WE VISIT THEM on our summer holidays. We like to see boats coming and going from piers and to eat seafood in local restaurants. We imagine what a great life the locals must have. But the reality for coastal communities is as far from the imagined maritime idyll as Newfoundland is from Kilmore Quay.
From the very start, the motivation for making ‘Atlantic’ has always been about giving people around the country an insight into what is going on off our shores. While filming a documentary on the Corrib Gas project in northwest Mayo, I began to realise how little I knew about the seas surrounding us, and the people whose livelihoods depend on it.
90% of our territorial area is underwater
Growing up in Tipperary, I came to know a lot about land, cattle, hurling and the value of property, but very little about the 90% of our territorial area that is underwater. It was only when I began to talk to fishermen, oil rig workers and former minister Justin Keating, did I begin to fully realise the sheer extent of our offshore territory and ocean resources.
There is a real passion for, and connection with, the sea among the communities dependent on these resources. They risk their lives every time they go to work because they know what it’s worth.
Most Irish people are, however, completely and genuinely ignorant of that worth. Travelling to Norway and Newfoundland was a real eye-opener, learning of the value and appreciation that our Atlantic neighbours put on their natural resources and coastal communities. In comparison, as a country we have turned our backs on the ocean.
Shattering negative connotations
In the past, the sea has generally been associated with poverty, emigration and invasion. When I was young, the only time “dacent” country people ate fish was on a Friday and that was as penance.
I think that attitude towards the sea and its negative connotations has pervaded down into how our government treats our ocean resources and those who make a living off our coasts. From handing over our fishing rights to Europe in 1973, to rescinding control of our oil and gas prospects to big business in 1987, our public representatives have always shown a lack of political will towards improving the livelihoods of our coastal communities.
Instead, the extraction of Ireland’s ocean resources is effectively being outsourced to the armada-sized fleets of Europe and to private oil and gas companies pushing to exploit our fossil fuel potential, often at terms more favourable for private enterprise than for the private citizen.
What people don’t realise is that Ireland’s fish resource is unparalleled. It’s the richest in Europe. As the world’s largest super-trawlers swarm in our waters and the oil majors eye up potentially massive finds off our coasts, the management of those ocean resources is becoming an increasingly urgent question. Thanks to a whistle-blower, we see in the film that super-trawlers are dumping in one fortnight enough fish to keep Ireland’s 1,800 small inshore boats going for a year.
In addition, the activities of seismic vessels on the fragile fishing grounds raise similar concerns for the effects on the long-term sustainability of our fish stocks. With offshore drilling for oil in Irish waters set to re-commence in summer 2017, it is time for us, as a people, to become informed and to take ownership of decision-making regarding our natural resources.
Brexit and climate change
Brexit poses huge problems too because it has the potential to wreak havoc on the Common Fisheries Policy and especially on Ireland’s fishing interests.
As 50% of EU fishing grounds are in the UK, Brexit may force the EU fleets to focus even more intensely on our lucrative fishing waters, which are already under severe pressure. Our extremely limited capacity to police the thousands of EU vessels already in our waters does not auger well for the future.
Add to that the accelerating impacts of climate change, and we have some massive challenges on the horizon. Ireland needs to take responsibility for what happens in our own jurisdiction before the current free-for-all leaves us empty-handed and our coastal communities decimated.
After four years in the making, it is really timely to have ‘Atlantic’ now screening on the national broadcaster. My hope is that it will open the eyes of people, not just along the coasts, but all across the country as to what is happening in Ireland’s vast territorial seas.
For too long, we have ignored the massive potential of this huge expanse of ocean, but to have the opportunity now to bring this story right into people’s homes across Ireland is a dream come true.
Now we have the opportunity to step back and look at what is happening in our waters and decide as a country what we need to do to protect this delicate ecosystem and to allow our coastal communities to thrive sustainably. We cannot blame Europe, Britain or other foreign interests for the current situation.
As narrator of ‘Atlantic,’ Brendan Gleeson, said this week: “It’s about political conviction and intent. Europe promised to look after the margins. It’s up to our crowd to make them live up to it.”
Risteard Ó Domhnaill is the award winning director and producer of ‘Atlantic’ which airs on RTÉ One on Thursday December 8th at 10:15pm. For more information, to buy the DVD or to request a screening visit www.theatlanticstream.com.