Death of the Fisherman

Fishing boat on sand
Fishing boat on sand

By Sharon Ni Chonchuir, Contributor
October / November 2006

With European legislation already curtailing the amount of available fishing waters, the Irish government’s proposed decision to end the drift netting of salmon has put one of Ireland’s most iconic professions in danger of extinction. Sharon Ni Chonchuir examines the plight of small Irish fishermen who fear their way of life is about to end.

Standing at the end of the pier on a soft summer’s evening, a lone fisherman looks out to sea. His boat bobs on the gentle waves, keeping company with other colorful vessels. The day’s catch is safely stored in ice and the nets have been gathered in readiness for tomorrow’s work. A sigh of satisfaction escapes his lips. A sigh tinged with a careworn sadness. “I’ve had a hard day’s work but it’s been a good one,” he says. “When this ends, I might just die of loneliness for the sea.”

Seán Johnson, a ruddy-faced, lean-sinewed fisherman who fishes out of Ballydavid pier in West Kerry, is not sentimental by nature. This strong, stoic man who has fished his native seas for over forty years is a fighting character who loves his work.However, his livelihood is now in danger. The Irish government is preparing to put an end to the drift netting of salmon – the main source of income for Seán and 870 others like him along Ireland’s western seaboard. This is merely the latest in a long series of blows to the small, indigenous fishing industry but it might just be deadly. “Salmon represents up to 70 percent of our income,” says Seán. “It’s our lifeline. If we lose it, we too are lost.”

The Irish fishing industry has been under threat ever since the country joined the EU in 1973. Under the terms of the accession agreement, Ireland reduced its rights to its waters. Irish fishermen are now entitled to fish a meager four percent of Irish waters; the rest is shared with other EU nations. Fishing policy changed too. Large-scale industrial fishing was favored; the small fisherman ignored and neglected. The Irish government backed this policy. They had jurisdiction over inland fisheries — the first six miles of water that makes up the fishing grounds of the small fisherman. Depending on which camp you belong to, either they set about systematically dismantling the small fishing sector or they destroyed it through apathy and neglect.

“The government, whether they meant to or not, have brought about the end of the small Irish fisherman,” says TP Ó Conchúir, a spokesman for the Ballydavid fishermen. “These men, who represent a culture and a tradition that has existed in Ireland for hundreds of years, are now an endangered species.”

Seán Johnson is a typical example. Now in his fifties, he started fishing from Ballydavid pier when he was 13 years old, learning traditional skills from older generations. There were ten men fishing out of Ballydavid at the time and they taught him how to fish in the traditional style in a naomhóg (an indigenous Irish boat consisting of animal skin stretched over a wooden frame). He learned more than practical skills.

“The generations that went before us were gentler than we are,” he explains, with more than a hint of admiration in his voice. “They were in tune with nature and treated her with care. Then again, perhaps they didn’t have the same pressures we have. Life has changed.”

Seán is descended from fishermen. His father fished until he was offered a full-time job by the county council when he was 35. His grandfather and his two brothers were dedicated fishermen.

Seán recalls a story about them – a telling story. “They started fishing as young men but after a while the fishing failed,” he says. “It got so bad they emigrated to America. They had been there for three months, making a living on building sites, when they got a letter from their mother telling them the bay was full of fish again. It was all the encouragement they needed. They were soon home and back on the seas again. They may not have made much money but they were happy.”

Seán too is happy. Unlike many of us, who dread the slog of life in the office, he gets great job satisfaction. He enjoys rising at four in the morning and anticipating a day of hard physical labor. The fresh air; the movement of the sea; the wind and rain; the sun on the water; and the natural rhythm of the work; he looks forward to all these things. Today, Seán has a 37-foot boat. He and twenty other fishermen from Ballydavid fish crab, lobster and salmon but their opportunities are dwindling by the day. Mackerel fishing — a staple when Seán first started out — is no longer an option. It is fished by bigger boats further out to sea. Because of Ireland’s trade agreements, lobster no longer fetches the high price it once did. “What’s more,” adds Seán, “last year, they decided to ban lobster fishing from September onwards, (the season ususally extended into October) I’m convinced they’ll do it again this year.” Another door closed to the small fisherman.

Crab is still a money-earner but it’s growing scarce. And now the salmon – the small fisherman’s main catch – is about to be snatched away.

“It’s not fair,” says TP Ó Conchúir. “These fishermen made sacrifices over the years – for the sake of the salmon. They accepted a quota system. They agreed to only fish for 32 days a year. And now they’re being told that although they took all the pain, they are not allowed any of the gain.”

The government recognizes the injustice of the situation. John Browne, the Minister of State at the Department of the Marine, recently admitted as much in a response he made to a parliamentary question. “The commercial fishing industry has made a considerable effort to build a sustainable fishery over the past number of years,” he said. “They have endured large cuts in the quotas available to them. These reductions have caused them difficulty and further changes will likely compound these problems.” The government has appointed a commission to examine the implications of proposed new regulations for the commercial sector in 2007 and beyond. This commission will make recommendations on options available for addressing financial hardship.

This is not what fishermen like Seán want to hear. “I don’t want money. I want to fish,” he insists. “I want to continue living the way I’ve always lived. It’s what I know best.” The fishermen suspect there are political motivations behind the government’s decision. “This is more than the conservation issue the government says it is,” insists TP. “Anglers want these fish for themselves. They have political clout and money and, as a result, the small Irish fisherman is being pushed off the seas.”

Seán agrees. “It seems to be a question of giving the rich people of Ireland what they want, even if it means depriving less privileged, marginalized fishermen along the West Coast. We are only 870 people scattered all over Ireland. It’s easy to get rid of us.”

TP and Seán explain that a long lobbying campaign preceded this government decision. “The anglers had a big PR campaign with lots of money behind it,” says Seán. “We couldn’t compete. We didn’t have the time and we certainly didn’t have the money.” Not that they didn’t try. After much scrimping and saving, they raised €30,000 – a sum which allowed the fishermen to mount a semblance of a campaign. Fishing communities got together. They went to Dublin. They met politicians. They sought expert advice. “But in the end, we didn’t have enough money,” says Seán. Edward Porter, the chairman of the Federation of Irish Salmon and Sea Trout Anglers (FISSTA), tells another story. He and the 20,000 other anglers in Ireland have campaigned for an end to commercial drift netting of salmon for over 20 years.

“It’s an unsustainable and damaging policy,” he says. “It must be stopped now before it is too late for the salmon.”

With 15,000 salmon the annual amount allowed to be caught legally by rod, Porter objects to fishermen’s allegations that salmon will now be killed by anglers on rivers instead of in nets at sea. “Our founding member Jim Maxwell always said that ‘it is not the intention of FISSTA members to change the point of slaughter from drift net to rod. We continue to hold to this principle,” he maintains.

No matter what the outcome of such political wrangling, the likely result is that small Irish fishermen who have played such a vital part in coastal communities for hundreds of years will soon die out.

Seán believes many will choose financial compensation if offered a choice between that and remaining at sea. “They don’t want the hassle of quotas, limits and the endless struggle to make a living anymore. Small farmers took the easy option. The fishermen will too,” he explains, referring to EU legislation that grants farmers a certain amount of money from the EU annually, determined by their income over the past three years, regardless of whether they farm their land or not. Many farmers are choosing to avail of the money and leave farming – heralding the end of the small farming industry.

Seán doesn’t intend to take the money. He hopes to be able to diversify into different markets. However, he is not optimistic. “I know that at the end of the day, I’ll probably have to sell the boat and stop fishing,” he says. “If the salmon fails, I’ll be alone in Ballydavid. Most of the other boats will go and it won’t be a fishing port anymore.”

His outlook for the future is bleak. “What will I do instead?” he asks despondently. “I’m not interested in another way of life. My life is the sea.” Seán and TP are also concerned about the effect the loss of the industry will have on the community as a whole.

Firstly, there are economic repercussions. Eight fishermen will lose their jobs. With their industry-specific skills, where are they going to find another? On a larger scale, if salmon fishing ceases, this will also have an effect on salmon processors. Taking West Kerry as an example, the three salmon processors in the area provide employment for up to 100 people — people whose jobs are now in jeopardy.

In this area, typical of many western regions, options are limited. “Farming is dying out, our fishing industry is under threat and soon we’ll only have tourism,” explains TP. “It’s a precarious situation to be in and there’s no knowing if it’s enough to keep us going.”

Seán agrees. “In years gone by, fishing saved me and many like me from emigration,” he says. “It gave us something to stay at home for and we helped to keep our communities alive – we married, had children and sent them to local schools . . . Now, with fishing gone, people will have to go elsewhere for work and our communities will be under threat again.”

Ballydavid and other ports along the western seaboard will no longer be the busy places of work they once were. “The day will come when there will be no boats and no one on the pier, except some wandering ghosts,” says Seán. “It will be a sad day.”

There will also be other, less tangible, implications. Skills that have been passed in an unbroken chain from one generation to the next will eventually be forgotten.

“There’s a proverb in Irish – éist le glór na h-abhann agus geobhair breac – it means listen to the sounds of the river and you’ll catch a trout,” says Seán. “Fishermen know the sea like no one else, we know its ways.” Seán has an intimate knowledge of the local coastline; he knows its rocks, its fishing grounds, its birds, and its swells, tides and currents. He gained this knowledge from generations of fishermen who fished these coasts before him and from his many years at sea. This knowledge will soon be lost to all.

Seán is worried about older fishermen. The salmon season gives a pattern and a shape to these people’s lives. They look forward to it from one year’s end to the next. “It’s like farmers setting potatoes or making hay,” says Seán. “It gives them a topic of conversation and, in a way, it keeps them alive.”

What will happen to them,” he wonders. “They’ll be heartbroken.”

Séan too will be devastated. This man, whose skin and bones have been salted by decades on the sea, knows that the end is drawing near. “I’ve never lost a job but I can see that I am going to lose one now,” he says, dejectedly. “What will I do instead?”

TP, a fighter to the last, is unwilling to concede defeat. “We’re talking about people’s rights here,” he maintains. “This is about a way of life, an entire culture. The government will have to think again if they think we are going to lie down and die. They won’t wipe out coastal communities without a fight.”

Unfortunately, for Ireland’s fishing community, it seems as though Séan’s pessimism is the more pragmatic outlook. Drift netting of salmon is likely to be banned next year. Many fishermen will be out of a job.

Yet another of Ireland’s traditional industries bites the dust.

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