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“We have fish, that’s our currency”

“We have fish, that’s our currency”

Just before midnight, David O’Neill steered his trawler into the port of Union Hall, a small port in south-west Ireland. The ship’s wake pounded tiny waves against the pier.

The crew quickly unloaded their catch and used a crane, under bright headlights, to lift ice-filled crates of haddock and hake from the Aquila’s hold.

Less than an hour later, the Aquila would embark on her final voyage. Two days later, the crew removed the ship’s contents – chains, buoys, ropes, steel cables and hooks – and threw it onto the pier, en route to a shipyard for scrapping.

“It’s coming with me,” Mr. O’Neill said as he unscrewed the Aquila’s wooden steering wheel. “It reminds you of everything you went through on that boat.”

The Aquila is one of dozens of Irish boats scrapped under a voluntary government decommissioning plan put in place after Britain withdrew from the European Union and transferred 25 per cent of European fishing rights in British waters. This has severely limited the number of fish Irish vessels are allowed to catch – an expected annual loss of 43 million euros ($46 million), making Ireland one of the hardest-hit European countries.

Although fishing is a small industry in Ireland, it has been the backbone of the economy in some coastal communities, albeit becoming smaller over the years. But beyond the economy, fishing has been an essential way of life for generations. Locals fear Brexit quotas and subsequent boat decommissioning could spell the final deathblow.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Mr. O’Neill, 37, who has been the captain of the Aquila for five years. “You spend most of your time fighting the boat. But the boat brought us a wage every week and also brought us home.”

Elsewhere on Ireland’s south-west coast, at Castletownbere, two fishermen were mending a net and whipping their hands through the bright green tangle with ease. Behind them, on the pier, stood a memorial to those who died at sea, with dozens of names dating back to 1793, linked by family roots and shared tragedies, repeating the same surnames for several generations.

At the nearby Sheehan’s Fishing warehouse – owned by Jason Sheehan, 35, and his father Ebbie – Jason, who became a captain at 19, reminisces about the days when fishing was lucrative. But new regulations, shrinking quotas and rising gas prices have amounted to “death by a thousand cuts,” he said.

“We have fish, that’s our currency, that’s what we have here,” he said. “So we’re in a bind.”

“There’s a lot of disillusionment,” said his 64-year-old father, “because they feel like we were sold out on Brexit.”

The men own several trawlers together and have decided to decommission two.

“It was a matter of feasibility,” said the elderly Mr. Sheehan.

The realigned fishing rights affect all of Ireland’s industry, but the closure plan applies to the whitefish fleet, which could see up to 30 per cent of its vessels scrapped. Larger trawlers that fish further offshore for mackerel and herring, among other things, are also affected; Your fishing season has almost halved.

Seven hours north in Killybegs, County Donegal, trawlers that have already reached their quotas have been idle for weeks. Visitors to the town are greeted by a strong smell of fish, reminiscent of the processing plants on the outskirts of town and how important fishing is to the identity of this place.

“If you stopped fishing in Killybegs, Killybegs would become a ghost town,” said Patrick Murphy, executive director of the Irish South & West Fish Producers’ Organization.

A group of children known as the ‘Wild Atlantic Buskers’ played traditional music at the Fleet Inn in Killybegs on a Thursday night. Most of their families have lived in the fishing community for generations.

While the youngsters played violin, accordion and guitar, one mother featured a boy whose grandfather was lost at sea, a girl whose father worked for a net supplier and another with family who still fish here.

A change has already taken place in the processing plants. Martin Meehan, chief executive of Premier Fish Products, said production has almost halved since last year.

“I have a son of my own and I certainly wouldn’t wait for him to get into the industry,” said Mr Meehan, 49.

According to the responsible government agency, the decommissioning plan aims to “restore the balance” between the capacity of the Irish fishing fleet and the new quotas. So far 42 boat owners have accepted offers to scrap their boats. Payments vary, but for a smaller boat, the average amount can be around $1.6 million, often split between multiple shareholders or a bank.

Cara Rawdon, 64, who has been fishing from the northern village of Greencastle for four decades, said he got a fair price for his boat. He’s retiring.

“Young men don’t come in here,” he said. Coastal communities around Ireland ‘will be wiped out’

Caitlin Ui Aodha, who also fished in these waters, sold her boat and used the money to open a restaurant in Dungarvan in south-east Ireland.

“You have to adapt, both at sea and when you’re fishing,” said Ms. Ui Aodha, 60. “You’re outside and it’s moving, and you learn that life changes very quickly.”

Ms Ui Aodha was born in a village in the Gaeltacht, the Irish-speaking part of the country, into a family that has been fishing for over 150 years. During her early adult years she fished, eventually alongside her husband Michael Hayes, and then devoted herself to raising their five children while he continued to work as a skipper.

But the sea claimed the lives of him and four crew members when their boat sank in a storm near Union Hall in 2012.

After his death, Mrs. Ui Aodha bought a trawler and went to sea again. She figured she would sell the boat when she retired, but things had been difficult for years and decommissioning seemed like her only option. Her boat was scrapped at the end of April.

“The saddest thing is really to see local fishermen like me dying out all along the coast. We just won’t be there,” she said, listing the names of longtime fishing families. “All those names are disappearing.”

But she also spoke with hopeful persistence about what’s next. The restaurant will be called Iasc, which means ‘fish’ in Irish. Photos of Ms Ui Aodha’s father with his boat adorn the wall, she pointed out as she walked through the unfinished room.

“I did what I could and now we’ve changed and it’s just something new,” she said, looking back on her fishing years. “So I bring my world here.”

Finbarr O’Reilly contributed coverage.

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