Atlantic Dawn

Dirty deals between the European Commission and Ireland have enabled the world’s biggest trawler to plunder African fish stocks.

Fishing for Trouble

The Atlantic Dawn, the world’s biggest fishing vessel, was launched in Dublin in August 2000. It cost its skipper-owner, Irish businessman Kevin McHugh, £50m. Built in Norway, the ship also cost Norwegian taxpayers £4m in government shipyard subsidies. These subsidies have helped keep Norway’s shipbuilding industry afloat.

Even though Ireland was already exceeding the EU’s mandated maximum allowable domestic fleet size by 30 per cent, the Irish government gave the Atlantic Dawn a temporary fishing license to fish in international waters. But in October 2001 the European Commission launched two court actions against Ireland for exceeding the allowable fishing-fleet size and for registration infringements concerning the Atlantic Dawn.

EU regulations mandate that all fishing vessels be placed on a European fishing registry. Having the Atlantic Dawn added to its fishing fleet would have blown Ireland’s already excessive over-capacity way out of the water. The Atlantic Dawn was, therefore, initially placed on the merchant marine register.

In December 2001, the commission did a remarkable deal with Ireland. Behind closed doors, it legitimised the Atlantic Dawn by increasing the permitted size of the Irish fishing fleet by 14,055 gross tonnes – the exact size of the Atlantic Dawn. The deal also allows the Atlantic Dawn to fish in EU waters three months out of the year. This is thanks to the transfer of the fishing entitlements of another super-trawler (also owned by McHugh) – the Veronica. In exchange, the Veronica (106 metres in length and 5,206 tonnes in weight) has been removed from the Irish fishing register. It now operates under Panamanian registration – a well-known flag of convenience.

McHugh managed to secure a private licence for the Atlantic Dawn to fish nine months of the year in Mauritanian waters. It wouldn’t have been possible for the Atlantic Dawn to fish in Mauritania’s waters under the EU’s taxpayer-subsidised ‘cash-for-access’ agreements, as it is 5,000 tonnes bigger than the size allowable in the EU scheme.

In all these murky waters, it is difficult to decide whose hands are the dirtiest. Is it the commission, which says one thing and does another – thereby undermining its own attempts to establish a sustainable fishery policy? Or is it the Irish government for doing dirty deals behind closed doors to secure the Atlantic Dawn’s registration as part of its fishing fleet?

What role have patronage and party politics played? McHugh is a well-known supporter of Ireland’s governing Fianna Fail party. And what about the Irish banks that have financed this huge investment? What pressures have they been applying?

As for McHugh, the opportunity to exploit a weak system was just too good to pass up. According to the latest information, he stands to cash in on a €60m windfall from selling off the spurious fishing rights transferred from the Veronica.

Special thanks to Brian O’Riordan and Beatrice Gorez. Figure of Norwegian government subsidies from ‘EU deal lets Irish fishermen off hook’, The Guardian, 20 February, 2002.

BOX 1: ATLANTIC DAWN specifications

Length: 144.3 metres (473 feet)

Width: 24 metres (79 feet)

Gross tonnage: 14,055

Engines: 28,730 horsepower; it has twin engines and propellers, which is unusual on a fishing vessel; a lot of the power

goes towards running its huge factory-freezing plant.

Fishing gear: The boat’s purse seine nets are 3,600 feet in circumference and 550 feet deep; the trawl nets are 1,200 feet in breadth and 96 feet in height

Crew: 61 men

BOX 2: Senegalese fishing canoe

Typically undecked; outboard motor with a horsepower of between 15 and 30; 10 metres in length; has a crew of between three and eight


Atlantic Dawn:

Can gross about $2m for each full fishing trip (Fishing News International)

African artisan fishermen

May earn $500 to $1,000 per year

BOX 4: FACTORY FISHING – the logistics

As its nets are drawn in, the Atlantic Dawn’s catch is vacuum-pumped on board and temporarily stored in refrigerated holding tanks with a total capacity of 1,000 tonnes of fish. These salt-water tanks allow the Atlantic Dawn to process acaught fish while it continues to search for more shoals. From the tanks, the fish are then pumped on to a conveyor-belt system and transported to the grading machines. There is also a hand-picking line so as to get the grades as accurate as possible.

The size-graded fish are then sent directly to 48 plate freezers to be frozen into blocks, packaged and sealed. This highly-mechanised system is able to process up to 400 tonnes of fish a day and can store up to 7,000 tonnes of frozen fish, which are held in massive storage rooms on three separate deck levels. It can reach storage capacity in as little as 28 days.

Once it has reached capacity, the Atlantic Dawn unloads its frozen catch in a storage facility on Las Palmas, the Canary Islands, where the fish are stored until being sold to international markets. Thanks to EU subsidies, the refrigeration facilities on Las Palmas are among the largest and most advanced in the EU, and allow factory trawlers to store fish at a reduced cost. The Atlantic Dawn catches in one month what 7,000 artisan fishermen would catch in a good year.


Sardinella: The primary species of small pelagics targeted by the Atlantic Dawn, it migrates between West African waters. It is considered the ‘bread and butter’ of West African small-scale fisheries. Like other EU super-trawlers, the Atlantic Dawn may supply West African markets, but this creates dependence on imports, undermines local fishermen and threatens traditional livelihoods.


Up to 15 per cent of the catch that the Atlantic Dawn’s huge trawl nets drag up from shallow waters is unwanted catch. The nets drag along the bottom of the sea in a process similar to clear felling a forest. Bycatch – be it snapper, bream, tuna, turtle, dolphin (see picture) or shark – is either thrown back into the water dead or sold to international markets, depending on its value.

BOX 7: Fishing Nets

The Atlantic Dawn is equipped with two of the most unsustainable types of fishing net: purse seine nets and trawl nets.

Purse seine nets

Work much like a shopping bag with a draw-string neck to catch shoals of fish; the Atlantic Dawn’s are large enough to engulf two Millennium Domes if placed one on top of the other.

Trawl nets

Bag-like nets dragged through the open water; the Atlantic Dawn’s are big enough to span four football fields and engulf two thirds of the Dome


•            Mauritania, one of the poorest and most highly indebted countries in the world, has increasingly licensed its fishing grounds to fleets from the EU, Japan and China. There are now 251 industrial factory-fishing vessels in its waters. This has led to drastic falls in catches of fish stocks such as octopus (down by over 50 per cent in the past four years) and sawfish, which has completely disappeared.

•           When local fishing stocks are depleted, local fishermen are ruined. And the factory fishing vessels? They simply move on to another fishing ground.

•           In Mauritania the fishing sector provides over 50 per cent of foreign exchange earnings, 10 per cent of

GDP and around 30,000 jobs – of which 25,000 are associated with local, small-scale fishing.

•            Percentage of populations involved in the fishing industry: Africa – 6.5 per cent; Europe – 1.4 per cent. Production of fish per person in tonnes each year: Africa – 2.8; Europe – 29.2.

•           In West African fishing communities, men are generally responsible for the manufacture of fishing boats and the capture of fish, while women tend to the post-fishing operations such as the cleaning, drying, storage and sale of the fish.

•            Community fishing tends to be well regulated and inherently sustainable. The fishermen use a wide variety of fishing gear (lines, gillnets, beach seines, cast nets and traps) and target many different kinds of fish (sardine, mullet, sardinella, anchovy, octopus, barracuda, grouper, grunt, shrimp, snapper and others). The gear used and the fish targeted vary by season.

•            Fishing in many West African communities is steeped in tradition, including the belief in and fear of ocean gods or spirits, the respect of the community elders’ decisions on fishing matters and the offering of prayers before fishing expeditions.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2003

More from this author