The Paul Gosling Column
The Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative Society needs half a million pounds to survive. What makes this co-op distinctive is that it is the last eel fishery in Europe. Most of its production goes to the Netherlands.
The co-op is in a crisis. The problem is that the young eels – called elvers – are not being naturally replenished. Ever since the middle ages, when monks inhabited the north Antrim coastline and established Christianity in the area, eels have been caught for food. But in the 1970s and 80s, across Europe, the elvers went into decline. Eel fisheries became threatened and now the decline threatens to hit Neagh terminally.
Quite why elvers became endangered is unclear. The Environment Agency has put forward several plausible theories. One is that they are vulnerable to the flow of the Gulf Stream, with reduced elvers being the result of the Gulf Stream moving more northerly because of global warming. Other possible causes are over-fishing, pollution and, perhaps, migration barriers.
The decline in the number of elvers has been dramatic. Back in 1977, there were 19 million elvers arriving in Lough Neagh each year. The figure more than halved in seven years. Now the number is little more than 700,000. The co-op has responded by importing tens of millions a year from England.
It is only because of the formation of the co-operative that the eel fishery has survived at all – thereby protecting about 300 fishing jobs. The co-op markets the catch of the fishermen (who are all owner-members of the co-op), but it does much more than that – it also regulates the micro-industry. The co-op specifies what boats members are permitted to use; what size of lines, nets and hooks they may use; and even what type of teeth can be attached to the hooks. Only some types of bait are allowed. Members would be penalised if they caught and then tried to sell under-sized eels. There is also a limit to the size of catch per boat and to the hours that fishing can be conducted – it is allowed only between 9 in the morning and 8 in the evening (but not at all from Saturday lunchtime until Monday afternoon).
The history of eel fishing and the co-op has a parallel with the wider history of the nine counties of pre-partition Ulster. Eel fishing was established by a monastery, not only as a source of food, but also for the oil extracted from the eel that was used for lamps. Local people followed the example of the monks, carrying on fishing for generations.
This continued until the plantation of Ulster. Charles I granted the bed and soil of Lough Neagh to the Earl of Donegal in 1640, which passed on to the Chichester and Shaftesbury families. To this day, the Lough remains in the ownership of the Shaftesbury estate, despite the infamous murder of the Earl of Shaftesbury in France in 2005.
Not surprisingly, conflict developed between the absentee owners of the land and lough who demanded payment for fishing rights, and the local fishermen whose families had fished there for hundreds of years. This was resolved by the creation of the co-operative to protect the fishermen and its success in buying-out the fishing rights on a lease, putting an end to a struggle that lasted over 300 years.
As the eel catches have declined, prices rose significantly. After selling at £29 a kilo in 1985, they now wholesale at £400 to £500 a kilo. Yet despite the higher prices, the co-op’s and its members’ incomes have fallen. They have taken a big hit from a decline in the catch of silver eels, the earnings from which cover the co-op’s other activities. To break even, the fishermen must catch 3,000 boxes of silver eels a year, but last year they caught only 2,200 boxes. The co-op is now operating at a significant loss, maintained by the use of its reserves, built up over many years.
Most of the credit for the duration of the co-op, and its previous success, should be given to one man, Father Kennedy. Although from west Belfast, the priest learnt about eels and fishing in order to lead the co-op and was given early retirement by his bishop to run the co-op – which he founded in 1965. More than four decades on, now aged 78, he still manages the co-op and led a recent delegation to present the co-op’s case at the Northern Ireland Assembly’s culture, arts and leisure committee, seeking financial support to enable the co-op to continue.
The role of Father Kennedy has been maintained for so many years it could be regarded as his life’s work. In fact, it might almost be said to have pre-ordained from birth. His full name is Oliver Plunkett Kennedy – named after one of the most important figures in the Catholic church, and related to Horace Plunkett, who of the most influential figures in co-operative history.
Asked what chance there was of getting the money from the Northern Ireland government, Father Kennedy told Co-operative News: “I’d prefer not to comment. Our experience of DCAL [the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure] so far has been that they are wholly useless. I don’t understand if we are restocking a natural, indigenous river system, why we don’t get grant aid. We have been applying for this for 20 years, but we just don’t get it. We have spent over £2m buying stocks and we just don’t have the money now to do this.”
DCAL failed to respond to our request for a comment on the grant application, but the co-op recognises the difficulties in getting the financial support it needs. Father Kennedy says the best chance is probably from a new approach by the European Union, which may unlock other funds. But, he admits: “I am not optimistic for the future [of the co-op].” It would be terribly sad if those fears proved justified.
This article was originally published in Co-operative News in April 2008