In an effort to have my say into the recent consultation on the expansion of Marine Protected Areas I drew on my own bitter experience of how the political system can treat those communities that lack political power. My fear about the expansion (although I welcome and would largely embrace the concept) is that fishermen and fishing communities will be swept aside with little more than a passing concern for a token payment for the inconvenience. So in a brief submission, I tried to argue that fishermen and fishing communities deserve to be respected and acknowledged in any process. Financial packages will not replace a way of life, the skills of fishermen are not easily transferable into shore work and whole communities are impacted. Here is what I submitted:
I wanted to write to offer my personal support to the notion of expanding Marine Protected Areas. I don’t think anyone with an interest in our environment, our rivers and waterways or our fisheries would not embrace a sustainable and more environmentally secure future. However, I would also like to offer some thoughts from my own personal experience as a traditional small-scale fisherman and some fears that come to mind.
My own experience is based on what happened to the salmon driftnet fishery in Cheekpoint, Co Waterford. No one, myself included, could not say that there was an issue with commercial salmon fishing that needed to be addressed. I grew up in an era of large scale driftnetting on the coast where miles of illegal nets were employed and the wholesale capture of salmon was in evidence. However, in my view, the authorities at the time chose to clamp down on small scale, traditional fishermen as we were an easier target. It gave the sense of doing something but didn’t really address the issue. Worse, both the print and digital media excoriated all driftnet fishermen and campaigned that we would be banned.
The ban eventually came in 2006 and with the stroke of a pen, we had no fishery…and little by way of an option. Fishermen in Cheekpoint who employed a traditional 18ft wooden punt were faced with a choice. Stop fishing, or either use the punt that was not suitable for fishing at Dunmore East, or buy a bigger boat.
This experience hit many in my village very hard. In 2008 I word a dissertation on the impact of the closure which I am linking here. But specifically what I found was a village torn asunder by the removal of a way of life. Trying to highlight this has been an uphill battle. I guess from the perspective of an economic or even environmental viewpoint, a village is a small price to pay, but Cheekpoint was typical of so many other villages, coastlines and islands around the country.
In brief, what I found to be the issues for my village in 2008 was as follows:
The community has been impacted by the loss of commercial activity and the coming and going of boats and crews. Money was earned and predominantly spent in the community in the past. There was vibrancy about. As one man said “a trip to the post office could have taken from a half hour to a half day in the past. You’d be stopped chatting to people, now it takes five minutes”.
This lack of people is blamed on factory shift work and people being employed in Waterford. As one man pointed out they are either working or in bed. Shift work patterns really impact on people and the area. Although fishermen often worked through the night, it wasn’t like the factory shifts. “You were working for yourself and could stop when you wanted. In factories there is no such freedom. It gets you into a rut”
The men I interviewed believe that the lack of people about has a negative effect on the community. It impacts on how people feel about their security. Previously, if you were sick
or incapacitated there were people to call. They might drop you in a dinner or a feed of fish. Messages would be run, There was someone to talk to. Fishermen in the past were
around because the village was their place of work, landing fish, mending nets, repairing boats.
Other concerns are that young men don’t have the same opportunities to come of age in the ways they did in the past. Although many have jobs through local restaurants which are well paid, clean, safe and “wouldn’t tax you”, it is considered a far cry from the training, challenge and satisfaction young men had in the past through fishing.
Fishing was a method of schooling in itself. Young men were taught valuable lessons, they needed to learn the capabilities of boat and themselves. For example catching a river marker buoy and how to extract yourself, nets and boat. This required common sense skills, which have to be passed on – boat handling, fishing skills and psychologically – its not the end of the world to make a mistake. Other skills around salmon fishing were more unique and as it was explained would never be found in a book, including the role played by wind, tide, moon, and season. These will all be lost in the future it was felt as there will be no means of passing them on.
Perhaps the greatest loss is the contact with other fishermen on a daily or hourly basis. As a fisherman you were in contact on the quayside, as boats passed each other, or waited for particular drifts. A key factor of this was the swapping of pieces of information vital for knowing how and where the fish were “running”. Men also cooperated around the seasonal activities such as hauling out boats for overwintering or repair and the making and repairing of nets. These were not so many tasks as occasions. The loss of such opportunities ultimately engenders isolation as men are more inclined to stay inside if they know there will be no one to see or talk to.
All in all, participants felt that previously the river had a deeper significance for the community. It derived an income, was a source of food, pleasure, challenge. It was a place for regatta’s where communities competed against each other and was a mode of transport to and from the city, but also to dances and social occasions in other communities around the estuary. The village, it is felt has embraced the car and the city and turned its back almost completely on the river. Though the salmon closure came on the heels of these wider changes, it cemented them.
Although I wrote this in 2008, little has changed for the better. The Post office is now closed, one of the two pubs in the village closed, the other opens at the weekends (or did when Covid restrictions permit). A Men’s Shed is now up and running which is an outlet. There is no sign of a return to salmon driftnetting although it’s still open to angling. The scientists now seem to be looking to global warming and deep sea trawling in traditional salmon feeding grounds to explain the reduction in salmon stocks.
The real issue for Cheekpoint fishermen, and I believe it carries over to so many other villages, is that the skills, knowledge and personal attributes associated with the fisheries do not easily translate into another job. A factory worker might find another factory job as many of the skills are transferable, likewise a shopworker, an administrator a butcher. But the skillset associated with fishing is unique. The knowledge, primarily learned on the job, has little currency outside the role. Fishing is not just a job. It’s a way of life.
While I accept that we have to cherish, protect, and more carefully manage our environment, our fish, our mammals, and sea birds that coexist in the habitats, I would argue that we also need to cherish those who have made an income from the rivers and seas. My point in relating this in the context of the MPA’s is to underline the importance of fisheries to coastal communities. This way of life has real value and meaning for those involved and the communities they come from. Financial packages to set aside such work is not the answer, there is a need for such communities to be allowed to fish. A fishing community is not a fishing community if it cannot fish. It’s where our dignity comes from, our self-respect. Cheekpoint knows that only too well.