'The real Brexit battle will be at sea over claim to fish stocks'
The "real wars" of Brexit will be at sea as UK fishermen push ahead with a campaign to reclaim their territorial waters, Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness has warned.
With almost 40pc of Ireland's catch taken from UK waters, the vice president of the European Parliament said such an outcome could be "catastrophic" for Irish, Dutch and Danish fishermen.
A major drive to "take back control" of UK fisheries was considered key to the outcome of the Brexit referendum last June.
"The real wars of Brexit will be at sea as the battle for fish stocks gets under way. There is great pressure from this sector on the British government to reclaim UK territorial waters," said Ms McGuinness.
"On average, 36pc of Irish landings are taken from UK waters - though that figure is higher for some of Ireland's most important stocks. So clearly there is a huge risk to the fishing industry if no deal is reached."
Ms McGuinness, who admitted meetings on fishing post-Brexit have been some of the most contentious she has attended in Brussels, said the Irish Government needs to increase focus on the issue.
"Tensions in this sector are clearly high and if issues are not resolved, I would also be worried about clashes at sea," she said.
She said the best strategy is to convince the UK that reclaiming its waters will block its access to EU markets.
John Nolan, CEO of Castletownbere Fishermen's Co-op in Co Cork, is particularly concerned about Brexit's potential impact on the prawn side of his business.
"We have 25 boats fishing prawn at sea and 40pc of that is caught in English waters. If the water was enclosed it would have a significant impact," he said, adding that around 70pc of the Irish quota for mackerel is caught in UK waters.
If the UK succeeds in reclaiming its waters, Mr Nolan is worried other EU states will move to increase their fishing efforts in Irish waters.
"We certainly don't want others coming into our waters as it will affect the sustainability of our fish stock, it would damage us and that can't be allowed," he said.
Castletownbere Fishermen's Co-op, which marks its 50th year in 2018, employs 380 people at sea and 120 on shore.
Next Thursday, Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed will host a Brexit discussion for the fisheries sector as part of the Maritime Festival in Galway.
Earlier this year, the Government held a series of talks with the seafood sector on potential risks the industry faces ahead of Brexit. Mr Creed said the conference will consider how national sea fisheries' interests will be best protected ahead of Brexit.