Image by Finbarr O’Reilly. Ireland.

This article is the first in a series of insights into the state of the Irish fishing industry and the daily struggle to survive and remain viable in the face of adversity.

Aboard the AQUILA, Celtic Sea —It was just after midnight as skipper David O’Neill steered the fishing vessel Aquila out of Union Hall Harbour on the southwest coast of Ireland, guiding it past Adam’s Island, where in 2012 another trawler, Tit Bonhomme, ran aground during a storm. The Tit Bonhomme’s skipper and four-man crew were lost at sea.

Now, over a decade later, the Aquila, another 22-meter vessel with a crew of four, would also soon be run aground and destroyed, though under very different circumstances.

The Aquila was about to be decommissioned as part of a controversial Irish government scheme. A week after its final outing in April 2023, the vessel would be sent to a scrapyard and dismantled.

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The fishing vessel Aquila at the Irish port of Union Hall before the ship’s final voyage. Image by Finbarr O’Reilly. Ireland.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Mr. O’Neill, 38, of the last catch of the Aquila, which he skippered for five years. “You spend most of your time battling the boat. But the boat made us a wage every week and brought us home as well.”

The Aquila was one of 39 vessels scrapped last year as part of a voluntary government decommissioning plan introduced after Britain withdrew from the European Union. As part of Britain’s withdrawal, the E.U. transferred back 25 percent of its fishing rights in British waters. That, in turn, significantly limited Irish vessels in the numbers of fish they are allowed to catch — an anticipated annual loss of 43 million euros, making Ireland one of the European nations most affected.

Skipper David O’Neill aboard the fishing vessel Aquila on its final voyage. Image by Finbarr O’Reilly. Ireland.

Although fishing is a small industry in Ireland, in many coastal communities, it has been the backbone of the economy, even as it has been whittled down over the years. But beyond economics, fishing has been an essential way of life for generations. Locals fear the Brexit quotas and subsequent retiring of boats will be the final death knell.

In Castletownbere, at the warehouse for Sheehan’s Fishing — owned by Jason Sheehan, 36, and his father, Ebbie — Jason, who became a skipper at 19, remembers when fishing was lucrative. But new regulations, shrinking quotas and rising gas prices have amounted to “death by a thousand cuts,” he said.

Jason Sheehan at his family-run chandlery warehouse in Castletownbere. Image by Finbarr O’Reilly. Ireland.

“We have fish, that’s our currency, that’s what we have here,” he said. “So we’re between a rock and a hard place.”

“There is a lot of disillusionment,” said his father, 64, “because they feel that we were sold out on Brexit.”

The men owned a number of trawlers together and decided to decommission two.

“It was a matter of viability,” the elder Mr. Sheehan said.

The realigned fishing rights affect the entire Irish industry, but the decommissioning plan applied to the whitefish fleet. Larger trawlers that fish further off the coast for mackerel and herring, among other fish, were also affected; their fishing season has been nearly halved.

The decommissioning plan was intended to “restore balance” between the Irish fishing fleet’s capacity and the new quotas, according to the government agency in charge. Payments varied, but for a smaller boat, an average amount might be about €1 million, often split among multiple shareholders or a bank.

Out on the Aquila, during the night as the crew slept, the auxiliary engine stalled. Larry Bantaculo, the ship’s 53-year-old engineer, climbed down into the engine room to fix the problem, and not for the first time. Mr. Bantaculo, who is from the Philippines, worked on the Aquila for two years and constantly had to trouble-shoot on the 30-year-old vessel.

Then, just before dawn, the alarm sounded. It was time to fish. The crew climbed out of their bunks, scaled the ladders, and donned their boots, yellow oilskins, lifejackets, and red helmets. The sea’s horizon dipped in and out of sight through the salt-crusted windows as the Aquila pitched and rolled on the waves.

Image by Finbarr O’Reilly. Ireland.

Image by Finbarr O’Reilly. Ireland.

Image by Finbarr O’Reilly. Ireland.

Image by Finbarr O’Reilly. Ireland.

The crew started “shooting” the green nylon nets that are dragged 500 feet below the surface for over an hour. Skipper O’Neill moved from side to side across wheelhouse, looking to port, aft and starboard, gauging the position of the nets while seine fishing, which requires daylight and calm, clear waters to usher the catch into the codend.

“This swell is not my friend today,” O’Neill said.

The first haul wasn’t good, but the crew hauled the net, dumped the catch into the hold, then got to work gutting the fish, tossing entrails overboard, and storing the fish–mostly haddock and hake–on ice.

A second round of shooting wasn’t any better and the net got snagged. O’Neill curses.

Image by Finbarr O’Reilly. Ireland.

Image by Finbarr O’Reilly. Ireland.

Image by Finbarr O’Reilly. Ireland.

“We’re stuck on the bottom there now,” he said. “I picked the wrong spot this morning. Could have done some damage to the nets there. That’s when the skipper isn’t so popular with the crew.”

It turned out the net was badly torn and would be too bothersome to fix at sea. O’Neill decided to call it a day and began the slow, seven-hour chug back to port. Seagulls and gannets circled the Aquila all day, ducking and diving for fish, having more luck than the Aquila. O’Neill explained that in Irish fishing lore, seagulls are believed to be reincarnated deck hands while gannets are supposedly the skippers.

“That’s because they’re better looking,” he joked. 

Back ashore, the crew unloaded the Aquila’s last catch—only five boxes of fish compared to 77 the night before.

Image by Finbarr O’Reilly. Ireland.

Image by Finbarr O’Reilly. Ireland.

Image by Finbarr O’Reilly. Ireland.

The next morning, the crew began stripping down the Aquila, using the ship’s winch to offload the contents of the boat—chains, boxes, buoys, ropes, steel cables, hooks, hydraulic pipes, tubes. It’s as if the Aquila itself was being gutted, its entrails disgorged onto the pier.

“This is coming with me,” O’Neill said as he unscrewed the Aquila’s steering wheel and looked around wistfully. “I was down there cleaning out one of the bunks and realised every little thing I took out had a story attached to it. Oh, that was the day this happened or that happened. It reminds you of all you’ve been through on this boat you know.” 

Skipper David O’Neill removes the wheel from the fishing vessel Aquila to keep as a souvenir after the ship’s final voyage. Image by Finbarr O’Reilly. Ireland.

A truck with the winch required to offload the nets had broken down and was delayed for hours, adding to the string of problems the Aquila encountered over the final 24 hours of its fishing life.

“That was the most Aquila way to finish up,” said the vessel’s owner, Ronan Sheehy, while standing pier side as she was disemboweled. “Giving us trouble until the very end.”

Some have had enough of such trouble. Cara Rawdon, 65, who had been fishing for four decades out of the northern village of Greencastle, said he received a fair price for his boat. He has now retired.

“There are no young men getting into it here,” he said. Coastal communities around Ireland “are being annihilated.”

Caitlin Ui Aodha, who also fished, sold her vessel and used the money to open a restaurant in Dungarvan, in Ireland’s southeast.

“You have to adjust, at sea as well as in fishing,” said Ms. Ui Aodha, 61. “You’re out and it’s moving around, and you kind of learn life changes very quickly.”

Ms. Ui Aodha was born in a village in the Gaeltacht, the Irish-speaking area of the country, into a family that had fished for over 150 years. She fished through her early adult years, eventually alongside her husband, Michael Hayes, and then turned to raising their five children, while he continued as a skipper.

Caitlin Ui Aodha, the first female Irish fishing vessel owner and skipper, at the pier near her home at the Irish fishing port of Helvick. Image by Finbarr O’Reilly. Ireland.

But it was her husband’s vessel, Tit Bonhomme, that ran aground during the storm and sank off Adam’s Island in 2012, the sea claiming his and four crew members’ lives.

After his death, Ms. Ui Aodha bought a trawler and took to the sea again. She assumed she would sell the boat when she retired, but things had been difficult for years, and decommissioning felt like her only option. Her boat was scrapped in late April.

“The saddest thing really is to see how, all around the coast, indigenous fishing people like me become extinct, we’re just not going to be there,” she said, rattling off the names of longtime fishing families. “All these names are disappearing.”


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