Seán O’Donoghue: Brexit and COVID threatening future of commercial fishing in Ireland

Published on
July 21, 2020

Seán O’Donoghue is the chief executive officer of the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation, the largest producers body of its type in Ireland.

O’Donoghue previously worked at the Irish agriculture and fisheries ministries, as well as the national seafood agency, Bord Iascaigh Mhára (BIM). He served on the board of the European Association of Producer Organisations for a decade and is a noted expert in the workings of the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy.

O’Donoghue talked to SeafoodSource about falling prices due to a COVID-related collapse in demand, the fishing impacts of Brexit, and explained his opinion as to why there shouldn’t be a cut to fuel subsidies at the ongoing World Trade Organization talks on ending harmful subsidies in the global fisheries sector. He also discussed the dispute between fishermen and the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) over the method of weighing stocks landed by Irish trawlers.

SeafoodSource: Did the weighing issue you had with the SFPA get sorted out, or are the legal proceedings going ahead?

O’Donoghue: We are hoping to get a solution with the SFPA in terms of accurate weighing at the pier side. We are not against weighing on the pier. What we can’t accept is weighing of water as fish. We have been working with them [SFPA] very closely in terms of putting in the same flowscale system that exists in the factories – which is very accurate – putting that on the pier. We are in a very advanced stage of doing that. And if the SFPA signs off on it, then we have solved it – there won’t be an issue between us.

In terms of the legal proceedings, I am not prepared to comment, but we want that solution as quickly as possible. They are only requesting us in terms of the legal monitoring requirements on them as a control authority of an E.U. member. That is 5 percent of landed and 7.5 percent of a species has to be weighed.

SeafoodSource: You said in May that prices your members were getting for their catch had dropped on average between 50 and 70 percent as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Has the situation improved?

O’Donoghue: We were very impacted in April, May, and part of June. Now, prices are down 25 to 35 percent on where they were pre-COVID. This is very worrying. It’s not just us; I am in close contact with our European colleagues, but because we are export-oriented, the impact is greater. In our markets like Spain and Italy and the U.K. and China, they were all in lockdown and European markets have not come back to where they were.

SeafoodSource: Have you been able to divert any of your products into other markets, like Asia?

O’Donoghue: Our Asian market mainly relates to shellfish and some pelagics. Our mackerel and blue whiting seasons were almost complete when COVID hit. But we are very worried about what happens in the autumn. Our African market is very impacted by lower oil prices, which might be welcome for fishing [fuel] but not for demand in our key markets, like Nigeria.

SeafoodSource: Are you more optimistic or worried about a Brexit fisheries solution?

O’Donoghue: We are at a difficult stage. We know now for definite there will be no extension [to the transition period], so it’s do or die come 31 December. We are concerned that if the whole trade negotiations collapse and there’s no deal, [it will be] an unmitigated disaster for the Irish fishing industry and will also impact on the U.K. fishing industry even worse. There will be six meetings [between British and E.U. negotiators] in July and August, with the last one on 17 August. It’s absolutely critical for us that the mandate which the E.U. gave [chief Brexit negotiator] Michel Barnier was that fisheries has to be linked to the wider trade negotiations. Barnier has made clear that if there is no fisheries agreement, there will be no trade agreement. Linking these is so important because in 11 of the 12 key areas for discussion, the E.U. has the upper hand. If you have the upper hand on 11 of the 12, then surely you can negotiate on fisheries. [But] assuming there’s no give on the E.U. side, the key thing we want is the existing sharing arrangement is maintained.  [Ireland] shares a huge number of stocks with the U.K. We can’t have negotiations every year on access and quotas.

SeafoodSource: Similar to that kind of negotiations that takes place at the E.U. level every year?

O’Donoghue: What we discuss every year is scientific advice but the share of the stocks was decided in 1983. Each nation’s percentage share doesn’t change every year. The U.K. wants a Norway-style deal with the E.U., but we don’t discuss every year a sharing arrangement with Norway. This was decided in 1996.

SeafoodSource: There is a new agriculture and fisheries minister in Ireland. How would you like to see him approach his job?

O’Donoghue: We have given him our three priorities for discussion: Brexit, a post-COVID reboot for Irish fisheries, and the program for government. There is a whole marine section in the program for government and we want to go through that with him. We do support the program, as there are key things in there about Brexit and COVID, but the important thing will be to implement them.

SeafoodSource: Ireland and Spain were both the target of much criticism this year for allegedly pushing for quota levels beyond scientifically advised levels. Is this criticism fair?  

O’Donoghue: Neither fair nor accurate. There are totally ignoring that TAC [total allowable catch] and quota system of the E.U. In the E.U. part of the Northeast Atlantic [where Ireland fishes] 99 percent of stocks will be fished at sustainable levels in 2020. They say because we [Ireland] have 21 percent of the mackerel stock, we are 21 percent of the problem. Because Iceland and Russia are fishing beyond sustainable yields, we are presented as being 21 percent of the problem.

SeafoodSource: So there is no sustainability problem in E.U. waters?

O’Donoghue: We are not talking about the Mediteranean or the Black Sea, they are a different kettle of fish. But 99 percent of stocks in the Northeast Atlantic are sustainable.

SeafoodSource: Do you think there are overcapacity issues in the European fleet?

O’Donoghue: There is a definitional problem. At the moment, the capacity figures related to gross tonnage and power. But it’s not about capacity or power – rather, it’s about if you have sufficient access to quota to be viable. We need to look at each fleet and the size and the target of that fleet. Do they have access to sufficient quota to be viable? If not, then we have to start introducing decommissioning.

SeafoodSource: How do you view the ongoing talks at the WTO on ending what's termed as harmful subsidies to fisheries?

O’Donoghue: I am totally opposed to subsidies that increase capacity, provided we’re defining capacity properly. But as for fuel, we don’t support the removal of the fuel subsidy, as this would make our fleets unviable. If you remove the fuel subsidy and increased carbon tax to EUR 100 [USD 114] per ton [as proposed by Irish government], then overnight, you go to a situation where fuel is six times what you pay now. European fleets can’t survive in that scenario and we’d become even more dependent on imports.

SeafoodSource: How do you end overfishing?

O’Donoghue: You focus on IUU [illegal, unreported, and unregulated] fishing. Most of the international waters have bodies controlling them. The E.U. has been at the forefront on IUU, [and] the industry has really been behind the E.U. on this, because it affects our markets big-time.

SeafoodSource: Many of those international bodies under-resourced and ineffective in policing IUU fishing. What do you do about that?

O’Donoghue: Yes. But that’s where the E.U. has to come in and has been coming in to strengthen those bodies. [By] bringing [them] in under the law of the sea.  

Photo courtesy of Seán O’Donoghue

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