Sunday 17 November 2019

There is gold in them there shoals, so why are we not reeling it in?

Killybegs fishing village
Killybegs fishing village
Killybegs

David McWilliams

Brave fishermen from Dingle saved five Scottish fishermen whose trawler got into difficulty off the Atlantic coast yesterday. The Scots were brought safely to Kerry and are fine now.

But what were they doing fishing off the coast of Dingle? Why weren't they off the coast of Scotland, either in the far North Atlantic off the Hebrides or deep in the North Sea off Aberdeen?

They are fishing in Irish waters because that's where the fish are. Irish waters are amongst the richest in the world.

The rest of Europe can fish our waters because one of the conditions we signed up to on entering the EEC in 1973 was giving away large tracts of our fishing rights in Irish territorial waters. We are allocated only 20pc of the total catch in Irish waters. I will come back to that decision later, but before I do that, let's just examine the massive opportunity that exists in fishing - even if our dismal quota remains the same.

Fisheries are among the most underdeveloped of all Ireland's natural industries, yet without doubt they have the highest growth potential.

In fact, a changed attitude to fishing could transform the economy of the entire western seaboard and, by transforming the economy of the western seaboard, fishing and fish processing could change the economic, demographic and cultural landscape of the entire country.

The Atlantic Ocean is our most valuable resource.

Fish is the future and fish processing, adding value to the catch of the sea, could be the industry of the next 100 years. Ireland could become the European hub for fish processing.

We could land the Atlantic's fish in Ireland, process it in the west and fly it out to the rest of Europe.

At the moment, Spanish, Scottish, French and Norwegian trawlers make the expensive and time-consuming return journey from the fishing beds of the West coast, catching their load and shipping it back to La Coruna, Le Rochelle or Oslo rather than landing it in Kerry, Galway or Donegal where it could be processed. This is a massive opportunity.

Currently, 1.2 million tonnes of fish are caught in Irish waters per year. This is the EU's annual cap on the amount of fish that can be caught in the entirety of Ireland's territorial waters. Therefore, only 20pc, or 250,000 tonnes, of Irish fish is landed in Ireland. The rest goes abroad.

Of this 250,000 tonnes, only 50,000 tonnes are actually processed in Ireland. Processing is where the value is added. Exporting frozen fish gives someone else the value. It is the equivalent of giving the stuff away for someone else to make money from it.

Therefore, 200,000 tonnes of Irish fish are exported with absolutely no value added. This is a waste. It is the maritime equivalent of exporting live beef from Ireland, which was the staple of Irish agriculture in the 1950s, 60s and 70s - when we were poor.

So rather than being a sophisticated industry, Irish fisheries is still a commodity business, characterised by low levels of investment; it doesn't have to be like that.

Irish agriculture was like this in the 1970s but now we have large food companies, using the most modern technology, exporting expensive processed food all around the globe.

Irish fisheries could be the same.

In the next 15 years, the global demand for fish is expected to surge as three billion new consumers, particularly in Asia, who have always preferred fish to meat, begin to spend on higher-protein sources of food.

The World Health Organisation estimates that the world will need 32 million extra tonnes of fish per year by 2030. It also estimates that the price of fish and sea food will rise by 25pc by 2020 - that's only five years away.

China alone could eat the entire Irish annual catch, 250,000 tonnes, in three days and it's not just foreigners who want more fish. In Ireland, fish consumption is set to rise as more and more people understand how healthy it is. The capacity for this is significant when you think that right now, Irish people only eat 21kgs of seafood per year. Compare this with 70kgs for Japanese, 34kgs for French and 33kgs for Chinese.

If Ireland can exploit the true potential of our territorial waters, this country can transform its western seaboard into the fish-processing hub of the whole of Europe.

Rather than make the long journey back to Galicia, Spanish trawlers would land their catch in Dingle or Castletownbere, where it could be processed and flown out via Cork overnight to Spain.

Similarly, Kilkeel could be such a port in Clare, using Shannon to transport the fish, and Killybegs using either Donegal or Knock airports to be in France, Spain or indeed London the next day.

At the moment, the Irish industry is only processing 5pc of total catch in Irish waters. This is a travesty and is a function of the very poor deal negotiated in 1972 and the failure of the industry here to invest in scale.

Whether we like it or not, scale is the key to expanding the business because only with scale can we get the investment necessary to compete.

At the moment, few Irish companies in the fish business have turnovers of more than €1m. Contrast this with Norway, where one company, Marine Harvest, is valued at over €3bn.

Finally, there is the EU and our dreadful deal we negotiated. The general feeling is that Irish fishermen were sacrificed for Irish farmers - what the EU gave to the farmers it took away from the fishermen.

This shouldn't surprise anyone, but what is unforgivable is that successive Irish governments haven't sought to renegotiate as the evidence of the enormous riches of the Atlantic becomes ever more apparent.

What's wrong with us?

But now we have a European opportunity, given to us by the Eurosceptic British.

In the coming months, Britain will seek to renegotiate much of its relationship with the EU. Why not take advantage of this state of flux by revisiting the giveaway that was signed by Irish negotiators over 40 years ago?

But in order to be capable of taking advantage of any fishing bonanza, we have to be ready. Now is the time to invest in the real wealth of the country, which lies just off our coast.

Irish Independent

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