I watched the white dogs of the dawn

'I watched the white dogs of the dawn' is a new webdoc that gathers interviews, stories and impressions of Irish fishermen and women in Kilmore Quay, Duncannon and Dunmore East.

Since the 16th century these villages on the South East coast of Ireland, are primarily fishing villages. Most fisherman are over 40 years old and the younger generation does not see fishing as an option. The pressures of quotas, industrial fishing and European rules and regulations make it no longer economically viable. The fisherman are disappearing and along with them the generations-old knowledge of the sea and its ecology.

Small-scale commercial fishermen in Ireland cannot compete with the huge commercial trawlers. On these large ships you see hardly any Irish fishermen. They are being replaced by Portuguese and Egyptians.

These commercial trawlers can now travel vast distances across the ocean and some are fitted with hydraulically powered winches capable of scooping up several tonnes of fish in a single net. They are able to go out on the sea for weeks and months, fish is frozen directly after the catch. The work on those trawlers is hard and they operate with fishing nets that are pulled along the bottom of the sea. Large metal plates at each end of the net drag it along the ground. When hauled out of the water, surviving fish undergo excruciating decompression. The intense internal pressure ruptures their swim bladders, pops out their eyes, and pushes their stomachs out through their mouths.

Not only these trawlers but also the quota are a pressure for the Irish fisherman.

The basic principle of the earliest common agreement on fisheries policy, reached in 1970, was that community fishermen should have equal access to member states' water sources. Fish were deemed to be the common property of all EU member states.

Each country is given a quota based upon the total available (Total Allowable Catch, TAC) and their traditional share (%). These quota’s are based on the ‘logbooks’ of the fisherman from the years before. The fishing logbook is the primary method of data collection. It captures data on fishing activity by individual vessels per trip, and for each day of activity within a trip. This includes details of the catch, by species, in terms of the presentation and quantity of fish retained on board.

When a national quota catch limit for a stock area has been reached, landings of that species by vessels belonging to that nation are no longer permitted and fish(dead fish) have to be discarded. For years tons of fish ended back over board, daily.

This practice, where fish are thrown back to the sea because they’re either too small or the fishermen have reached their quota, has been banned in 2016 through a new landing obligation.

The story passes around that when the Irish fishermen were asked to give their logbooks for data collection they thought it was for the taxes and they wrote down less than they caught, so the Irish quotas are based on false numbers.

With 20 per cent of the EEC’s waters, Ireland got about 4 per cent of the overall catch. Meanwhile, Irish fishermen see Spanish and French boats fishing in spawning grounds for key species, feeding their domestic markets for small fish.

Norway is seen as the only country in Europe that created a healthy ecosystem that can be harvested sustainably. Also, it manages to create jobs for the country. Over 26,000 people are employed in the fishing fleet, and for 20,000 of them fishing is their sole or principal occupation.

But mostly it is overfishing that creates problems for the environment. Cod is definitely endangered, overfishing has meant cod populations are still only a quarter the size they were in the 1970s.

In the early 19th Century, for example, three fishermen working with lines in the middle of the North Sea were said to have caught 576 cod in a day. Now more than 10.000 ton of cod is taking out of the North Sea every day.

A fisherman told me: “I like the story how the Alaskans manage the herring fishery, not by weight, but by time. Each boat can put out nets for 15 minutes and that's it. They cull about 10% of the herring population in those ten minutes. A limited number of boats are allowed out, in four shifts. The entire season lasts 1 hour exactly! Do the same with cod. Each boat, three days!”

We urgently need to conserve marine habitats and start using sustainable fishing methods to give our seas the chance to recover. And not just for wildlife, but for coastal communities, for whom fishing is a way of life and last but not least for the survival of the fisherman.