Time for a fillet of success
Fishing is in his blood, and the head of Bord Iascaigh Mhara is determined to bring this natural industry to full potential
JASON Whooley is one of those lucky people who appears to have been born to do his job. While he looks every inch the successful semi-state chief executive, the head of Bord Iascaigh Mhara grew up in a shellfishing family in beautiful Roaringwater Bay in west Cork.
He worked on trawlers as a young man before a series of job moves led him to become the country's youngest semi-state boss.
Whooley is an enthusiastic and articulate champion of the government agency with responsibility for fisheries. The 38-year-old has a message that he is especially eager to impart as the Government casts a cold eye over the country's numerous quangos and the Bord Snip Nua report which called for the Clonakilty-based Bord Iascaigh Mhara's abolition. Facts and figures trip off his tongue as he defends an industry that most people still regard as agriculture's poor relation.
There is no doubting we have a strange relationship with fish; a quarter of all fish consumed in Ireland is eaten on Fridays and many still think of seafood as a penance rather than a healthy and easy-to-prepare meal.
Many young shoppers still don't know that it is possible to cook fish without skinning it, gutting and boning it. The Spanish and other nations who fish in our waters bring home a cornucopia of shellfish and other delicacies rarely seen at home, where 60pc of all fish eaten is either salmon or cod.
"We are absolutely convinced that there is a big opportunity for the fishing industry," says Whooley.
"The global population will grow by the equivalent of a Germany every year until 2050 and many of them will want to eat fish. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation predicts that the world will need 40 billion tonnes of fish every year by 2030." Despite this, more than 70pc of all fish eaten in Europe comes from outside the continent.
Whooley notes that the Carlyle Group is betting big on the fishing industry and has set aside $60bn (€46bn) to invest in fisheries over the next few years, but he accepts that Ireland still lags when it comes to exploiting the natural resource on our doorstep. Part of the reason is historical; governments in the 1970s and 1980s gave away most of our fishing rights as they chased payments from the European Union's Common Agriculture Policy.
"We didn't do a good deal. We suffered because of it. Our quotas have suffered. We need to accept that and move beyond that," he says.
He is also open about problems inside the fishing industry in Ireland. Whooley believes the sector has too many middle men and intermediaries and is looking for ways to streamline it so that foreign fishery companies and supermarkets can buy fish in bulk here.
There are the inevitable three-year plans so popular in the semi-state sector, but the fisheries sector could probably do with a little strategic planning after years of neglect.
The first strategic plan for the sector was written in 2006 and the results of this failure to plan are only too plain to see in the overfishing and the casual give-away of so many fishing rights over the years that bedevil the industry today.
In the meantime, Bord Iascaigh Mhara is trying to encourage fishermen to develop new products for the export market. Packaging is an important component of this push and can make or break a product.
It's a long way from Roaringwater Bay where Whooley grew up, putting "long hours and hard work" into the family business, which moved into shrimp, crabs and mussels in the late 1980s after the family saw that similar operations were working well in Bantry Bay.
After schooling at the local De La Salle, Whooley studied commerce, management and marketing in UCC and did some post-graduate work in food and rural development.
That led to an 11-year stint as a spokesman for and leader of the Irish South & West Fisheries Organisation, where he lobbied for the owners of around 100 fishing vessels around the country.
"It toughened me up," he says with a wry smile. Despite fond memories of the organisation, the long commutes between the country's isolated fishing villages, Dublin and Brussels took their toll.
It was then that he moved to Bord Iascaigh Mhara in a classic case of poacher-turned-gamekeeper, although Whooley does not see it that way. "I'm still in the same job, promoting fisheries." He may now speak of strategic plans, five-year plans and the like, but underneath the corporate-speak it is easy to sense a deep passion and commitment to the sector.
The son of a fisherman who moved into the shellfish industry, Whooley believes the fishing is one of the few things that will keep people in the small villages that dot our coastlines.
The sort of places that will never see foreign direct investment, and which never benefited from the construction boom, have the most to gain from a vibrant fishing industry.
The alternative is further depopulation.
"You can't feed your family on a view," Whooley smiles.
"Fisheries can be the difference between a generation of local people forced to emigrate or who can become part of the fabric of society."