A difficult year but Irish seafood sector showing resilience

Warning that rural and coastal communities, denuded by the pull of urban Ireland and impact of Brexit and Covid-19, facing crisis
A difficult year but Irish seafood sector showing resilience

THE country’s €1.1bn seafood sector showed resilience during 2020 in seeking alternative outlets despite severe disruptions to global markets.

But the Government has been warned that rural and coastal communities, denuded by the pull of urban Ireland and the impact of Brexit and Covid-19, are facing a crisis.

The Irish South and West and Fish Producers Organisation explained in a submission that the fishing industry, which employs around 16,000 people directly and indirectly, has suffered more than most other sectors from the economic impact of the pandemic. 

This was due to the sector’s dependence on hotel and restaurant-led demand, the logistical difficulties of spatial distancing on fishing vessels, and decades of under-investment.

Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) also undertook a study to examine the impact of the seafood sector on Ireland’s 10 main fishing ports in late 2019. Four of the ports are in Munster — Castletownbere and Union Hall in West Cork, Dunmore East in Waterford, and Dingle in Kerry.

 Ballycotton, Cork: Fishing is the main driver of the seafood industry in rural Ireland. Picture: David Creedon/Anzenberger
Ballycotton, Cork: Fishing is the main driver of the seafood industry in rural Ireland. Picture: David Creedon/Anzenberger

Fishing was described as the main driver of the seafood industry in Castletownbere and hinterland, where it accounted for 42% of all economic activity and 53% of all employment, compared with 29% and 45% respectively in Killybegs, Co Donegal. 

It noted that Castletownbere employed 1,684 full time equivalents, 950 of them directly in fishing (560), aquaculture (200), processing (190) and downstream (733).

Processing on the other hand was listed as the main driver of seafood activity in Union Hall, where the sector accounted for 17% of economic activity and 18% of employment.

The corresponding figures for Dunmore East, where fishing dominated, were 6% and 12% respectively while Dingle, where processing was to the fore, accounted for 8% and 12%.

BIM said the seafood industry is a primary driver of rural economies around the coastline and acts as an anchor in these locations around which other supporting service sectors develop.

A common characteristic of many of the ports and hinterlands analysed was of regions with poor agriculture land, located at significant distance from major urban settlements and with low levels of transport connectivity.

Market disruptions

That puts in context BIM’s recently published Business of Seafood Report, which recorded a decrease of 12% (-€142m) in the sector last year, driven mainly by the severe market disruptions. These factors, as well as the effective closure of the foodservice sector for much of 2020, saw a reduction of 18% in domestic consumption.

BIM chief executive Jim O’Toole said 2020 was a difficult one for the seafood industry with many markets experiencing reduced demand. 

But it showed great agility and looked to alternatives for its products, switching where possible from supplying hospitality to the retail market and online sales. Mr O’Toole said the sector can look forward to some recovery in 2021, despite the new challenges introduced by the EU-UK trade agreement.

Sinn Féin TD for Donegal Padraig Mac Lochainn told the Dáil last month there is outrage in fishing communities at the outcome. But the reason for the anger is not only what has happened in the trade agreement. It has historical context.

Ireland accounts for 12% of overall EU waters; yet the fish catch is 4% — one-third in proportionate terms.

This was costing us tens of thousands of jobs every year and €600m before the trade deal and now it is even worse.

"That is why people are so angry,” Mr Mac Lochainn said.

Cork South West Independent TD Michael Collins warned at a Joint Oireachtas Committee meeting in January that Ireland is facing a massive crisis in fishing.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dail on March 31 a no-deal Brexit would have been a disaster for fishing. 

“In that context, we fought for as high a share of quota for the Irish fishing industry as we possibly could in order to ensure we can create viability into the future,” he said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney, speaking in the Senate, said he understood the disappointment felt by fishing communities over the new arrangements, which were the most difficult and hardest-fought elements of the negotiations.

“The Government is working to support the sector and the coastal communities that depend on it,” he said.

No-deal scenario

Agriculture, Food and Marine Minister Charlie McConalogue told the Dáil the impact would have been far greater for the fishing industry had the Barnier taskforce agreed to UK demands, or had there been a no deal scenario, which would have seen all EU vessels barred from UK waters and subsequent displacement into Ireland’s fishing zone.

He recently established a Seafood Sector Taskforce, headed by Aidan Cotter, a barrister and former chief executive of Bord Bia. 

 Bantry, West Cork: John Cronin and his son Conor unload mussels off their fishing boat 'Muirean' for export to France. Picture: Andy Gibson.
Bantry, West Cork: John Cronin and his son Conor unload mussels off their fishing boat 'Muirean' for export to France. Picture: Andy Gibson.

The taskforce is to recommend measures that will best support the sector and local coastal communities with the impacts of quota cuts. The final report is to be delivered in four months. 

Mr McConalogue said the reductions for Ireland are disproportionate compared to other member states and will lead to a loss of €43m per year in fish quotas when they are fully phased in by 2026.

He said he will be asking the taskforce to focus immediately on possible arrangements for a temporary fleet tie-up scheme to counter the impacts of the reduction in quotas.

Meanwhile, the European Agriculture and Fisheries Council has agreed to set provisional quotas for EU fishermen in line with scientific advice for fish stocks up to July 31 this year.

The Commission has been in consultation with the UK since February and, while progress is being reported, agreement has yet to be reached.

“As soon as the consultations with the UK are complete, I will be seeking to have council adopt the EU quotas for the full year without delay,” he said.

Mr McConalogue said agreement with the UK would provide much needed certainty to the fishing industry. But it must be fair and balanced and provide a level playing field.

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