Ireland's €1.22bn seafood industry, which employs more than 16,000 people directly and indirectly in coastal communities, has been badly hit by the Covid-19 crisis — and it’s facing an even more uncertain future following Brexit.
Those simultaneous challenges have resulted in tied-up fishing vessels, collapsed market prices, and a lack of cold storage for products.
It has created what Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation chief executive Seán O’Donoghue described as the perfect horrendous storm for the sector.
As the Government, the European Commission, and the industry work towards easing the impact of the twin crisis, Bord Iascaigh Mhara is looking even further ahead.
It wants to ensure that those who might work and engage in fishing and processing in the years ahead are well informed and properly trained.
BIM is doing so through high-tech education for school children, and training for potential skippers in all aspects of their work, including navigation and safety at sea.
Primary pupils have been learning how oysters, salmon, and other seafood are being sustainably farmed around the coast.
This was being done in a purpose-built Aquaculture Remote Classroom (ARC), which has visited more than 50 national schools since being launched in 2018.
But, due to the virus pandemic, the classroom has now been temporarily moved online to enable teachers and pupils to access specially-created lessons based on the 5th and 6th class school curriculum.
BIM senior manager for salmon and shellfish Richard Donnelly said it is proud to be able to offer this online resource to teachers and their pupils as schools remain closed.
“The seafood industry is an integral part of Ireland’s rural coastal communities, he said.
“In coastal Donegal for example, as many as 16 out of every 100 adults work in the industry, and aquaculture is an important part of the mix.
“However, quite often even the term aquaculture has many people drawing a blank.
“The aim of the ARC is to help bridge that gap in understanding,” he said.
BIM developed the ARC, which is funded under the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, and is part of a campaign called Farmed in the EU.
Ireland is the second country to take part in the programme, and the only one to develop a mobile classroom.
BIM National Fisheries College of Ireland in Castletownbere, Co. Cork, is also piloting a Skipper Full Certificate of Competency as a nine-week online course.
This is to be followed by three weeks in situ once the college can open for the new academic term in accordance with Covid-19 restrictions.
Designed for fishermen who wish to gain further qualifications in skippering a vessel, the full-time course delivers tuition in a range of core navigation and safety skills
BIM decided to pilot the training online, as it will allow students the opportunity to complete their studies this year.
Ian Mannix, skills development services manager, said it was important in the current difficult circumstances that students should have the option to continue their training, embracing new technologies and teaching methods.
“We are actively looking at what other programmes we can introduce online to support our students,” he said.
BIM’s skills development unit is focussed on enhancing the attractiveness and viability of careers in the seafood sector.
This is achieved by creating fully recognised and accredited pathways for lifelong learning and career progression, featuring recognition of prior learning, and portable modular qualifications.
Captain Shane Begley, the principal of the National Fisheries College, said four students are currently enrolled on the pilot programme, and have quickly adapted to online learning.
“It’s fantastic to be able to facilitate their ongoing training, and we look forward to providing similar support with some of our other courses,” he said.
Brexit and the impact of Covid-19 are meanwhile continuing to pose major challenges for the seafood industry.
In addition to market disruptions and collapsing prices, there are fears over loss of access to UK waters, difficulties in importing and exporting products, and uncertainty about the future.
A suite of emergency measures proposed by the European Commission to mitigate the adverse effects of the pandemic and provide reassurance to the market was welcomed by the industry.
However, it said that additional financial supports are needed.
The economic importance of the sector was again reflected in the 2019 statistics which showed it had 2,200 registered fishing vessels, 278 aquaculture production units and 164 seafood processors.
Landings at Irish ports totalled €429m in value, a 15% increase, with Castletownbere topping the list with €133m, ahead of Killybegs (€122m).
However, the threats posed to the industry and coastal communities were again highlighted during a recent Dail debate on Brexit.
Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty said: “We know that one third of the fish caught by our fleet in EU waters will become British waters if no deal comes to pass.
“It is estimated that this could wipe out 5,000 jobs in that sector alone.”
Tánaiste and foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney said that the Government will continue to represent fishing interests as a big priority.
“I know only too well how important it is for places like Donegal, West Cork, Connemara, Wexford, and others that we have a vibrant fishing industry into the future,” he said.
A temporary tie-up scheme for parts of the fishing fleet during the Covid-19 crisis has also been announced by Michael Creed TD, the agriculture, food and marine minister.
Eligible vessels will be supported to voluntarily opt to tie up for one or two of the next three months, operational from June 1 under the scheme, co-funded by the Government and the European Union.
Mr Creed said the fishing sector has been particularly hard hit by the severe disruption arising from Covid-19.
Domestic and international markets were still open, however, and to that extent a continuing level of fishing was needed.
The new temporary scheme is to support a portion of the fleet who voluntarily choose to tie up, while others continue fishing, he said.