Lifestyle

Sunday 21 September 2014

Country Matters: Ghost boats and phantom fish

MANY years ago, a car carrying a group of men crossed the Border into the North and entered a thronged town centre rallying to the rhetoric of the Rev Ian Paisley, then at the height of his very public life.

"Who are ye?" he called to them as they were trying to make a passage. "We're fishermen, heading for Killybegs," was the response. "I also am a fisherman", said Paisley, "a fisher of men."

He was invited, colourfully, to join them and learn what real fishing was all about. He demurred.

One man I pass regularly and to whom I wish, usually, "tight lines", is a Belgian with a bicycle and large sea rods like small ladders, encased and strapped to the frame, along with a bait box and his daily sustenance in a shoulder bag. He returns at nightfall, inevitably without a catch but this does not deter him as he is off again the following day, sometimes changing his pattern to night shifts, but never seems to lose interest or hope.

"Next week, better tides," he might answer to a query. Or "next month when weather changes". On one occasion he arrived into the lobby of the building where he lives with two dripping dorada or John Dorys and gave them to the night clerk for supper.

For the Belgian, casting for a fish was "sufficient pleasure" rather than catching and eating one. He will continue doing this all winter, every day until next March or April when he will drive back to Antwerp. This is his holiday.

It is also a fishless holiday, almost, for the commercial fishermen of Spain, who, like millions of their compatriots, have little work or none at all and horrific loans/mortgages to repay to banks. A familiar story. These loans were taken out for the fishermen's homes-away-from-home, their big, powerful, state-of-the-art vessels and cushioned also, it must be said, by EU subsidies. Now they can't pay for the boats, there is a decline in fish stocks, tighter catch quotas are in place and an economic downturn that has cut both fish prices and demand.

The anchovy fishery in the Gulf of Cadiz has been closed as it has reached the quota: 100 boats are tied up. One skipper who supplied a cannery with mackerel is now getting 47c per kilo; two years ago it was 60c. Another, in Sanlucar, near Cadiz, bought a €500,000 vessel two years ago, twice the size of his previous boat; despite the financial crisis already under way he had no problems with his bank. Now, with falling prices, quota restrictions and rising fuel costs he is, he says, "slowly drowning".

Spain is one of the "worst examples" of using public money to increase fishing fleet capacity and this has now reached a crisis point, says Saskia Richartz of Greenpeace in Brussels."There is a generation of fishermen whose boats are owned by banks and who have no fish to catch," she says.

In Vigo, Spain's biggest fishing port, skippers are trying to sell unaffordable boats for which there is no demand. Fish wholesalers are experiencing a 40 per cent fall in trade. 'Compensation subsidies' from the EU now pay fishermen for fish they cannot catch, sustaining a phantom industry.

Spain is not alone. A study has shown that 13 EU states have been getting more in subsidies than the value of the fish that arrive in their ports. The burst bubble continues to drip.

Sunday Independent

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