Brexit roadtrip - Pat Close (Lough Neagh Fishers Cooperative, Northern Ireland)


“For generations the people around this area depended on the Lough to feed themselves, to feed their families. There’s evidence of people fishing eels in this lake thousands of years back. The ethos of our co-operative has always been to create livelihood for more fishermen, open up access to the lough, without overexploiting the eel stocks.”

“The big issue for me here is a socio-economic issue. What would the loss of our market due to Brexit mean for generations upon generations of fishermen on this lake?”

Pat Close is chief executive of a co-operative of fishermen on the Lough Neagh lake in Northern Ireland. The co-operative was started in the 1960’s and now consists of around 100 boats. Usually each boat has two fishermen on it. The fishing season for eel starts in May and ends in October. Between seasons some fishermen will work in construction, others will turn their attention to other fish in the lake, like pollan, bream, roach or perch.

How do you see the prospect of Brexit affecting your business?

A hard Brexit would leave us in a very difficult situation. Roughly 80% of our annual catch goes to the Netherlands. Of course higher tariffs will pose a challenge, but our first hurdle to overcome would be the listing of the European eels as endangered by CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species].“

“In the mid 1980s it was discovered that eel stocks across Europe were under pressure, fortunately we have been able to augment natural recruitment since then by importing additional glass eels from England and a little bit from France, where there exists a surplus to local requirements in certain catchment areas. Historically Lough Neagh would have had around 10-12 million glass eels coming in annually, this has now dropped to around 3-4 million. This is likely due to a combination of factors, such as overfishing, pollution, global warming, and changes of temperatures, salinity and directions of currents carrying glass eels to European coastlines.”

“The objective for our cooperative is to strike a balance between exploitation of yellow eels and production of [mature] silver eels in sufficient numbers to ensure conservation targets are met. The EU introduced regulations in 2007 aimed at bringing about recovery. This required the industry in each River Basin District to seek approval for an Eel Management Plan. This did not have a major impact on Lough Neagh because when scientists studied our conservation measures they found it to be a ‘good practice’, and sent it to the rest of Europe as an example. So our eel management plan was approved in 2010, and this became our license to continue fishing and export to Europe.”

“The situation now with the UK leaving the EU is that we are no longer under the European umbrella, so for us to continue to export to Europe, or import glass eels from Europe to restock our own lake might become difficult or impossible. After Brexit we understand we will not have access to the European eel meat market unless we can establish a non detriment finding (NDF). This means that the European Scientific Review Group will look at our entire system and see if it will be approved to be part of the European market.”

“So we’ve had an application out for a couple of months now. The UK branch of CITES has looked at application and decided to allow us to continue to market domestically. That means in theory that we could supply domestically and third countries, Asia for instance, if we can find a market there. There seems to be a feeling with some that that’s an opportunity, but I don’t feel so strongly. I feel our interests would be better served in Europe with access to the markets that we have already established, we’ve been dealing with the same family names in Holland since the beginning of this co-operative, so there’s a tremendous relationship built up there. You don’t replace that overnight.”

How do you prepare for possible consequences of Brexit?

“Up until now we haven’t heard a decision from the European Scientific Review Group. We have to be hopeful they will approve the NDF application, but nobody is willing to give us any indication at this stage. So that makes it difficult to plan.”

“A big issue for us at the moment is restocking. We can spend up to a quarter of a million pound each year on buying glass eel. It will be a minimum of six, seven years before we see any return on that as yellow eels, it will be twelve to thirteen years before there’s any return on male silvers [mature eels] and eighteen to twenty years before there’d be any return on female silvers [mature eels]. So that’s a big long term investment that we have to make every year, we’ve been doing that each year since 1985. We’ve invested a lot, put a lot of stock into this lake, but there might not be a market for it in a matter of a few days.“

“Our worst case scenario would be a no deal Brexit, overnight, that shuts down everything. Our season begins on the first of May. If there was to be a deal, particularly if that deal involved some sort of customs arrangement, that would buy us some time. But there seem to be political elements that are not convinced that there are any threats to the economy and to commercial activity.”

“We realise that we’re on the periphery here. Yes we’re a part of the UK. But we’re ‘over there’, that type of thing. Decisions are being made about our future, by people in London, who perhaps have little understanding of the importance of an industry like this to a rural economy like this.”

Maarten Kuiper