Agriculture has not lacked ambitious targets since Simon Coveney took over as minister.
Now, he tackles unprecedented challenges as the lead minister in Ireland’s first attempt to put together a comprehensive marine-integrated strategy for everything from ocean energy to shipping, marine leisure, fishing, marine tourism, and oil and gas exploration.
But there’s promising momentum behind the plan already, with Bord Iascaigh Mhara expected to shortly submit an aquaculture licence application for a deep-sea fish farm in Galway Bay which would double Ireland’s farmed salmon output.
Coveney has also welcomed increased Irish processing of the huge catches by foreign fishing boats, such as the valuable industry in Donegal processing the blue whiting from Norwegian boats.
But these are only baby steps for a country which, the minister points out, has nine times more seabed than land, and is the third or fourth largest country in the EU when the marine part of our sovereign territory is included.
Acknowledging that the previous administration brought the food industry together to formulate the Food Harvest 2020 plan for agri-food development, Coveney said his Government wants to try to do the same for the marine sector — led by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, whose department is due to launch the integrated marine plan for Ireland in midsummer, and drive it forward.
Ireland’s bid to grab its share of the international €1.2 trillion-a-year marine industry has a tiny base in terms of the Irish fishing fleet’s €250m per year quota of fish catch. But aquaculture and fish farming are the most exciting Irish seafood growth areas, according to Coveney.
He aims to bring about a dramatic expansion of these areas in the next five to 10 years, particularly in terms of deepwater salmon farming.
Aquaculture and fish farming expansion will require faster processing of applications for aquaculture — held up for years as the government failed to get to grips with EU environmental directive requirements.
However, some aquaculture licences have been issued for the first time in four years, following environmental impact assessments of some bays.
Dismantling what the minister terms Ireland’s “crazy” foreshore licence application process could also free up progress. Separate, non-correlated application processes have been required for foreshore licences and for planning permission for structures. Planning permission decisions had to be given within two months, while decisions on foreshore licences could take two years. The two processes are now being put into one government department.
The Taoiseach has invited the nation’s ideas on how Ireland can move forward from generating only 1.2% of GDP from our vast and diverse marine resource.
He has said marine is a blind spot in our national focus — and he may be right.
It may be the non-Irish who best appreciate marine Ireland — people like the mostly foreign companies behind our fledgling aquaculture; or the nearly 500,000-a-year cruiseliner passengers who dock here; or many of the 650,000 expected in Galway for the Volvo Ocean Challenge race; or the hardy visitors who see fantastic cliffs and coastal amenities on a wild island in the Atlantic as the best kept secret adventure holiday destination.
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