As coronavirus forces a lockdown across the UK announced by PM Boris Johnston last night (Monday 24 March), County Down fishermen and fish and shellfish businesses fear the worst as an impending closure of the markets looks likely.
If the supply chains break, the local prawn fleet, the main body of the fishing fleet will be cut adrift for a prolonged period, and for some boat owners and skippers who have made large financial commitments, they will be facing difficult times.
There are government packages of help available for boat owners and factory and processing units and those business people requiring support in cash flow to get through this difficult period.
However, for the many self-employed fishermen especially the migrant workers who work on the fishing vessels in Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel, life could be more difficult too.
Harry Wick, Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Fish Producer Organisation said: “We are heading for very difficult times and have to work together to get through this. The markets are almost collapsed for prawns, shellfish and white fish. There is only one prawn buyer at the moment buying up prawns and shipping them to the UK which is keeping a section of the Ardglass fleet busy.
“The main prawn buyers across the UK have filled up their storage freezers so there is no point for many trawlers in going to sea as there is no market. Across the UK we have seen Grimsby market closing and Peterhead harbour on the floor.
“DAERA will be submitting a brief to NI Fisheries Minister Edwin Poots by Wednesday afternoon so I hope that he has time to digest it and act quickly to support the fishing fleet and fishermen who are looking over a cliff edge at the moment and need help in place urgently.
“This all places the migrant workers too who represent almost a half of the fleet workforce in a very difficult position. They too will be worried about their incomes, entitlement to benefits.
“Already the Scottish office has announced a package for its fishermen, and DEFRA is announcing very soon a package too for their fishing sector. Northern Ireland Minister Edwin Poots will hopefully respond quickly and likewise support our fishing sector.”
Fish processors in the export herring and mackerel sector are too finding problems with the supply of drivers, containers, and some markets drying up as the global pandemic bites further.
The three County Down fishing communities largely dependent of their local fleets will be looking at Minister Poots’ package with keen interest as the economy grinds to a dangerously low level.
Fishermen’s Mission At The Front Line.
The Fishermen’s Mission in Northern Ireland is at the front life of welfare and pastoral care for fishermen across the three ports. They provide practical support and help and can assist in a financial crisis.
Ingrid Perry, Joint Superintendent based in Kilkeel, said: “Fishermen are self-employed and as such they qualify for benefits under the different schemes available. But they must sign up for Universal Credit and fill in a few forms and show their certificates. We will do what we can to help them through this difficult crisis which could run on for a number of months. “
Helpline for Fishermen’s Mission in Northern Ireland:
Local Fisherman Shares His Thoughts On Current Crisis.
Ardglass Skipper David Zych expressed his concerns about the future of fishing in Northern Ireland to Down News as the coronavirus crisis severely disrupts markets.
He said: “Both boat owners and fishermen are in for tough times ahead. For boatowners, bills will no doubt continue to come in while there is no market for their prawns, fish, and shellfish. Harbour dues, satellite fees, the rental for electronic equipment all costs money.
“If the trawlers are tied up, someone still has to look after them and maintain them on an ongoing basis. There is no case of just switching off. It would be a terrible for our fleet of a number of skilled fishermen drifted away after months of waiting for the markets to open up again and fishing to re-start. It takes time to build a good crew and many boats could loose out.
“Boat owners often have mortgages and bank loans and they will now be feeling the pressure of where this is all going.
“A lot of fishermen are on quit poor wages and they will not want to rely on benefits to keep them going. It will be hard for then to live on £94 a week. There could easily be a drift away from fishing for many and a loss of skilled labour to the industry. What can a fisherman do on land?
“Fishermen will be living in tight quarters on trawlers where a Covid-19 outbreak could mean isolation and infection. And it may even be difficult for them to find flights home if they were lucky to do so.
“We really need Fisheries Minister Edwin Poots to come up with a sound package of help for our ailing industry. We just want to be treated the same as the fishermen of Scotland, Wales and England.”