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Irish port sees its ship come in - and its laden with fish

It's not just another fish story. Fishing is getting better in the Atlantic.

That's the word from Killibegs, Ireland's largest fishing port and a town of 5,000 in the northwest corner of this island.

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``Fishermen always say things are bad,'' says one 30-year-old who has spent several years earning his keep at sea. He looks around furtively in the dockside pub. ``Don't use my name - but we're better off than we were five years ago.''

Killibegs is a boom town at the moment, one of the few in otherwise economically troubled Ireland. The port boasts several large, new fishing vessels. Secondary businesses such as net factories can barely keep up with demand. And, major improvements in roads and communications in the area are nearly finished.

The upbeat mood here signals the success of the European Community's fishing quota program. Five years ago, Irish fishermen were outraged by what they saw as unfair treatment at the hands of the EC. The Community insisted that a quota system was necessary because the Atlantic was being overfished, and the quotas were determined partly on the basis of existing shares of the annual catch.

The Irish, who historically came late to fishing and whose fleet was relatively small, objected that many of their fishermen could not survive with such small quotas.

In fact, although there are still complaints, the fishermen are doing well for several reasons. The EC's decision forced them to make changes sooner rather than later: in particular, to invest in larger boats which could fish deeper waters.

Smaller fishermen who were unable to make the shift expected to be hurt, especially because the stock of white fish they traditionally catch had declined. But that has not happened. Instead, according to John Murrin of the national Fish Board's office in Killibegs, ``the price [on white fish] is up because of a higher demand in Europe.''

A major factor in Killibegs's fishing success is that its fleet came of age at the right time - Europeans are eating more fish, and the Japanese are buying more fish from distant ports, giving the Irish an important new client.

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``The big markets in the Seventies were the United Kingdom and Europe, but also Nigeria and Egypt for mackeral,'' says Mr. Murrin. ``Then one year there were some problems with Nigeria and it made the guys look at alternatives. Now it's skad, for the Japanese. There are 20 Japanese people doing quality control in our factories here, which is a very desirable situation for us. The Japanese are very tough in that respect. There is a future in fishing, but it's a very different ball game [compared] to 10 years ago because of the controls.''

For Killibegs, the main difference from the last decade is the shift to larger boats. The town's two newest vessels cost $9 to $12 million and were privately financed. There are several part-owners, often former skippers. ``It shows a big commitment on their part, putting their money back into fishing when they retire,'' says Murrin.

The new boats must be capable of spending four to five days at sea in winter, hunting mackeral, or dashing back to shore the same day skad are caught to meet Japanese standards for freshness for that fish. Their 12- to 15-person crews are larger than they used to be. And, life on board, with private showers and videos, is luxurious compared to shipboard existence a few years ago.

Sean Tully, one owner of a new boat, likes to show off the sophisticated electronic equipment on board which tells the crew precisely where the shoals are, and how full the nets lying on the ocean bottom are at any moment. ``The fish don't have a chance anymore,'' he says.

Some of the romance of setting out to sea in a small boat to do battle with a slippery target has been lost. But the fishermen say they do not long for this former life. Killibegs provides seasonal labor for many people in Donegal County who farm in summer and take to the sea in winter. Willie is one of them. He lives 50 miles north in summer but moves to Killibegs for the season. ``I fixed cars for 9 years...and I wasn't making much money, so I found me a job there.

``Most fishermen are saving up now to buy a boat, and so am I. The woman doesn't think much of it, she's always trying to get me out of it. But it's like the drink: once you're into it, it's hard to get out. I wouldn't be doing anything else now! I'll be doing it all my life.''

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