Risteard O Domhnaill’s gripping new film looks at the startling challenges faced by Atlantic trawlermen – from the Atlantic and beyond
Last week, before eating a cod and chorizo stew, I checked to see where the fish had come from, writes Adam Shaw. This is something I had never done previously, save for the odd can of tuna, but I wanted to see where it was caught and packed, out of interest.
This interest had stemmed from a conversation I’d recently had with filmmaker Risteard Ó Domhnaill who described the current plight of fishermen on the Atlantic coast, which, incidentally, was where my cod was from.
Richie, as he is known, divulged the daily battles these men face and how the average person on the street would have little to no knowledge of this. “Communities on the west coast of Ireland rely on fishing but they’re being crushed by rules, regulations and a lack of policing,” he said. “The sea is being completely over-fished and it’s dominated by these huge super trawlers that gobble up everything in their path.
“It’s unfair, it pushes out the smaller man – people who need fish to survive – and it moves everything over to big, wealthy companies.” He explained how it all sort of stems from a lack of understanding – from the bottom to the top. Those outside the immediate fishing community would struggle to appreciate the nature of the industry, how it works and how useful it can be.
“About 90 per cent of Irish territory is water and, for an island, we don’t really give too much thought to the sea.
“It can be associated with a lot of negative things – you eat fish on a Friday and you do that as an act of penance. Then there are connotations of tragedy and invasion, it’s an uneasy relationship.” Richie grew up in Tipperary, surrounded by hills and with all its attentions focused on land and property. He noted how this blinkered attitude extends to large parts of Ireland; everything is centred on agriculture and business despite the huge potential of the ocean.
“Irish politicians, and to an extent those in the UK, sold out their coastal opportunities for other industries. We’ve not shown the right amount of respect to the Atlantic or taken full advantage of what it has to offer.
“[Ireland] has a complex relationship with the EU, there are a lot of good things but, when it comes to fishing, we got it wrong.” As part of his new documentary, Atlantic, he also visits similar fishing communities in Norway and Canada.
The Norwegians rejected a deal offered by the EU, “stood up” for their fishermen and have consistently developed policies to protect their rights in their territorial waters.
The same happened in Newfoundland, where advances by large corporations to try and exploit the oil and gas reserves in the area were met with resistance. Ireland on the other hand, in spite of what those in Brussels say, has to give up large percentages of its own fish. While Russian involvement has significantly declined, boats from other countries, backed by massive companies can hoover up Irish fish, making life unnecessarily hard for local fishermen.
“Fishermen in Ireland, and Scotland, know that there’s nothing they can do. There’s no way they can compete with these super trawlers and, currently, they have no voice to raise the issue.
“You can see the anger and the hurt among these guys and it’s got to a point where they end up fighting with each other just to try and survive. They’re faced with a tough decision because if they want to stay in business, they’ve got to take on their friends and neighbours.” Richie gave an example of the scale of the challenge these fishermen face.
One boat, the 120 metre-long Cornelius Vrolijk, catches almost a quarter of England’s fishing quota. It flies under the British flag but is entirely Dutch run. EU law permits it to fish in foreign waters and local fishermen don’t stand a chance against such a formidable vessel.He also explained the travesty of wasted fish due to a common practice carried out by super trawlers in British and Irish seas. There was one boat which caught 9,000 tonnes of herring. But it ended up throwing 4,000 tonnes back into the water.
“This is because it’s more profitable to them that way. They can keep the best ones and get rid of the ones that are worth the effort.
“It’s all about profit margins to the people behind the super trawlers but it’s an absolute waste and has a huge impact on others.”
What one giant boat can pick up over a four week period, not necessarily to be used in the country from whose waters it was plucked, could sustain all the fishing communities on the Celtic Sea in the southwest of Ireland for two years. This statistic, Richie explained, is a perfect example of why the people affected get so upset. “You can see why all the fishermen were championing Brexit. They were so angry at being treated unfairly and what they saw as being robbed.
“The difference between what can be pulled in is staggering. I have no doubt that if Ireland were to vote on leaving the EU tomorrow, the fishermen would be in the leave camp.”
If the situation is so hopeless and it looks as if there is little which can be done, there is unlikely to be a future for the small fishing communities. Many have already collapsed and are referred to as “tombstones of the coast” while those which are clinging on are a depressing sight for most of the year. For example, Arranmore of the west coast of Co. Donegal used to be built around the fishing industry.
Now it is virtually non-existent with tourism funding its survival. Richie believes there are things which can be done to alter the situation, starting with simple steps which anyone can get involved with.
“Ask at the fishmongers or check when you’re at the supermarket to see where the produce has come from. Is it from a local port? There’s been a big push for promoting local goods when it comes to meat. We do it a lot for beef, why should it be any different for fish? Even something as little as that can make a huge difference to smaller boats. It’s important to support them, both socially and economically.”
Ultimately, there needs to be movement at a higher level as well. Politicians need to, and in some cases are, pushing for more protection and for greater awareness. If the law is to remain as it is then there needs to be greater policing on the waters as this is what enables the big boats to succeed and causes the little boats to suffer. Another way the cause can be furthered is through the support of famous faces.
Atlantic is narrated by Brendan Gleeson who, incidentally, played the role of a Newfoundland-based fisherman in The Grand Seduction.
“I didn’t expect to hear anything back but he was really up for it. He’d learnt about the situation and is really behind the cause.
“He was amazing to work with, he worked really hard to make sure we got things just right and that it sounded as it should.
“Then, after a long day we’d go for a pint and he was warm and genuinely interested in the subject.”
Supportive celebrities, industrious politicians and thoughtful members of the public can all do their bit and Richie is doing his through film.
His previous documentary The Pipe looked at the oil controversy in Co. Mayo and highlighted the situation there to many people who would have otherwise been unaware. He hopes that Atlantic can do the same – whether it convinces people to take action or not, at the very least it will bring the issue to the surface. “It’s really hard to tell a story these days because everything has to be quick and now.
“With this film I had the chance to really work on it and get to the heart of the subject. It’s much more in-depth that what you might find in other forms of media so, hopefully, that will have an impact.
“There’s no polished PR, there’s no skimming through the details, it’s all laid bare, informing people about what’s going on out there.”
A screening of Atlantic, followed by a Q&A with Richie, is being held at the London Irish Centre on 17 February at 8.00pm.