Today i’m going to do something I rarely ever do: get political. Why? Because it’s for a very important cause, one that we should all hold in high regard: our natural resources. It must be one of my longest posts ever, and you’ll probably be more entertained by watching the Documentary, but I felt I had the responsibility as a food blogger to share what I have learned and help spread the message, in any way I can.
In the beginning of December I saw a documentary that absolutely made my blood boil, something I never had given much thought before: ‘Atlantic – the race for the resources of the North Atlantic‘. ‘Atlantic’ follows the fortunes of three small fishing communities – in Ireland, Norway and Newfoundland – shedding light on three very intimate stories from the global resource debate. Each in a different corner of the Atlantic, these three fishing communities share social, economic and environmental problems stemming from human interactions with the ocean’s ecosystems. But while the Canadian and Norwegian governments work to safeguard their oil, gas, and fish, Ireland opts to sell its ocean resources to foreign interests, to the detriment of its working class. Featuring voiceover by renowned Emmy-award winning actor Brendan Gleeson, Risteard Ó Domhnaill’s Atlantic tackles harsh realities with uncommon grace and perspective.
3 seafaring communities, united by the challenges they face
Old Ocean, none knoweth thy story;
Man cannot thy secrets unfold,
Thy blue waves sing songs of thy glory
But where are thy treasures untold?
For centuries our oceans have had vast resources and have provided for the people living along its shores. Generations after generations of fishers have been going out to sea, but now their livelihoods are under threat as higher powers are interested in their fishing grounds for a whole other reason: for the great oil fields that lie beneath.
‘Atlantic’ begins its journey in Newfoundland, where we meet Charlie Kane, a local fishermen who tells of the good old days, of his prosperous community that evolved around one thing: fish. Unfortunately Charlie will likely be the last of his generation to work full-time at sea, after the cod fishing ban in the 1990s brought it all to a halt overnight.
It all began in 1949, when the Newfoundland fisheries were taken over by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Ottawa when Newfoundland joined Canada as a province. They were now in charge of the quotas and started making trade deals, giving away access to their fishing grounds in return for those countries buying other products from central Canada.
And so the fishing economy was transformed from a predominantly labor-intensive inshore, household-based enterprise into an industrialized economy dominated by frozen fish companies. These companies needed fewer workers, which led to the communities losing people each day as they moved away. Some houses were given away as there was no point in even trying to sell them, schools saw a huge drop-out in students.
For years both local fishermen and university scientists tried to warn the government, as in the 1960 there was intense overfishing (around 2 billion pounds of fish each year) and a great number of boats out fishing cod every day. The government unfortunately refused to listen, and thus disaster inevitably struck. The northern cod practically vanished as it was reduced to 1% of their historic spawning biomass and their once bountiful banks were stripped of their cod by an international fleet of factory trawlers.
In 1992 the Canadian Minister of fisheries, John Crosbie, imposed a moratorium on the catching of northern cod and ended an international industry that had endured for almost 500 years and had been a way of life for 19.000 workers. The ban was supposed to last 2 years but it is still in place after more than 20 years. However today, Newfoundland and Labrador’s inshore fishers are now allowed an annual take of just over 3,600 pounds in what is called a recreational fishing quota.
The biggest loser in the story was without a shadow of a doubt Ireland. Out of the three communities that were filmed, Ireland was the one that gave away the most and is doing the least to get it back. This despite the fish grounds off the West Coast being the jewel in the crown of European waters.
In 1972 Ireland joined the EU & the European Economic Community and in return for receiving farming subsidies, the Irish government handed over control of their fishing grounds. Despite owning a large amount of the fishing waters in Europe, they were only allocated between 4% and 5% of the demersal stocks and around 12% of the pelagic stocks. As the fishing grounds fell into the hand of the mighty and powerful, less became available to the local communities like Dingle and a lot of the ports in the West Coast of the country became dying communities.
Just off the west coast of Ireland on the Arranmore Islands fisherman Jerry Early has seen the heart ripped out of his small island community after a ban on drift netting for wild salmon was put in place.
“Back in the day you would see 7 – 9 fishing boats stretching along 2 miles. The damage we were doing was so minimal because there were so few of us.”
Despite the minimal damage, the Irish government decided in 2006 to ban salmon fishing, as they claim that drift net fishermen are the sole reason there was a decline in salmon numbers. Any counter claims fell in deaf ears. The government then arranged for compensation packages to all fishing communities, but Arranmore refused for one reason: in return for accepting you would have had to agree to never apply to go commercial fishing for salmon again. The people of Arranmore didn’t feel it was theirs to give away and wanted to keep that right for their future offspring. However, it still meant the start of the end for the people for Arranmore after the salmon ban, Jerry explains: “The heartbeat of the island had stopped and it had a knock-on effect for schools, pubs but the general morale as well.”
As he fights to regain his fishing rights, Jerry’s up against a government which takes its orders from the European Union. As foreign super trawlers operate with impunity just offshore, Jerry feels like a criminal on his own boat. The circumstances could be dire if he defies the new order of the ocean, but as the unofficial “mayor” of a dying island, Jerry feels he must stand up to these powerful interests before it’s too late.
While the Irish are forced to not go out to see, you can see boats 20 times the size of their boats and yet no one does anything about it. These super trawlers are one of the main reasons why I feel so disappointed by the Irish government for failing to act against them. Most of the fish caught nowadays in Ireland is being caught by Dutch, French & Spanish boats, while the Irish are forced to stand by and look at their natural resources being taken away. Each weekend a staggering 18-20 large refrigerated lorries are heading back to Spain with Irish fish! They have been given great access to Irish resources and they are keeping it, no matter what the consequences are for Ireland.
And still nothing is being done about it. Gerard J. Van Balsfoort, president of the pelagic freezer-trawler association explains: “What those international trawlers are doing is perfectly legal, they have built up the right and received it to do so, although I understand the worry in Ireland, there is nothing wrong about it.” Really Gerard? Nothing at all?
Jerry rightfully feels betrayed, “We are the weaker voice and they just stumped us into the ground. You are made to feel like a criminal in your own country. When we go out to sea, it does happen sometimes that you accidentally catch salmon in your nets. See, I can’t tell wild salmon not to go into those nets.” In the summer of 2015 Jerry was reported to the courts under the accusation of working a net that has the potential of catching fish. He has been found guilty, and though most people will agree he should have just thrown the salmon he caught back in the sea, it’s hard to blame him as the super trawlers outside continued to overfish and do as they please while officials are out to get the smaller fishermen.
The same injustice is happening down by the porcupine banks off the Galway coast, where we meet skipper Máirtín Éanna Ó Conghaile. As the demand for food increases, transnational fishing companies have grown rich and powerful.
Máirtín: “Our own Irish boats are supposed to be finished in February and aren’t allowed back until September, yet those super trawlers are on the water all summer long, fishing away. But they can do what they want, cause fishing isn’t done at sea anymore, it’s done in Brussels and the big corporations always win.”
Those super trawlers, or factory ships, are over 300 feet and can freeze and hold from 4 to 5 thousand ton of fish. Inspecting them impossible as the fish is held at -30 degrees. But there is a huge belief that they are discarding large volumes of fish back in sea, and that they only pick the best and dump the rest, which is a huge risk to the fish stock of Ireland. One of them is the Dutch owned Lithuanian registered vessel, “Margiris”, which has been chased out of other countries, yet they are allowed to roam freely on Irish waters.
Andreas Mehmecke, who used to work on the Dutch super trawler Jan Maria (owned by Parlevliet & Van der Plas) witnessed illegal fishing practices first hand. He secretly copied and removed the boats’ unofficial logbook, where it was noted that over 9000 ton of herring was caught, yet they only had 5000 ton in holding. It was then revealed that 4000 ton of dead herring that was deemed ‘too small’ had been dumped back into the sea.
Though overfishing is illegal the checks are announced beforehand, so they simply have no effect. Máirtín: “We see more and more foreign boats, who have massive quotas but they don’t fish them outside their own countries, no they do it here in Irish waters. We need a politician brave enough to stand up as a fish stock collapse is imminent in Ireland and EU waters.”
By far the best student in the class is Norway. They refused to join the EU twice (in 1972 and 1994) for a number of reasons, but one was that they were not prepare to pay the price of losing their fishing and agricultural industries, they wanted to protect nature and cultural landscapes, keep decentralised settlement, ensure food safety and self-sustainability. Thanks to their decision they are now the second largest exporter of fish in the world and their resources are worth 9 billion euro per year to their coastal economy. In comparison, Ireland’s return is only 6% of that.
Bjørnar Nicolaisen, fisherman on the Lofoten Islands in Norway proudly shows off the fish he has caught: healthy & big, compare to what is being caught elsewhere. “Driling oil in fishing grounds is madness! The most important type of energy we need is food, clean food. We’ve got plenty of fish in the sea, and our fishermen earn a good living but they depend on fish being available in the sea.”
Although they managed to keep their fishing resources to themselves, Norway has long been faced with a second resource in the Atlantic: oil and gas, as there are vast fields under the Atlantic grounds.
The destructive hunt for oil and gas
In the 1960’s oil explorers first set sights on the shallow seabeds of Norway. However, the Norwegian government asked for advice from a young oil expert Farouk Al-Kasim, as they knew little of the matter. Farouk looked at the discoveries and was convinced that Norway was on the verge of becoming a major oil producer, even though the oil companies tried to play down their discoveries. Farouk advised the government to take another approach, after which they set up a 100% state owned oil and gas company called ‘Statoil’.
Norway was lucky enough to have good politicians that made laws so that the income of oil and gas would go to Norway instead of international companies. And so they looked after their resources of oil and gas and it has turned them into the country with one of the highest living standards in the world. However, a they have already exhausted a lot of these resources, their oil miracle might not last for much longer, which is why they have turned to the Arctic Norths for hope.
Bjørnar: “The conditions on our island is very good for the possibility of finding oil and gas.”
But with the interest in oil and gas came a dangerous activity: seismic shootings. By using these underwater explosions, the companies are able to create a detailed map of geological strata and to see where the oil is located. But Bjørnar raises a valid point: what is the effect on marine life of these shootings?
“Having been out on sea for so long, we know how things should be, we know the species we have and we know when they should be here. If they aren’t, then we know something is wrong. And that is precisely what happened after the seismic shootings in 2007, 2008 and 2009. One of the most important species (similar to pollock) just disappeared and never came back. It used to be our summer income as the cod wasn’t there in that season.”
Heike Vester, bio acoustic specialist has been heavily involved in the matter and adds that there is simply no control or oversight.
Bjørnar adds that since 1991 they’ve had 16 times more shootings, so the communities came together to voice their concern, as many politicians wanted to open the Arctic areas for oil production. Thanks to tv and newspapers they managed to raise awareness in the whole of Norway, leading to more protests right before the elections. In those elections the conservatives took over and it was expected they were going to open up the sea, but thankfully they agreed to suspend explorations in those Arctic areas as well as stopping the oil drills in several other parts. “We have been given time, which works in our benefit as we are gaining more knowledge and can expose the things that oil companies have trying to hide.” – Bjørnar.
But the hunt for oil didn’t get off to such a great start in Ireland. After seeing the success of Norway, oil explorers turned their attention towards Ireland, after its predecessors acquired the rights to explore the entire offshore territory for only 500 pounds. In 1971 they hit natural gas off the South coast. The labour party minister Justin Keating looked towards the Norwegian model and wanted to fight to have a large lump (50%) of the profits for the inhabitants of Ireland. Keating succeeded in his mission and managed to have the terms revised. Ireland was set to receive 50% state participation, royalty payments of 8-16% and 50% corporation tax on new licenses. But soon Keating was out of office and the change in government led to intense lobbying from the oil companies to dismantle his system. Fianna Fáil’s Minister of Energy Ray Burke got rid of the royalties, removed state participation and allowed the companies to write 100% of tax off against all exploration and construction costs over the past 25 years. Ray Burke, top notch fella! (Yes, I’m being sarcastic). Adding insult to injury, the Minister of Finance Bertie Ahern reduced the corporation tax to 25%. And so Ireland became the second most generous country of oil & gas terms in the world. Please hold the applause.
Under those new terms the Corrib gas field was discovered in 1996. The oil companies were calling the shots but some of the oil drillers tried to warn the Irish government. In a very non-shocking twist of events those oil companies then put the pressure on to have every Irishman working offshore to be removed. And they succeeded. In the same way they tried to trick Norway, those companies were now playing down the huge potential, and the Irish politicians followed them blindly. In 2005 Ray Burke was jailed for tax fraud. Didn’t see that one coming, right?
After Hibernia, a massive oil field off the coast of Newfoundland, was discovered, the same Canadian Government in Ottawa who took over the fishing grounds were now in control over the oil beneath it as well. However, unlike Ireland, their premier Danny Williams was determined to learn from the mistakes they made when it came to their fish and wanted a bigger more fair share for its people. “No more giveaways, it’s about pride and self respect“.
Newfoundland was finally starting to revive again and saw the return of people, with kids of former fishermen now being in the oil business. The sons of Charlie being two of them. In 2014 the oil prices plummeted causing the companies to cut down in certain places and by reducing the amount of jobs. Charlie’s sons are now back at sea, following in their father’s footsteps as they are once again proud fishermen, who hope to one day be able to pass it on to their children as well as the cod stock numbers are looking better in recent years (though a lot of caution has to be taken with these numbers). Unfortunately Charlie didn’t get to see his cod stocks returning, as he sadly passed away in May 2014.
What can you do?
- First of you can of course help support the makers of this docu by joining them on Facebook.
- If you are living in Ireland or simply want to support them, please feel free to join the petition https://uplift.ie/supertrawlers/ to make sure that the Minister for Agriculture Food and the Marine Michael Creed hears your voice!
- Share as much as you can, whether it’s my blog post, or a news article. Feel free to let me know in the comment section below how this story has had an influence on you, if you were aware of it, if you saw the documentary, or anything else you might want to share.
- Stay up-to-date on super trawlers in Ireland and the UK on Facebook
In your kitchen:
Don’t buy fish that was caught with one of those big trawlers. I know it’s not easy to find out this info as no supermarket or brand will of course be honest enough to print this on the labels but the best way to avoid this is to simply buy local. Local fishermen who go out and catch the fish themselves in their small boats: that’s how you can boycot big trawlers, that’s how you can help regain your country’s natural resources. If you live in Ireland it should be really easy to find them. As I live in Cork I have a vast amount of options available, but this is of course the case along the entire country in places such as Dingle, Howth, Galway and so on. But please do the same wherever you are, you’ll find that the quality and freshness are much better, and in some cases you won’t even notice the price difference.
If you work for any sort of media outlet: keep pushing to have this issue covered, over and over again!