Donegal fisherman in private deal with ex-president of Mauritania

The super-trawler Atlantic Dawn was allowed to fish off the west African coast, while other EU vessels were curtailed. By Max McGuinness


In September last year Donegal fisherman Kevin McHugh's supertrawler Atlantic Dawn was expelled from Mauritanian waters, where it had fished for nine months of each year since late 2000. The vessel had been boarded five times by the Mauritanian navy since August, when the dictatorial and deeply unpopular Mauritanian president Ould Sid Taya was ousted in a coup.

The Mauritanian authorities alleged Atlantic Dawn was fishing illegally too close to shore. They fined Atlantic Dawn $250,000.

Four years ago, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, lobbied The EU Commision on McHugh's behalf to get Atlantic Dawn onto the Irish fishing fleet register. Ireland's gross tonnage quota was already saturated but, arising from Bertie Ahern's intervention, the EU agreed to increase Ireland's tonnage quota by exactly 14,055 tonnes (Atlantic Dawn's gross tonnage) to accommodate Atlantic Dawn. However, the new quota was only sufficient to allow Atlantic Dawn to fish in EU waters for a few months each year.

The Mauritanian government's decision to award Atlantic Dawn a fishing licence in 2000 had been controversial. The vessel was known locally as "the Ship from Hell" and "the Sea Monster". While the EU has operated a bilateral collective fishing licencing agreement with Mauritania since 1987, covering EU-flagged vessels, Atlantic Dawn obtained a private licence directly from former president Ould Sid Taya in late 2000.

When the EU licencing agreement was renewed in 2001, the Mauritanian negotiators insisted on a cap on vessels over 9,500 gross tonnes. Atlantic Dawn was, and is, the only vessel flagged in the EU with a gross tonnage in excess of 9,500 tonnes, so was the only ship to be affected by the tonnage cap.

Atlantic Dawn therefore was not included in the EU licencing agreement with Mauritania. The 2001 EU fishing licencing agreement with Mauritania does, however, mention the possibility that EU-flagged vessels in excess of 9,500 gross tonnes which had already fished Mauritanian waters could be incorporated into the agreement within a year of its implementation. This could only have been referring to Atlantic Dawn, but the vessel was not subsequently incorporated into the EU licencing agreement, and continued to fish Mauritanian waters under a private licence.

In an interview with Village the assistant editor of Mauritania's main francophone daily newspaper Nouakchott-Info, Jedna Deida, said that Atlantic Dawn's representatives managed to convince the Mauritanian president "one way or another" to continue the ship's private licence. Deida said that he suspects that the deal was "very unorthodox". According to the Irish Times, Atlantic Dawn's agent in Mauritania was reportedly a relative of Ould Sid Taya.

In its 2005 Investment Climate Statement for Mauritania, the US State Department says that fishing licence attribution is among the sectors where corruption is "most pervasive" in the country, but makes no reference to any individual private agreements. Béatrice Gorez of the Coalition for Fair Fisheries Agreements told Village that monies paid for private fishing licenses were "going into the pocket of the Ould Taya regime." However, there is no suggestion there was anything corrupt in the arrangement negotiated with the former Mauritanian president for Atlantic Dawn.

Speaking to Village on condition of anonymity, a US State Department official said that Mauritania's post-coup administration has "talked a pretty good game on corruption". Notably, the government has annulled a contract with the Australian oil exploration company, Woodside, on the grounds that dozens of amendments were "a fraud". The government has promised democratic elections within 15 months and looks set to receive debt relief under the G8 deal agreed at Gleneagles last year.

Both Atlantic Dawn and the EU wish the vessel to return to Mauritania under an EU collective fishing licencing agreement. The current EU agreement, under which the Mauritanian government received €86m last year, will expire later this year. Talks between the EU and Mauritania over a renewed bilateral agreement have broken down, but one thing seems clear: the Mauritanians want nothing more to do with the Atlantic Dawn and will not sign an agreement which includes this vessel.

The local artisanal fishing industry supports the new government's approach. The head of the artisanal section of the National Federation of Fishermen, Sidar Ahmet Ould Abaid, blames Atlantic Dawn and other factory ships for the 30 per cent fall in the catch of his 11,000 members over the past two years. They caught 80,000 tonnes of fish last year. The Atlantic Dawn, which can hold up to 7,000 tonnes of fish, could catch as much in one year. A report by the United Nations Environment Programme in 2002 attested to unsustainable over-fishing in Mauritania which has caused octopus catches to halve, the disappearance of the sawfish and general decreases in stocks of bottom-feeders.

The Mauritanian Institute for Oceanographic and Fisheries Research declares almost all species to be either fully or over-exploited and recommends freezes or decreases in catch totals.

Mauritanians may have seen the last of Atlantic Dawn, but it is believed that Peru can expect a visit from the "Ship from Hell" once the country has agreed a bilateral fishing licencing agreement with the EU.

The company attached to Atlantic Dawn was named among Ireland's 50 biggest firms by the Sunday Business Post in 2004. While the last available accounts showed a €26m profit in 2003, these were published after the company's auditors, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, resigned, citing a failure to keep proper books. They were replaced with Gilroy Gannon in Sligo. Last year, McHugh shifted the company to Unlimited Liability, which eliminates the need to file accounts with the Companies Registration Office.

Kevin McHugh and Atlantic Dawn declined to be interviewed for this article