In for the Long Haul

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Sunday, January 25, 2009, Sunday Business Post – By Conor Creighton
The Argo K has a green deck. Anybody who knows anything about fishing will tell you that you don’t want the colour green anywhere near a sea-faring vessel.

‘‘Ah, but it’s a nice colour all the same. I’ve always liked green,” says skipper Andrew Markey, before being reminded that the Asgard II was also a nice shade of green, although it’s harder to appreciate that now -as it lies at the bottom of the Bay of Biscay.

Another no-no on board a ship is saying the word ‘pig’. Pigs can’t swim -if they ever attempt it their trotters slice back and forth, eventually slitting their throat, and they drown. Fishermen have been fired for simply saying the word. It’s also best that you don’t see a red-headed woman on the day you set sail. So when the Argo K pushes off and Howth Harbour recedes into Dublin Bay, I say a prayer that the last flicker of red I saw on dry land came from a bottle of hair dye rather than someone’s mother.

Superstitions aside, this is not a good time to be a fisherman in Ireland. Restrictive quotas, high costs and the crippling fuel prices of last year have turned many fishermen into hobbyists, rather than businessmen, as they simply aren’t making any money.

The Irish government has €66 million to spend on decommissioning Irish boats. Decommissioning makes sense for a skipper, who can get €500,000 or so, enough to set them up in another business on land. But that’s only if you own the boat. The bank owns the Argo K, and a house and a hefty mortgage are the only things preventing them from taking it back.

So the Argo K never stops. When the weather is favourable the boat just about kisses the harbour wall before relief skipper Adrian McDaid and a fresh crew swap places with Markey and head out again. Adrian is 32 and from Culdaff in Donegal. His crew are made up of three Egyptians, two Italians and, for this trip, two Irish journalists whose only ambitions onboard are to not be completely useless.

The Argo was built by the Russians in the 1980s; the K came from a man named Kelly who subsequently bought it. Andrew Markey bought it from him, and the boat hasn’t had a day of rest since. Adrian McDaid remembers it in Greencastle Harbour from when he was younger.

‘‘I used to think it was the greatest crock out there, and now I’m the skipper,” he says. It’s true that the Argo K has seen better days, but the only boats that stay pretty are the ones that don’t fish.

On land, McDaid is an ordinary chap who might do the odd silly thing, but at sea he’s a wise hunter who smells his way to the prawns which the Argo K fishes for, and pulls in two-tonne hauls when everybody else is catching ‘‘maggots’’.

After two hours of steaming, he drops the nets and six hours later brings them back in – and this is when all the drama on a fishing trawler unfolds. The rest of the time, which is spent sitting in the kitchen reading a two day old newspaper or smoking on deck, is all just a prelude to the main event. First the alarm rings, then the doors – giant metal slabs that drag the net under – are hauled to the surface. Then the wheels roll into action and the boat sucks the net into the hopper, and you see straight away whether the trip has been worth it or not. On a good week, each crew member might make as much as €1,000, but there aren’t many good weeks, and on this trip they won’t reach even half that amount.

The trawler is not only a hunting vessel, it’s a fish-processing factory at sea. The prawns get shovelled into buckets and then dumped onto rough tables, where their heads are ripped off and their bodies thrown back into the buckets. Everything else gets dumped overboard, but only the crabs and the occasional strong cod are still alive at that stage.

The boats leave mile-long trails of dead fish behind them, floating on the surface for the gulls to get fat. The EU calls it discard and is constantly coming up with new net sizes to try to eliminate it, but at sea it’s impossible to pick and choose what ends up in your net.

Mohammed, one of the older Egyptians, picks up a cod in both hands and looks pleadingly at McDaid. ‘‘And I’ll end up in prison,” McDaid shouts, and the cod goes back into the sea. Cod quotas for 2009 are down 25 per cent on 2008,yet fishermen argue that stocks are up and they should be allowed to fish them. The EU disagrees, yet over the course of the week, we will throw as much as €1,000 worth of cod back into the sea.

The processing can take anything up to five hours if your skipper is hunting well. You have to stand up for so long that your ankles swell, and you have to tear at your boots to get them off.

Your wrists swell up too and your back goes through short spasms of pain as you try to keep your balance while beheading a thousand prawns. Some of them fight back and bite through your gloves to the flesh, so you crush them and watch them die slowly. ‘‘There aren’t many Irish boys doing the crewing work anymore,’’ McDaid says. ‘‘Sure there’s way easier work to do on land.” The week before our trip, a Northern Irish fisherman who crewed the Argo K jacked it in. ‘‘There was no one to talk English to him. He was going mad,’’ McDaid says.

Hassan, Sahid and Mohammed play loud Egyptian pop on their mobiles, smoke cigarettes constantly and cook everything in hot spices. Ciro and Francesco, the Italian fishermen, are forever opening tins of tomatoes or capers, and their racy magazines make the Egyptians blush. McDaid is always on the bridge, jumping from binoculars to radars to horse racing on a tiny, eight inch screen. He’s been a skipper for just two years and is one of the youngest working in Irish waters. He has a good attitude, in spite of the current climate in the fishing industry. ‘‘It’s like they waited for me to get my skipper’s ticket before they brought all these quotas in. It would depress you, but it takes a lot to depress me,” he says.

The other skippers talk to each other on CB radio. Only 24 hours into the trip and two boats have already gone back to shore, deciding that their boats will be more profitable tied up than at sea. ‘‘A lot of the boys are talking about jacking it in. They reckon that if you don’t make your quota in six days, then you’re losing money,” says McDaid. Prawn quotas in the Irish Sea have gradually been dropping, and will drop a further 2 per cent this year. Extreme whitefish quotas, which threatened to destroy fishing altogether in the north-west, forced many fishermen to convert their boats to prawn trawlers and come to hunt in the same waters as the Argo K.

If you factor food, insurance, ice and diesel – which can be as much as €1,000 a day – into your costs, you can see why a skipper would turn around almost immediately if his first couple of hauls weren’t anything special. If you’re not fishing well, then your boat is leaking money fast.

Life on a fishing trawler is simple. Your day is divided into four, so every six hours the nets are brought in and the fish are processed. If you’ve free time, you either sleep, eat or climb up on deck to see if you can get phone reception and send text messages to the real world.

The crew have Irish girls back on land, and the Egyptians have pictures of them on their mobiles. ‘‘Irishwoman is crazy,” says Sahid. ‘‘They happy, then they drink so much, then they cry, then they drink again and they happy again.”

Sahid has a tattoo of a seagull on his bicep done in Indian ink. Above it he has the letter ‘M’ for his mother. With the money he makes, he travels back to Egypt every couple of years to see his family, but he likes Dublin.

There are two bunkrooms on the boat with four beds in each. They’re blacked out and right next to the engine room, so after a day or two of steaming at sea, they’re warm and smell like saunas. It’s a matter of stumbling into one and hoping there isn’t an Egyptian or Italian lying beneath you. We are all inhabiting the same little cells and breathing the same mouldy air.

‘‘The less you boys are sleeping, the more money I’m making,’’ McDaid says. He himself gets by on about two hours a day; the rest of the time he keeps going on instant coffee and roll-up cigarettes.

He’s friendly with the crew – they come up onto the bridge and watch TV with him- something that wouldn’t happen on most other boats. But he still works them hard. ‘‘These Egyptian boys get a bang and they lie down, but you could cut the arms off a Russian fisherman and he’d still fish,” he says.

Accidents do happen. Rusty winches, loose nets and short, sharp knives on an 80foot trawler out at sea are a recipe for them. McDaid tells a grim tale of one fisherman who was once torn in two between the metal net cables. And on only his second day as skipper, an Egyptian sailor took a hit to the head and had to be airlifted to shore, costing McDaid €1,500.

After a few days at sea you fall into a rhythm. You remember to stand with the roll of the wave so you don’t smack your head off doorways; whenever your hands are free for a second you get your tobacco out and roll a cigarette for later, and if you think you’re going to have more than half an hour to yourself, you head down to a bunk and get some rest.

There’s not much hygiene on board. We don’t wash and we never bother to change our underwear or socks, because everything already stinks of fish. Four days in and we hear a strange sound coming from the hall. Everyone looks around, a little worried, until Ciro pops his head up and says: ‘‘Francesco take a shower.” So that’s what that room is for.

The high point of a fishing trip is the halfway mark, because then you can start talking about the things you miss at land without torturing yourself. You can talk about women and know that, in just a few days, you’ll be in their company again. Adrian’s more focused on a drink – he sees a beer advert on the small TV screen upstairs and jumps out of his seat to grab it.

The Argo K does most of its travelling at night. Prawns come closer to the surface during the day and that’s when the best fishing is to be found. During the day, we sit tight in the same area, but at night the trawler skirts up and down the coast as far north as Carlingford Lough and east to the Isle of Man and the English coast.

We run through a series of big hauls towards the end of the week. It means more work and more decapitating prawns, but more importantly, it means more money for everyone.

Returning to shore, we’re one of only four boats left from a group of 20 which left a week ago. The rest gave up long ago. ‘‘It’s almost useless sometimes,” says McDaid, ‘‘but I love fishing. I love getting the experience.” Irish fishermen are few and far between, and in comparison to farmers, they have very little power. The future of Ireland’s most romantic and cursed industry looks bleak. A total of 75 boats were decommissioned last year. More will follow in 2009, and it’s hard to imagine more young Irish men signing up on a boat when they might only get €30 a day for the hardest job they’ll ever do in their life.

But McDaid has big plans. He’d like his own boat, he’d like to travel. ‘‘I was thinking of moving to Alaska,” he says. ‘‘To go fish for king crabs. I heard a boy went up there and bought his house after a summer. That’s some money.

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