Travelling along the Wild Atlantic Way there are many ‘side stories’ that grab attention. Such is the case in Killybegs in South Donegal. Killybegs is Ireland’s largest fishing port, the safe sheltered deep water harbour located in the waters of Donegal Bay.
Two things surprise me…the sheer size of these boats that go hunting fish for our tables, and the sheer number of them in the harbour, that are not at sea. They are big and they are colourful, and presumably in harbour as they may have already taken their quota of a particular species as allowed under European rules, or because the species they fish may not in season. The size of these boats would make you wonder all the same how long the seas can continue to produce the huge quantities of fish that these super vessels can haul in at any one time.
It is good to know that fishermen at sea are much safer than in days gone by, as these vessels are built to withstand heavy seas and are equipped with an impressive amount of electronics, radar, Internet and GPS systems.
Seeing this service vehicle of the Atlantic Dawn Group on the quay, I was reminded of a shameful period in the history of Irish Fishing. Back in the 1990s a Killybegs fisherman Kevin McHugh, aided and abetted by the Bertie Ahern government and funded by Irish banks, commissioned and purchased the Atlantic Dawn super trawler. At 144 metres long and 14,000 tons it was and remains the largest and most technologically advanced trawler in the world. Feted by politicians on its arrival as ‘one of the proudest moments in Irish history’ this giant could process 400 tons of fish every 24 hours and had storage capacity of 7,000 tons. There was one problem however, it was so big that it did not have nor could it be issued with a fishing licence for European waters. Amid much political wrangling and dealing, the Atlantic Dawn was registered as a merchant ship to enable it to side step fishing licence rules. With her nets hundreds of metres wide and sonar systems to detect shoals of fish it soon became clear that she would fish the full annual quota allowed in a matter of weeks. And so a deal was drawn up with the government of Mauritania in South Africa to enable her to trawl there and avoid all rules, regulations and legislation put in place to protect fishing stocks. Atlantic Dawn stripped the fishing grounds of Mauritania depriving hundreds of subsistence fishermen of their livelihoods. They dubbed her ‘the ship from hell’. Following a coup in Mauritania she was impounded and banned from fishing in these waters. Following the death of McHugh in 2006, the Atlantic Dawn was sold and renamed the Annelies Ilena. Ironically she was arrested for overfishing and the case was heard in Donegal courts and is ongoing. Many of the ships tied up in Killybegs are owned by the Atlantic Dawn Group.
The smaller fishing boats are dwarfed by their big neighbours.
The pier at Killybegs was upgraded to accommodate these larger vessels and nowadays visiting cruise liners call into Killybegs to allow passengers visit some of the local attractions.
Much of the catch landed here is exported to the continent.
At any fishing harbour there is a reminder of how cruel the sea can be and what a dangerous occupation fishing is. This is the Killybegs memorial to those lost in this area.