Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland fishermen call for financial aid following bad weather

Kilkeel harbour
Image caption The recent bad weather has caused many fishermen huge financial hardship

Northern Ireland fishermen have called on Stormont to provide financial aid after the recent bad weather.

They said the ongoing bad conditions mean they are not able to get out to fish their quota allocation.

On Tuesday, Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill is due to meet fishing representatives who say the industry is at breaking point.

A charity that helps fishing families in need said many were facing financial hardship.

Maurice Lake, of the Fisherman's Mission, said that the charity had paid out around £20,000 in emergency payments since the weekend.

The money came from a donation of £50,000 made by charity Seafarers UK to an emergency fund for the whole of the UK, Mr Lake added.

The charity said fishermen in Ardglass, Portavogie and Kilkeel were struggling and that the rising price of fuel and dwindling stocks of shellfish had also impacted on their livelihood.

"Since probably early December fishermen have been unable to make a living, mainly due to the severe weather," he said.

"I dealt with a few cases last week, then I went to Ardglass on Friday afternoon and was met by 82 fishermen all having a need."

Martin Rice is a fisherman from Ardglass and the skipper of a prawn boat.

Instead of spending his days at sea last week, he was queuing for vouchers to help heat his home and keep his family warm.

'Extreme impact'

"We've reached an all-time low in the industry," he said.

"The state of the weather this year has been particularly bad, but on the back of a bad year, the weather has had an extreme impact from about November.

"The seas haven't had a chance to settle. On calm days between the storms, the boats have gone out and had very little catch so all you're doing is running up expenses and diesel bills and you end up with nothing to give your crew at the end of the week.

"There's hundreds of fishermen in Portavogie and Kilkeel and fishermen's wives are wondering how they're going to put food on the table next week."

Mr Rice said fishermen had received no help from Stormont despite meeting the agriculture minister and MLAs to highlight "huge problems" in the industry.

"All we get told is that it is against EU rules for any assistance for our fishermen, and that system has to be changed because we want a single boat payment equal to what farmers get and that will help alleviate every winter because our prawn fishing has become more seasonal from April till October.

"The owners have got no money, people that have got mortgages and boats have no money, fishermen like me, the skippers and the crews they're going behind on their mortgages.

"It's an all-time low for the industry and we need urgent assistance."

Image caption Michelle O'Neill said she was aware that the local fishing industry had been going through a "challenging period" because of the poor weather

In a statement, the agriculture minister said it was too early to say if the current severe weather would have any lasting impact on Northern Ireland's fishing fleet.

'Hurdles'

"Britain and Ireland is currently experiencing a period of severe winter weather and this has probably had the greatest impact along southern coasts," Ms O'Neill said.

"The local industry is also going through a challenging period with this poor weather, which is in addition to hurdles they face as a result of the new Common Fisheries policy, which is why last year I announced a package of measures that will assist the industry to respond to these challenges.

"We are only six weeks into the current fishing year.

"The main fishing session is from April to September and the majority of the prawn catch is taken at that time."

South Down MP Margaret Ritchie said an emergency meeting of the assembly's Executive must be called to help the fishermen.

She met with a number of fishermen from Ardglass and Kilkeel last Thursday and called for hardship payments to be made and harbour/landing dues to be waived.

"The agriculture minister says the fishing industry is facing challenges, but this is more than a challenge," she said.

"While fishermen and the fishing industry are extremely resilient, there is no way they can withstand this.

"Fishermen already suffer as a result of 'days at sea' restrictions and this bad weather further compounds the situation. They simply cannot get out to work."

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