Irish fisheries failures not all Brussels’ fault

Published on
August 10, 2016

It’s coincidental (or fortunate timing perhaps) for its director Risteard Ó Domhnaill that the release of Atlantic, the thought-provoking film about (over)fishing off Ireland’s west coast, has coincided with the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.

The film, which also compares E.U. fisheries policy (unfavorably) to the experience in Newfoundland, Canada and in Norway, explores one of the key reasons given for the success of the Brexit campaign: regaining control of national fisheries, something the U.K. effectively surrendered when it joined the European Community in 1974. That decision led it to pool its fishing resources and guaranteed access to other member states.

The entry of fisheries-rich nations Britain, Ireland and Denmark to the E.U. (then E.C.) in 1974 was pre-empted by existing six member states instituting a rule, regulation 2141/70, to ensure common access to all E.U. fishing waters. An applicant at the time, Norway, chose not to join. The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) was drawn up in haste but brought a huge addition in fisheries resources to countries like Belgium and Holland with limited waters but relatively advanced fishery fleets.

Henceforth, the access to Irish waters of large European vessels is blamed for the depletion of Irish fishery stocks. But membership of the E.C./E.U. also brought significant resources to develop a seriously under-developed and under-funded Irish fisheries sector.

E.U. funds subsidised the modernization of Ireland’s fishing fleet and the provision of patrol vessels – assets that weren’t funded by Irish government. Now, more than 12,000 workers are employed by Ireland’s 2,100 vessels, as well as at its 2,000 aquaculture sites and with its 200 processing companies. That’s twice the number employed and more than double the total vessel count before Ireland joined the E.U.

The seafood sector was always a quiet voice in Ireland next to the powerful meat and pastoral farming lobbies, and it has been weakened by the primacy of low-priced chicken and pork in an ever-more consolidated grocery market, which has squeezed potential shelf space for seafood. The sector also continues to battle against a perception among consumers that seafood is costly and difficult to prepare.

This might explain the inability of Ireland’s seafood processors to cultivate products beyond fish fingers and filets. Meanwhile, locals eat lamb and beef – which appear cheap to shoppers visiting from Scandinavia, where fish like herring are more commonly eaten – even while Ireland has long had plentiful access to fish.

The Irish seafood promotion board Bord Iasciagh Mhara (BIM) and government food agency Bord Bia have in recent years sought to counter the misconceptions of Irish food shoppers, with mixed results. Supermarkets have become the main buyers and hence set the agenda in the industry and influence trends in terms of preparation and packaging, which has helped canned tuna, salmon and cod become the top three consumed seafood products in the E.U. Not coincidentally, the E.U. now imports 60 percent of the seafood it consumes (though those figures also include product exported for processing in lower-wage territories like China).

It should be noted that E.U. funds also ultimately led to the overcapacity problem, which is at the heart of current overfishing problems. With 88,000 vessels, the E.U. has the world’s second-largest fleet, but like many other territories, its fleet is surplus to requirements – double the consensus for what amounts to a sustainable level.

While the E.U. has responded by creating EUR 4.3 billion (USD 4.8 billion) fund is available for the modernization or decommissioning of vessels and retraining of fishermen, the expansion of the E.U. has led to the revival of fishing industries in many European countries. Baltic states like Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Poland, have in effect become low-cost processing and canning hubs for Scandinavian fishing companies. Vessels from these nations have also appeared off the west coast of Ireland.

But it’s misleading to say that E.U. membership has been a purely negative experience for Irish fisheries. Ireland accounted for 28 percent of its catch in 1973 but 59 percent in 1995 and 31 percent in 2005. While overfishing has to be considered a factor in the variation of those total amounts, the volumes of seafood handled by the industry has risen dramatically overall in Ireland even during E.U. membership. And aside from domestic vessels, the single biggest foreign fishing presence in Irish waters is Norway, and not vessels from other E.U. members.

The consolidated nature of retailing worldwide means that supermarket chains like Tesco source products like shrimp, tuna and whitefish filets from China and Thailand and sell them in places as geographically widespread as Ireland, Asia and the Middle East. It’s about scale and cost efficiencies.

Irish seafood, meanwhile, has become a luxury export. Ireland’s main wild-caught fish species are not high value: prices for herring, mackerel and hake contrast unfavorably with average prices for salmon, shrimp and oysters. Irish seafood exports have risen as it sends its salmon, shellfish and pelagic catch abroad at a faster rate than the amount of consumption of those species domestically.

Opposition to large-scale aquaculture has also played a role in that transition. Production of farmed species like oyster and salmon, which deliver high margins and could represent a boon to the country’s seafood industry, can only be produced in small quantities due to popular hostility towards large aquaculture operations.

The E.U.’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) allots around one percent of E.U. spending to fisheries, an industry contributing less than one percent of the E.U.’s GDP. Judging by the numbers, this money may not be well-spent – after 42 years of CFP, three quarters of European fishing stocks are overexploited. And that is unlikely to change soon, as 2014 plan by the CFP to restore fishing stocks by 2020 looks ambitious at best.

In its latest reforms of the CFP, Brussels has sought to decentralize some of its decision-making authority so that local fishing communities have input on the quotas it sets. But that move may be too little, too late, at least when it comes to Brexit. The U.K. catch has fallen by 94 percent over the past 118 years, hence the relative dereliction of towns like Grimsby, which have become strongholds of Brexit-promoting U.K. Independence Party politicians.

There are many valid arguments being made about the unfairness of E.U. fisheries policies and the damage they have done to Ireland, an island nation surrounded by sea. It’s true that larger vessels, funded by large corporations from the U.K., Holland and Spain, have secured large portions of the total catch in Ireland, taking quota away from the country’s domestic industry. Yet Ireland consumes little of the fishery resources in its seas.

However, with global fishery supplies tightening, there’s a great opportunity for Ireland to meet some the world’s demand for seafood with production of species like farmed salmon and oysters. The public’s opposition to aquaculture in Ireland might make for another good film.

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