Ireland’s green image on fisheries sustainability questioned in new report

Ireland’s seafood marketing efforts prominently promote a wholesome image of sustainability, with the country’s signature “Origin Green” branding mark deployed with vigor in global markets.

But the latest installment of an annual report by non-governmental organization New Economics Foundation suggests the country is among the worst offenders in the E.U. for fishing above levels advised by scientists as sustainable.

The “Our Fish” report places Ireland behind only Spain in the E.U. “overfishing league” table. After Ireland comes Portugal, the Netherlands, and Germany. NEF analysis suggests E.U. countries have overfished by a total of 8.78 million metric tons (MT) over the past 20 years combined.

According to the NEF research, Spain and Ireland received the highest percentage of quotas above scientifically advised levels for sustainable limits over a 20-year period, at 35 percent and 24 percent, respectively. The reported also notes the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Spain have received the most in terms of excess tonnage (1.78 million MT, 1.48 million MT, and 1.04 million MT, respectively) in the total allowable catches (TACs) allotted by the E.U. through its Common Fisheries Policy.

In a statement sent to SeafoodSource, Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM), the Irish fish trade and marketing body, disputed the NEF’s findings and argued the E.U.’s overfishing situation is improving, while Ireland “has been a long advocate in Europe for sustainable fishing practices.” It said the report’s findings are at odds with the 2019 European Commission’s Communication on the State of Play of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) “which reports significant progress in implementing the CFP.”

“This report provides clear evidence that fishing pressure has shown an overall downward trend and that overall stocks, on average, [have] fishing levels [that] are close to maximum sustainable yield,” it said. “In parallel, the number of total allowable catches set in line with scientific advice delivered by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea for fishing at [maximum sustainable] levels further increased in 2018 from 44 to 53 out of 76 stocks managed by TACs and quotas. This represents 69 percent of the [maximum yield]-assessed TACs in the Northeast Atlantic and Baltic Sea. For the remainder, due to a lack of data, ICES does not provide advice on maximum sustainable yield, but nonetheless total allowable catch [limits] for such stocks are set in line with the precautionary principle.”

NEF Senior Researcher Griffin Carpenter told SeafoodSource his organization contests BIM assertions.

“The calculation from the ‘Landing the Blame’ data-set is that 9 million tons of quota have been above scientific advice. Over the past two decades, quotas are being set closer to scientific advice, but the practice of exceeding scientific advice continues. The more basic point is that BIM seems to acknowledge that overfishing is taking place,” Carpenter said. “Even using the 2018 European Commission press release they quote from, if 53 out of 76 stocks are being fished sustainably, then 23 out of 76 are not. The simple fact is that overfishing is taking place and looking at the agreed quotas compared to sustainable levels puts Ireland in second place in terms of overfishing. Unfortunately, the speed of improvement is too slow and we will miss the 2020 deadline to end overfishing in the E.U.”

BIM said Ireland’s final total allowable catch “may differ from initial scientific advice where weaknesses are identified in the data and/or the data is of poor quality.” However, it added, “the TAC is always scientifically justifiable.”

BIM also told SeafoodSource the NEF report is “incorrect in identifying Ireland for fishing above scientifically advisable sustainable levels.”

“Ireland does not unilaterally set quotas,” it said. “Total allowable catches are set at the European level and quotas are allocated to member-states from these TACs based on the long-standing fixed shares established in the CFP.”  

Yet Irish officials help set the quotas, with assistance from Bord Iascaigh Mhara and other marine-focused scientific state agencies. In 2019, the country secured a quota of 195,000 tons under the most recent round of European Union fisheries negotiations. The E.U. Commission, the E.U.’s executive arm, had sought a 14 percent cut to Ireland’s Celtic Sea haddock quota, but instead the country received a 30 percent increase. There was a 15 percent cut made to the Irish prawn quota, though the E.U. Commission had sought a much deeper decline of 32 percent.

In its statement to SeafoodSource, BIM also pointed to Ireland’s lower absolute share of quotas as proof it isn’t the cause of E.U. overfishing.

“For important species such as haddock, anglerfish, megrim, hake, nephrops, and cod, Ireland has a very low quota share compared to other countries fishing in the Northeast Atlantic, typically less than 15 percent of the total TAC. Therefore, to blame Ireland for overfishing is unjustified.” Additionally, Ireland has a 10 percent share of the total E.U. quota for pollock in the Celtic Sea and herring to the west of Scotland.

BIM said the sustainable image it projects in marketing campaigns will not hurt Irish seafood exporters many of which utilize “Origin Green,” the sustainability marketing program managed by Bord Bia, the country’s food promotion agency. Origin Green’s seafood program aims to improve the sustainability of Ireland’s seafood sector by allowing companies and retailers to set target areas for improvement and then be held responsible for improvement in those areas.

To participate in Origin Green, a company must choose one of three areas in which to pursue improvement: Either raw material sourcing, manufacturing processes, or social sustainability. Each company decides internally what areas they wish to focus on and how best to implement change so that specific targets are achieved. They then write an action plan covering a period of up to five years, which clearly sets out targets that can then be assessed by a third party.

“Irish seafood maintains a positive reputation in global markets for being of high quality and sustainably sourced,” according to a Bord Bia statement to SeafoodSource, which noted 60 seafood companies have become verified Origin Green members. “The sustainability credentials of seafood companies under Origin Green [are centered] on improving the sustainability of their seafood manufacturing operations. Member companies are also required to provide detailed information on where they source and whether the seafood has sustainability certifications.”

The Origin Green program, according to BIM, enables the industry to set and achieve “measurable sustainability targets that respect the environment and serve local communities more effectively.”

“The sustainability credentials of Irish seafood [are] well-founded,” the BIM statement said, pointing to Irish participation in fishery improvement projects for key species and Marine Stewardship Council certification of several of its fisheries. 

However, the program has been criticized by environmental groups for allowing companies to set their own goals and for including some of Ireland’s worst polluters among its certified companies.

Having missed its own 2015 deadline to end overfishing, the E.U. looks unlikely to make its new 2020 deadline, given over one-third of the catch limits it set this year still exceed scientific advice. Scientists have recommended a fishing ban for 2020 in eight stocks – three out of the five herring stocks and two of five cod stocks – that Ireland has a share in.

The New Economics Foundation’s Carpenter said both the E.U.’s approach to the problem of overfishing, as well as Ireland’s contribution to the problem, are unacceptable. He pointed to the reports of the Scientific, Technical, and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF), set up by the European Commission to answer technical questions on fishing levels, as showing recent improvement, but not enough to meet the rules set by the E.U. regarding overfishing.

“As you can see, [there is an] improvement yes, but overfishing nonetheless,” he said. “This violates Objective Two [for sustainability] of the Common Fisheries Policy.”  

Across the continent, there are some signs of hope that improvement is occurring. There was a 36 percent increase in the total mass of commercially important fish populations in the Northeast Atlantic between 2003 and 2018. But the Baltic Sea and Celtic Sea, which Ireland shares, by contrast, are struggling.


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