Feb 23, 2022 | Over the Bar

Photo Courtesy of Christopher Seufert

By John Pappalardo

Turns out the Russian Navy was no match for Irish fishermen, and this small appreciation for what our counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic accomplished will suffice, at least for now, as congrats and thanks — though a shared Guinness would be far better.

The Russians decided their navy needed more war games and drills, beginning February 1 in fertile fishing grounds off the southwest coast of Ireland. When the Irish government protested, the Russians basically said, “We’re doing it, and there’s no way you can stop us.”

In Dublin they threw up their hands, but the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organization decided to throw down the gauntlet. The group has been around since 1995, just a tad younger than our Alliance, and represents independent fishermen mainly chasing whitefish in boats that range from 40 to 95 feet, again comparable though generally bigger vessels than ours.

The head of their group is a fisherman named Patrick Murphy. Amazingly enough “Murphy,” harkening back to the Gaelic tongue, translates as “sea warrior.” Kid you not.

Anyway, when fishermen heard about the Russian plans in late January, it took little time for them to come up with a united response: “We’re not moving,” was how Murphy put it. With every right to go fishing in Irish waters, they fully intended to continue doing so and in numbers:

“When one boat needs to return to port, another will head out so there is a continuous presence on the water,” Murphy informed anyone who would listen. “If that is in proximity to where the [military] exercise is going, we are expecting that the Russian naval services abide by the anti-collision regulations.”

It was brinksmanship for sure, but also what sophisticated strategists called “asymmetric deterrence.” A policy wonk publication called “Defense One” explained it this way:

“The Irishmen would clearly not have been able to sail to key Russian fishing waters to take revenge by harming fish there, and doing so would have at any rate been provocative. But they could go about their peaceful business in the Irish EEZ in such large numbers that the Russians would struggle to carry out their exercise.”

The Russians backed down, to the surprise of many. Their government spokesman called it “a gesture of goodwill,” but if the fishermen wouldn’t vacate, what option was there? Start ramming fishing boats in European waters?

“This is all we wanted,” Murphy told CNN. “Now we can give out the information to our boats: ‘Listen lads, out you go, fish away, no worries.’” And he was magnanimous: “Definitely people all over the world made this happen.”

Widespread support and publicity no doubt helped, but people all over the world really didn’t make this happen; Irish fishermen did.

The outpouring reminded me of something we often take for granted: Independent fishermen, from Cape Cod or Ireland, Alaska or Portugal, have public standing and credibility. Whenever fishermen take a principled position, the immediate instinct among people from every walk of life, and every country, is to support them. Historic appreciation and respect for small-boat fleets is universal.

So thanks to Patrick “Sea Warrior” Murphy and his extended Irish clan. Perhaps the day will come when we find a way to share stories, compare ports, and rub elbows across the Atlantic.

John Pappalardo

CEO, The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance


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