here by the docks rubbing their noses in it. In Killybegs a little wooden trailer set up within fifty feet of the boats sells haddock from the Faroe Islands and cod from Iceland. In Cork’s English Market, the little stall of ‘Irish fish only’ is down to little other than smoked haddock, and looks rather pathetic next to the impressive heaps of largely imported fish on neighbouring slabs. In Dingle there is Norwegian salmon and Indian Ocean tuna, and locals complain that the crab-processing plant there was killed by cheap imports. All these species used to be fished easily from Irish waters, but Irish catches are now greatly reduced. And with those reductions, the economies of scale that once made it worthwhile for Irish wholesalers and distributors to work with Irish producers no longer apply.

Nick Lynch, a fishmonger based up the road from Howth in Ashbourne, Co. Meath, says the fishermen just don’t get it. ‘Fishermen’s margins are being squeezed by costs, not by imports,’ he says, and imports are needed to maintain consumption in Ireland. ‘Customers are creatures of habit and want to be able to buy the same species. Restaurants need to be able to keep a particular fish on the menu. Consumers won’t just decide to eat a particular fish when fishermen have it available.’

The extent to which consumers really know what fish they’re eating is debatable. A New York Times story revealed last summer that, in a sample of sixty pieces of seafood bought in Manhattan, fully a quarter proved to be something other than what they were labelled once subjected to DNA testing.

A piece of sushi sold as the luxury treat white tuna turned out to be Mozambique tilapia, a much cheaper fish that is often raised by farming. Roe supposedly from flying fish was actually from smelt. Seven of nine samples that were called red snapper were mislabeled, and they turned out to be anything from Atlantic cod to Acadian redfish, an endangered species.

‘The Irish fishermen who complain don’t understand the processing and retailing end of the business,’ Lynch says; and some of the others don’t seem to particularly care about selling in Ireland. Lynch cites Marine Harvest as, until recently, one of the guilty parties in this respect, uninterested in Irish retail business. (This is a company that boasts of its ability to fly a salmon from an underwater cage in Mayo to a shop shelf in America within a couple of days.)

Martin Howley tends to agree that Irish fishermen aren’t getting the best out of their fish. The fairly smooth, mostly Dutch-run chain of commerce for mackerel doesn’t apply to whitefish, where ‘there is mismanagement of the stock between catch and sale: the gap is much too big’. Indeed, ‘mismanagement’ is a word that often springs to mind when considering the Irish fishing industry, with the Irish government sharing responsibility with the EU and fishermen themselves.

‘What you might call “Olympic fishing” is alive and well in ports around Ireland,’ says Richie Flynn, executive secretary of IFA Aquaculture. ‘There’s a peculiar “the most we can get as quickly as possible” attitude’: the temptation to gorge when the going is good is often irresistible. In Norway and Iceland, Murrin insists, the attitude is not the same. ‘I met an Icelandic fisherman getting off his boat with four boxes of cod. “That’s all?” I asked him. “I left the other four out there,” he said.’ It wasn’t a matter of discarding dead fish but of fishing only the largest cod, and only as many as he needed. The conservation mentality he observed in this fisherman – fishing only what he needed, thinking of the needs of the fish and their future – was, says Murrin, a consequence of his government’s conservation policy. ‘People will only treat the sea with the respect the government gives it.’

Murrin retired from the KFO in 1999 and speaks his mind freely. When the government set up the Cawley commission to report on the future of the industry, Murrin was one of the three wise men who sat on it. Their document, released in 2007, is a worthy compendium of aspiration, warning, and insistence on the need to cut back the Irish fleet.

‘The one thing every fisherman forgets about is the foundation of the industry: fish,’ Murrin says. ‘Shortage of fish is a real problem, and there is no conservation policy.’ Meanwhile, ‘unless the science is positive the fishermen never believe it’.

He traces the most recent phase of the tragedy of the seas to the Common Fisheries Policy. At the time it was enacted in 1983, the scientific evidence on fish stocks was poor. ‘The quotas bore no resemblance to what was in the sea,’ he says, and the misfit was an invitation to ignore the rules – not because the quotas were too low (they generally were the opposite of that) but because it was easy to caricature them as politically motivated and inflexible. When it comes to whitefish he is ‘absolutely and totally pessimistic’, he says. ‘You can’t be throwing 65 to 70 per cent of the catch over the side, dead fish, and hope to have an industry in the future … In 1979 there were twenty-five whitefish boats out of Killybegs making a living fishing Donegal Bay. There’s not one in it now. You don’t need to be a scientist to know what’s wrong.’

A start, he says, would be to ban the dumping of dead fish: boats should be required to bring home all the fish they catch. That would have two effects: scientists would have a more accurate account of what was being caught, and fishermen would be motivated not to catch more than they really wanted to carry home.

In any case, he says, it may be too late. ‘I was here when boats were fishing eleven months of the year. Now they’re not fishing eleven weeks. This is a European disaster. It needs a European solution. There’s more meetings now than there is fish. I’m not aware of any country in Europe with its fleet fishing in EU waters where they’re doing well.’

There is no doubt whatsoever in Murrin’s mind that half the Irish fleet needs to be decommissioned. But that’s only half a solution. ‘It’s the other half I’m concerned about.’

* This and following quotes from John de Courcy, Irish Sea Fisheries: A History, 1981.

Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 33 Winter 2008–9