Fishermen earn global plaudits for commitment to cleaning oceans

Fishermen earn global plaudits for commitment to cleaning oceans
Fishing boat owner Adrian Bendon, Minister for Agriculture, Food & the Marine, Michael Creed, and Bord Iascaigh Mhara CEO, Jim O’Toole, launching the Clean Oceans Initiative at Union Hall, Co Cork. Photo: Julien Behal

VISITORS to the Bloom 2019 garden festival in Phoenix Park next week can expect sustainability to be one of the key themes.

Having won the overall prize for its Sustainable Seafood Garden at Bloom 2018, Bord Iascaigh Mhara’s presence this year will be built around its ‘Clean Oceans Initiative’, the key element of which has been to get 100% of Irish trawlers to recover plastic from the oceans on every fishing trip.

BIM chief executive, Jim O’Toole, acknowledges that many Irish trawlers had already been bringing plastic ashore before the launch of the voluntary ‘Fishing For Litter’ campaign. There is great integrity within the sector, and a deep commitment to the environment.

“For fishermen, the ocean is their workplace and they’re very keen to do everything they can to protect it,” said Jim O’Toole. “When we started piloting our Clean Oceans Initiative in 2015, we wanted to see how we could help develop the progressive work that fishermen were already doing to bring plastic ashore.

Fishermen in Ireland have hauled up almost 200 tons of marine litter in their nets in the first three years of the Fishing For Litter campaign. However, the world is now producing more than 335 million tons of plastic annually, an immeasurable amount of which ends up in the ocean.

The oceans are a shared global resource. BIM and the Irish fishing sector are determined to play their part in cleaning that resource.

“The strength of the initiative is down to the quality and good citizenship of our fishermen,” said Jim O’Toole. “We are trying to put structure around the project and make it easier for the trawlers to work with harbour masters and local authorities to manage the waste.

“When a community of professionals, like fishermen, get behind a project like this, it can become self-propagating. Every day we’re seeing new reports on the impacts of climate change on biodiversity. What we’re seeing here is a marine sector that is trying to play its part in solving the issue.

“Of course, you’ll also have people who say that this is just an industry cleaning up its own waste. That’s true, but these trawlers are also bringing ashore other people’s waste. These are people who are deeply committed to the environment.

“When the Minister launched the Clean Oceans Initiative in Union Hall, I was blown away by the zeal and the eloquence of the fishermen. I don’t think their voices have really been given a platform to be heard like this before.

“Fishing tends to be a family tradition. They have a sense of a bond with the sea. They’re committed to protecting the ocean for everyone’s benefit.”

Naturally, this commitment has also been good for the way that Ireland is perceived. While a relatively small player in global terms, the Irish seafood industry adds €1.25bn to Ireland’s GDP annually, according to BIM’s 2018 report ‘The Business of Seafood’.

Ireland also imports a lot of seafood. In all, some €486m is consumed in the domestic market. Our balance of trade (exports minus imports) is at €322m. In 2018, the private sector invested €267m and the state invested €170m in the industry. The sector supports over 2,000 registered fishing vessels as well as 288 aquaculture production units. More than 3,200 people are employed directly, with almost 14,500 people in all employed indirectly.

The value in how Irish seafood is perceived globally lies in the premium applied to our quality seafood exports. Ireland’s main export markets are the EU (excluding UK) at €373m, Asia at €96m and the UK at €81m. Note, however, that Ireland imported €219m worth of seafood from the UK in 2018, 66% of the €330m worth of seafood imported last year.

“I was in Brussels recently at a seafood exhibition,” said Jim O’Toole. “The message coming back from consumers via retailers and wholesalers is to keep the focus on provenance and sustainability. Shoppers are asking questions about the sustainability of the food they buy.

“Ireland has a good reputation in this regard, but that reputation has to be guarded and protected. That is why it is so important that the message about the commitments of Irish fisheries is actually true, it’s not just some ‘sustainability’ gloss being applied to how we promote the industry.

“There is deep probing being done by the Irish seafood sector to prove its credentials. The sector has a great reputation. There is a huge focus in global consumer markets on carbon footprint. You won’t get your product into certain key markets without being able to prove your claims about your product.”

The BIM chief said that Ireland’s excellent handling of the 2013 horsemeat scandal [in which traces of horsemeat were found in consumer beef products] was actually of benefit to the country’s commitments to transparency around food provenance.

“In crisis-management around food traceability, the credibility of your safety standards is only as strong as your weakest link,” he said. “Today, the speed at which people is far away places can access information means that your reputation can fall apart very quickly.

“It can take generations to develop a good reputation, but that good name can be lost in the flick of a switch. You really have to have excellent systems in place. Thankfully, we have people in the Irish seafood sector who understand the complexity of the industry and the marketplace, people with a deep and sincere commitment to the sea.”

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