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Last Updated: Friday, 10 December 2004, 18:54 GMT
Rough seas for fishing industry
By Martin Cassidy
BBC Northern Ireland's rural affairs correspondent

Out beyond the harbour wall, trawlers are labouring their way in from a grey horizon.

Bobbing and rolling they negotiate the heavy swell and make the tight right hand turn into Portavogie harbour on the Ards peninsula.

It has been a tough week for the local fleet, rough weather and slack tides are being blamed for poor catches.

As they tie up along the fish market - skippers are hungry for news of what the European Commission has in store for the Irish Sea fishery.

The quota cuts are not as harsh as in recent years
The quota cuts are not as harsh as in recent years

In fact, the fleet has arrived home to what many crews see as a mixed bag of proposals.

The EC quota cuts are not as harsh as in recent years, and in the case of plaice, boats will be permitted to catch up to 20% more in 2005.

But what is worrying trawlermen is the suggestion that large areas of coastal waters might be closed to fishing.

It is an idea they are familiar with through the cod recovery plan and the closure of spawning areas each spring.

Declining fish stocks

Dick James of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organisation is a veteran of the annual European negotiations over catches which will culminate in a council of fisheries ministers in Brussels just before Christmas.

"I have a notion they are waiting for us in Brussels and when we get there they are going to gunk us with something," he said.

Mr James believes it was no coincidence that the Royal Commision on Environmental Pollution had the previous day called for the problem of declining fish stocks to be addressed by the establishment of marine nature reserves covering 30% of coastal waters.

Its plan also refers to further restrictions on fishing effort mostly through closed areas.

"With the publicity we have had this week I wouldn't be surprised at all to see proposals on the table for closed areas and they could be very damaging," he said.

Dick James of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organisations is a veteran of  the annual negotiations
Dick James is a veteran of the annual negotiations

But conservationists like Malachy Campbell of WWF are weighing in behind the marine nature reserve concept and believe that in the longer-term fishermen will benefit from a recovery in depleted stocks.

"It has been demonstrated to work all across the world so I think it could actually benefit not just the environment but fishermen as well, as there would be more fish there to catch," he said.

After four days at sea the Brighter Morn lands at Portavogie and it has just a few boxes of fish to show for its efforts - thin pickings.

The boat's skipper Davy Hill insists there are still plenty of fish left to catch out in the Irish Sea.

Marine scientists disagree.

Beyond the harbour

Under the European Commission plan, the Brighter Morn will see the number of days it is permitted to fish fall from 17 to just 10 days each month.

Davy Hill expresses exasperation with a process he sees being controlled by people with little experience of life beyond the harbour wall.

"The rhetoric gets stronger and there is always a proportion of it gets implemented, so slowly we are getting put into a corner," he says.

If there is one bright spot in the Irish sea it is prawns.

After years of cutbacks, the scientists now say the stock is stable.

Cod quotas could be cut

And with no further cuts planned next year, prawn landings are expected to top 10m which would represent over half the local fleet's income.

But for cod and haddock the commission is recommending reductions in Irish Sea quotas for next year.

The new fisheries commissioner Joe Borg talks of a balance between what is necessary biologically to conserve marine life and what is economically reasonable for fishing communities.

Where that balance lies will be decided at the fisheries council which starts in Brussels on 20 December.

For now the Portavogie boats are heading back to sea knowing that the new year will almost certainly bring new restrictions.


SEE ALSO:
EU set to close fishing grounds
08 Dec 04 |  Science/Nature



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