Neily Kavenagh and his brother Seamus ride the rough waves of the Atlantic as their small fishing-boat heads out for lobsters, crabs and some small bait fish. But that’s all they are allowed to fish.
They don’t have a problem with the tough weather and working conditions. Setting out at 4 and bringing back the catch at 10 in the evening is all par for the course for these hardy fishermen from Arranmore Island off the Irish coast.
But they have a problem with fishing rules: Neily’s great-grand-father went out salmon fishing here, as did his grandfather and his father before him. But a fishing ban on wild salmon was issued by Brussels and Dublin in 2006 and it hit the tiny fishing community on the island harder than any monster wave. Since then, Arranmore’s economy has seriously stalled.
Neily reminisces on how things used to be, “We do get angry, it was our way of life”, he says. “It was our livelihood for the 16 to 18 families on Arranmore that held the licence, the right to fish wild salmon. And then there’s the crew-members… the fishing ban affected a lot of people. So I think we’ve got a right to be angry. There was no other employment on the island other than fishing.”
The island is peppered with empty houses, the ghosts of Arranmore families forced to abandon their Island homes to seek another future abroad. Many headed for Dublin, London, Australia and America.
But it’s not just about the salmon. Shortly after the ban, mixed stock fishing was closed and drift netting was also banned.
A fourth generation fisherman, publican, lifeboat commander and island leader, Jerry Early blames the European Union for threatening the very existence of Arranmore’s community: “What we had was once a very vibrant harbour with 20 to 30 boats. They have taken the heart and soul out of this little harbour where I spent the happiest days of my life. They have taken this away from us, away from me, and this is unforgivable. I am so about what they have done and I hear the cries of ghosts on this pier.”
Jerry went to Brussels with the local priest to alert them to the disastrous impact of EU policies. He painted a picture of the skeletons of fishing boats and told them that in seven years, the island’s population had almost halved. Today, just four full-time fishermen remain, among the few that refused to exchange their fishing licence for EU compensation money.
They still hope stocks will recover and fishing bans might be eased for small-scale coastal fishery.
Huge international trawlers are not allowed to fish within twelve nautical miles of the coastline and changes to the European Fisheries Policy have prolonged this period of protection.
“We met a factory-ship (a huge fishing trawler) just 20 to 25 miles west of Arranmore Island and it was just working off our area and we called them on the VHF” said Neily. “He was hunting for mackerel, was fishing for mackerel, at the time while all the Irish boats were tied up, which we thought was very strange for a boat from another EU country, fishing off Arranmore with all the Irish boats being tied up…”
But despite his complaints, the problem of overfishing remains a serious one: 39 percent of stocks in the Atlantic and 88 percent of stocks in the Mediterranean are over-exploited. The European Union have to take drastic action in order to avoid total collapse.
But Jerry says Europe should not blame the small fleets. He served with the lifeboat crew for 29 years and is still passionate about serving the community. He maintains that wild salmon stocks have recovered, pleading with the Irish government to lift the ban. By his reckoning, the fishing of just 3,000 salmon a year would keep the island afloat economically.
“First of all, we dispute the science,” he says. “We are arguing for a five year pilot scheme. We have the nets, we have the boats, we have the ocean. But we have an ocean that we are not allowed to fish. It is like telling a farmer that he has a field but that he is not allowed to plough. It is crazy, it is nonsensical and it is going to be the death of this island.”
For the first time ever, not a single baby was born in Arranmore last year and one of the only two primary schools faces closure.
The teaching arrangement is unusual to say the least. One teacher takes care of several age groups ranging from 4 to 11 in a single class in two languages: English and Gaelic. Gaelic is declining, so turning Arranmore into a ghost island would be culturally and linguistically damaging for Irish heritage.
Shirley Gallagher is, like Jerry, equally determined to get Arranmore back on its feet. She calls herself a “changemaker” and quit a well-paid management job to settle back on her home island. She has a clear vision of building a future for Arranmore: “The way I see it, with the future of jobs on Arranmore, there are three main sectors: building, with ventilation and insulation also an issue. On the whole, fishing, which is very important to the island and potentially processing and increasing the value of the fish. And obviously tourism.”
But every second islander is without work. Arranmore is one of the poorest parts of Donegal County – which itself is one of Ireland’s poorest regions.
Shirley is networking and campaigning to give Arranmore a chance. For this, islanders have to join forces, so she’s called in a meeting:
“I am organising an event about future jobs on Arranmore,” she tells a few of the locals. “I am bringing together all the different sectors of the community: the fishing, the farming, the hospitality, construction, community services, education, transport and the under-thirties… because as we know there are no jobs here for the under-thirties.”
Shirley linked Arranmore to a network of European islands, called ‘SMILE-GOV’. The bottom line of the EU-sponsored initiative is how to manage an island. The exchange with islanders from Denmark and other countries gave the Arranmore inhabitants some ideas, such as fish-farming, which is backed by the EU and the ongoing fishery reforms.
Growing salmon in tanks is not Jerry’s dream. But he admits that if the salmon fishing ban can’t be lifted, aquaculture offers an alternative: “I think that we have to look at the possibility of aquaculture. Aquaculture not in the form of open sea aquaculture – but in the form of inland aquaculture… I think going ahead would create anywhere from 20 to 40 jobs and that could be crucial for the long-term survival of the island.”
Shirley believes there IS a pot of gold somewhere at the end of the rainbow. Joining the Arranmore brain-storming session on the windswept cliffs, she puts the case for harvesting sustainable energy sources from the sea or sky. “So I think this is an ideal opportunity for a wind farm. There is a lot of wind here, no houses around, there is actual electricity so if we were to put it on the grid there would be potential at some point in the future.”
In the community centre, community developer Seamus Bonner teaches children how to program computers, hoping that software companies will settle on the island one day. But he doesn’t feel there’s any political support: “We need good broadband infrastructure, which we do not have at the moment,” he laments. The government recently sent back 17 million euros to the European Parliament for broadband in rural areas because it said it was not needed. This is frustrating, really.”
It’s night time back on the island and while Neily hauls in the catch of the day, Jerry drums up friends for a music session in the bar. It’s a small farewell event because two of them have quit the island.
From next year, the European Fisheries Fund will back job creation and sustainable development in small communities such as Arranmore. Failing small-scale fisheries will get privileged access to funds. The EU has rubber stamped small vessels like Neily’s to use gillnets, but not to fish salmon. It is a small victory for Arranmore and a sign that maybe Brussels is beginning to budge – at least a little bit.