Let us catch bluefin tuna in Cork waters

Bluefin tuna are one of the world’s most expensive fish and highly prized in Japan. Cork fishermen tell NOEL SWEENEY they want Ireland to secure a quota so they can catch them here
Let us catch bluefin tuna in Cork waters

Tony Santry operating the Bluefin Tuna catch and release programme.

FISHERMEN in West Cork want to be allowed to catch bluefin tuna when the common fisheries policy comes up for review in 2022.

A fisherman in Japan will say that one bluefin tuna buys you a Toyota Corolla. Their value is such that Japanese fleets steam across the globe to the limits of Irish waters and haul in tons of the species.

Bluefin, which can weigh 220-250kg, are a delicacy in Japan; a prized fish on the Japanese markets. It commands prices from €5,000, right through to €70,000. These are among the most valuable fish in the world, and because Ireland does not have a quota, Irish fishermen are not allowed to catch them.

Although they are listed as endangered, the bluefin tuna has reportedly been growing in numbers in Atlantic waters for some time.

Castletownbere fisherman Damien Turner and his late business partner Nick Gotto successfully fished bluefin off Cork between 1997 and 1999, when there was no legislation pertaining to bluefin as a quota species. A partnership developed between Damien’s business and Hoyo Fisheries from Japan, who provided expertise, and BIM came on board in 1998 to help trial the new fishery.

Mr. Turner said: “We sent out a top quality product in the mid-nineties, and I’m 100% convinced we can do it again. Last year I got an email from the company we worked with back then, asking if we’d be able to restart the contract. But when we don’t have a quota, it’s out of the question”

They were contracted by Hoyo Fisheries, so a lot of what they caught found their way to high-end Japanese auctions, and one of the bluefin he caught made the second highest price. “That was huge for us. It was a real Irish success story”.

It didn’t last, however. In the early 2000s, ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) reduced international quotas due to decreasing stocks, and at the next round of common fisheries policy negotiations, Ireland failed to secure a quota.

The years the likes of Damien trialled the fishery were not considered commercially in the negotiations. The precedent for all quotas across the EU was set from the late 1990s onwards; meaning Ireland could not secure a quota.

The Department of Fisheries, Food and the Marine said: “The available Bluefin Tuna quota is allocated each year to Member States on the basis of relative stability as established in the late 1990s. At that time, Ireland did not have a track record of commercial fishing for Bluefin Tuna and, accordingly, did not receive a quota allocation.”

NET GAINS: Damien Turner on his trawler The Rosie Caitriona in Castletownbere
NET GAINS: Damien Turner on his trawler The Rosie Caitriona in Castletownbere

Turner said: “We lost 18% of our overall quota to Brexit. We have opportunities in the Bluefin and we need to look into them. We can diversify into bluefin, taking pressure off other stocks, and create employment in Castletownbere and other fishing communities”

Since 2019, the Tuna CHART (CatcH And Release Tagging), a catch and release recreation programme for sea anglers, has been in place. The programme sees Inland Fisheries Ireland, The Marine Institute and the Sea Fisheries Protection Agency collaborate to work with 22 charter angling vessels that have been granted authorisation to participate in the programme to catch, tag, measure and release Atlantic bluefin tuna for data collection purposes off the Irish coast.

Tony Santry, who operates angling tours out of East Ferry, is one of the 22 anglers. He spent the last six weeks upgrading his boat for a third season offering the catch and release tours for bluefin enthusiasts.

“I spent between €8,000 and €10,000 overhauling the boat for the coming season and I don’t even know if I’ll be able to go out with the Covid,” said Mr Santry, who lives in Passage West.

Even during the lockdown, he’s had numerous enquiries from all over the world, asking about his bluefin catch and release tours. “These are potentially returning visitors to Ireland who are only dying to spend their money here,” Tony said.

“The programme is showing that huge numbers of bluefin are swarming Irish seas. Ireland seems unaware of the huge resource that is available to the Irish nation.

“What’s transpired is something of dreams, really. We have the best bluefin tuna fishery on planet earth at this moment in time. It’s heartbreaking to see European vessels come into Irish waters and soak up Bluefin when we’re not allowed.

“Up off the coast of Donegal (just outside Irish waters), Japanese fishermen come to fish for Bluefin; It’s that lucrative. Running a charter boat costs €30,000 per year, and if we could get a quota, even a small number of catches would go a long way towards sustaining the business.”

The political will to secure a bluefin quota seems far from the minds of the politicians who negotiate on behalf of the Irish people.

With numbers reportedly growing in our waters amid a fishing industry on its knees, one has to ask what Ireland is going to do when we arrive at the CFP negotiating table next year.

DAFM say: “Any change to relative stability would involve a loss for some other Member States and therefore poses particular challenges in a qualified majority voting context.”

Cork South West Independent TD, Michael Collins said: “I know some European countries that fish bluefin are demanding and getting extra bluefin quota, and we continue to retain our outdated quota. Ireland are weak at the negotiating table.”

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