Film-making, fishing frontiers and coastal communities
Film-maker Richie O’Donnell switches his attention from the Corrib Gas controversy to the battle for fishing rights in Irish waters
‘CONCENTRATED RAPE’ of the vast oceanic waters of Ireland is how a fisheries official once described the David and Goliath battle faced by Irish fishermen wrestling for their livelihoods in the seething wash of European factory ships and super-trawlers. It seems that despite the implementation of the reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) in January of this year, the future of Irish fishing still seems on rocky grounds.
Clearly, the capitalistic policies espoused by the European Union – which, on land, in the 80s and 90s, led to huge butter and beef mountains to facilitate bureaucratic ‘farmers’ – have been replicated in the union’s waters, notwithstanding policy statements that espouse ‘sustainability’ and ‘stock management’. Moreover, the fishing industry’s increasing tangency to the offshore gas, oil and wave-power industry has further complicated the rule-book for the exploitation of oceanic resources.
It may have been only one aspect of the complex Corrib Gas controversy but the pragmatic and considered actions of the Erris Inshore Fishermen’s Association were among the many hurdles Shell was forced to address in its continued efforts to deliver gas to its refinery in Bellanaboy. This group of inshore fishermen forced the multi-national to change the position of its outfall pipe because of its potential impact on their rich fishing grounds in Broadhaven Bay.
More dramatic was the stand-off between uncompromising fisherman, Pat ‘The Chief’ O’Donnell who starred in Richie O’Donnell’s multi-award-winning documentary, The Pipe. Now O’Donnell, who has received huge support from the online site Fund It, is set to examine the impact the hydro-carbon industry – which is constantly creating more remote and challenging oceanic frontiers – is having on coastal communities in Ireland, Norway and Newfoundland in his new film, Atlantic.
Travelling the Irish west coast over recent months for this ambitious project means that he has also gained a much deeper understanding of the day-to-day and seasonal challenges of the fishing industry.
Richie O’Donnell tells The Mayo News that last winter, while filming for Atlantic, he met Achill native, Brendan O’Malley, on the pier in Rossaveal.
What O’Malley told him about the pressures he is faced with in his efforts to make a livelihood as a young fisherman is now part of the promotional clip for the film.
“Because the EU quota system is so unwieldy Brendan had to go out fishing during the dreadful storms over Christmas and the New Year. He went out to the Porcupine Bank [200 kilometres off the west coast] in December to fish for prawns but when he got there, there were 15 Spanish gillnetters already fishing in the location and they bullied him out of the fishing grounds.
“So he was forced to steam to the south coast, which costs a lot of money in diesel. He travelled for up to two days until the horrendous storms drove him back to port at Rossaveal. But what he had managed to catch didn’t even cover the cost of the diesel,” O’Donnell says.
He explains that if O’Malley hadn’t caught his designated quota by January 1, he was in danger of losing it. Importantly, he also needed to pay his crew and the bank repayment for his boat.
“The unfairness of the quota system is forcing Irish fishermen into real danger, up and down the coastline they live on the edge while they fight for their livelihoods.”
Three months later, in March, O’Donnell hears that a giant factory ship, the Margaris, which is the second-biggest such ship in the world, was sitting off the coast of Mayo. Ironically, the biggest super-trawler, the Dutch-registered Annelies Ilena, formerly called the Atlantic Dawn, was originally owned by the late Kevin McHugh, an Achill native.
“The Margaris is owned by a Dutch company and now sails under the Lithuanian flag, which gives it EU quota rights. Earlier this year it was kicked out of Australian waters after a public outcry by fishermen and environmentalists. So it sailed off into European waters and up the Irish coastline and situated itself for six weeks about 100 miles off the coast and hoovered up fish.”
Despite complaints in the media and to the authorities, the Irish Sea Fisheries Protection Authority was quick to confirm that the 143-metre long Margaris now had a European flag and was therefore ‘permitted to operate in any European waters’ and, moreover, ‘fish in any area, and retain on board any fish for which it has a nationally assigned European quota’.
Indeed, the Margaris is not the only factory ship – or super-trawler, to use the politically correct parlance – to fish in Irish waters off the west coast. O’Donnell says Dutch factory ships are a common sight from October to March.
“If they see an Irish Navy vessel coming towards them they will clear their decks , make sure there is no evidence of illegal fishing and head back to Dutch ports,” observes O’Donnell.
(These boats have huge freezers that are minus 30 degrees below deck. Accusations have also been made that some of them carry two log books.)
No consistent policy
O’Donnell also believes the whole inshore fishing industry is in crisis due to lack of management and ‘no consistent policy’.
“Minister Simon Coveney appears to be trying to address this problem but his portfolio means he also has to deal with Agriculture and we all know that since Ireland joined the EU, Fisheries has always been the poor relation. There needs to be a dedicated department specific to inshore and offshore resources. As I said aquaculture is appended to agriculture and such resources as wave energy and oil and gas are attached to the Department of Communications.”
He argues that this is rather farcical in light of the fact that 90 per cent of our territory is offshore and Ireland has almost 20 per cent of EU waters.
Quoting former EU MEP, Pat ‘The Cope’ Gallagher, one-time quip that ‘there’s no votes in boats’ he argues that for an island nation we always ‘put value on land’ and have ‘looked inwards rather than out to the ocean’.
“Possibly culturally and historically we have seen the sea as an obstacle, a stepping-stone for emigration, rather than a rich resource. On the other hand, if you look at Norway, since the time of the Vikings, because of its bad land and poor climate, they were forced to look at the sea as a means of sustenance. It opened up a highway for trade and conquering new lands.”
In this context O’Donnell’s transition from making The Pipe, which examines the David and Goliath struggle between a small fishing and farming community in Erris and oil and gas giant, Shell’s efforts to deliver the controversial Corrib Gas project, to making his upcoming film, Atlantic, is almost sequentially seamless.
“What The Pipe didn’t answer was how decisions made in Dublin and Brussels, The Hague and Texas, determined that this peripheral and remote community, which had the second-lowest crime-rate in the entire country, would become the most heavily policed peninsula in western Europe.”
Atlantic looks at the bigger issues of oil and gas resources and how their exploitation has an impact on the fishing industry.
“The reason I went to Norway and Newfoundland was to see what lessons we can garner from how they managed or mismanaged these resources.”
Atlantic follows the fortunes of three fishing communities united and divided by the Atlantic ocean, as they struggle to maintain their way of life despite mounting challenges within their own industry and environment, and an increase of oil exploration activities in their fishing grounds.
On both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, new hydrocarbon frontiers are moving out into deeper water, and further north into the Arctic, pushing the boundaries of risk and technology in the race for the last great oil fields.
The film will chart the politics of resource management of the North Atlantic; from strong State control in Norway, mixed fortunes in Newfoundland, to a more liberal, privatised system in Ireland.
Atlantic, through the experience of these coastal neighbours, poses the question: who will benefit from the exploitation of these resources, and what the consequences will be for communities and the environment?