“Atlantic Dawn … is the greatest fish killing machine the world has ever seen.” – Charles Clover, The End of the Line.
Atlantic Dawn was the worlds largest trawler – and the most controversial fishing vessel ever built. It helped make its owner, Kevin McHugh, a multi-millionaire, but the political storm that the ship caused also highlighted the double-dealing, greed and blindness to the plight of the world’s fish stocks that characterises the commercial fishing industry.
Construction and Capabilities
Atlantic Dawn was built at the Umoe Sterkoder shipyard in Kristiansund, Norway in the late 1990s at a cost of €63 million, most of which was lent to McHugh by a consortium of Irish banks, although some money came from the Norwegian government who provide generous subsidies for commercial vessels built in their shipyards. The construction of Atlantic Dawn was hailed as a massive step forward for the Irish economy, with the then Marine Minister Frank Fahey describing it as “one of the proudest moments for the Irish fishing industry”.
McHugh already owned and ran the 104-metre 5000 ton Veronica II, but the Atlantic Dawn dwarfed that vessel. At 144 metres long, weighing 14,055 tons with a crew of sixty-three the Atlantic Dawn was the biggest – and most technologically advanced – trawler in the world. Two 9,655bhp diesel engines could propel the ship to a top speed of 18 knots (around 20 mph), and nets hundreds of metres wide could be pulled through the sea. Atlantic Dawn was also fitted out with advanced low-frequency, long-range fish locating sonar and featured full on-board filleting, freezing and refrigeration facilities. When operating at full capacity the Atlantic Dawn could catch, process and freeze 400 tons of fish every 24-hours and could hold a total of 7000 tons of frozen fish, and the vessel held enough fuel to stay out at sea for up to five weeks at a time.
McHugh had been involved in commercial fishing all his life, becoming a skipper aged 21 and had already invested in the £1.2 million Albacore and the £15 million Veronica before commissioning the Atlantic Dawn. However, before it had caught its first fish, the Atlantic Dawn ran into problems. Even without Atlantic Dawn Ireland already had a pelagic fishing fleet which was way larger than it should have been. For that reason the ship was not given a licence for fish in EU waters. Indeed, it soon became apparent that Atlantic Dawn did not have a licence to fish anywhere in the world.
As well as being a major problem for McHugh this was also a problem for the Irish government who had backed the project and enjoyed the reflected glory that the massive increase in Irish commercial fishing power afforded them. The Atlantic Dawn project had been promoted so heavily by Irish politicians that they could not let it fail – indeed, McHugh had been awarded the inaugural Irish Maritime Person of the Year award for his work in expanding the Irish commercial fishing industry. The Irish government applied unsuccessfully to increase the size of their fleet on the grounds that there were unexploited fishing grounds in African waters and Dutch trawlers were working below quota. The EU rejected this. However, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern intervened and the Atlantic Dawn was registered as a merchant ship, meaning that it did not count as part of Irish trawling fleet and given a series of temporary fishing licences – a neat way to sidestep the problem.
The one concession they had to make was to get rid of the Veronica to reduce Ireland’s now massively oversized pelagic trawler fleet. But they didn’t even do this – they simply re-register the Veronica under a Panamanian flag and sent it to fish in west African waters. Now no longer an Irish vessel, and no longer fishing in European waters, this meant that the Veronica did not count as part of Ireland’s fleet and they had done everything necessary to stay on the right side of the law. The political wrangling and dealing had worked. Ireland’s massive pelagic fleet had the Atlantic Dawn added to it, while the no-longer-Irish Veronica could also continue to fish and make money for McHugh. However, McHugh was still bound by Irish quotas and had no chance of using the Atlantic Dawn to its full extent in European waters. It would simply catch so many fish that it would run out of quota in no time at all. He therefore cut a deal with the dictatorial government of the poverty stricken west African nation of Mauritania that allowed him to trawl in their waters for nine months a year and fish off an Irish quota for the other three. Yet again McHugh had successfully avoided all of the laws and legislation that were designed to limit catches and protect fish stocks. The Veronica and the Atlantic Dawn would both be catching fish all year round, and the legislation and international laws that were meant to stop this from happening had proved to be totally and completely useless.
Expulsion from African Waters
However, after five years of fishing in Mauritanian waters things began to go wrong for Kevin McHugh and the Atlantic Dawn. The government of Mauritania was overthrown in a coup d’état, and the new rulers were no supporters of McHugh’s enterprise. In 2005 members of the Mauritanian armed forces boarded the Atlantic Dawn as the vessel was supposedly fishing in an exclusion zone. A $100,000 fine was levied at McHugh and large quantities of fish were allegedly taken from the ship. Following this the Atlantic Dawn abruptly left Mauritanian waters, never to return. The people of Mauritania were not sorry to see the vessel leave. They had named it the ‘Ship from Hell’ and blamed it for the dwindling catches they had been experiencing since it began operating in their waters. No longer able to fish off the West African coast McHugh had to find somewhere else for Atlantic Dawn. Some time was found for it to fish off the coast of British Columbia and plans were drawn up to for it to travel to South America with several countries indicating that some kind of deal could be reached for it to fish there.
In August 2006 Kevin McHugh was suddenly taken ill and died two months later of the rare brain disorder Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). He was 59. Documents lodged with the Irish Probate Office show he left behind a fortune of €72.5 million.
New Name, Further Controversies and Illegal Activity
Unfortunately, the Atlantic Dawn still exists. It was sold to a Dutch consortium in 2007 where it was registered as a Dutch vessel, repainted and renamed the Annelies Ilena. This new incarnation of the vessel as continued to attract controversy – in Novermber 2013 Annelies Ilena was detained, ironically in Irish waters, for allegedly infringing European fishing laws. The Irish Times reported that the vessel had been ‘high grading’ catches – selecting the largest and most valuable fish and throwing smaller or less valuable species back into the sea dead, a practice which is banned under European Union regulations.
In March 2015 the skipper of the vessel – a 58-year-old Dutch national named Gerrit Plug – was found guilty of the offences at Donegal Circuit Court. The Irish Times reported that he had thrown fish which should have been retained back into the sea. He was fined €105,000 (approx. £77,000), but no fishing gear was confiscated from the vessel. In July 2016 Mr. Plug lodged an appeal against his sentence, which is (at the time of writing) still working its way through the courts.
The company set up by Kevin McHugh is still going strong – Atlantic Dawn Limited currently own and operate a number of trawlers and purse seiners and describe themselves as a “world leader in the catching, processing and marketing of frozen pelagic fish products.” McHugh’s three sons are all involved in running the company.
The Atlantic Dawn (or Annelies Ilena) is just one of many ships of its type wreaking havoc on the worlds oceans. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations Bulletin of Fishery Fleet Statistics there are 38,400 factory trawlers in the world with a displacement of 100 tons or higher. While the Atlantic Dawn may be the world’s biggest trawler, it is not the world’s biggest fishing vessel – that ‘honour’ belongs to the Russian-registered factory ship the Lafayette.
If you can bear to watch this video shows Atlantic Dawn in action.