The Irish mussel industry was regarded by BIM and the department as having a bright future and in 2002 had 30,000 tonnes of mussel seed available. As part of the National Development Plan it was anticipated there would be 40,000 tonnes by 2014 and the industry had the potential to create hundreds of jobs as well as make significant contributions to the exchequer. By allowing the introduction of larger fishing vessels into the fleet, the department failed to heed the warnings of fishermen and as a result, over harvesting of the mussels occurred. The High Court heard last year the available seed had dropped to 2,400 tonnes, a far cry from that predicted in the National Development Plan.
Similar concerns are now being raised about our second largest fishing resource, prawn fishing. Despite the introduction of EU-led quotas in the prawn industry, scientists in the Marine Institute are warning of severely low stocks in several key fishing areas, including the Aran Island grounds where they believe prawn fishing should be suspended indefinitely to allow stocks replenish. Fishermen are becoming subject to increasing regulation and the investment in fishing vessels has grown substantially in the last 20 years and much of the investment is funded by bank debt. The main issue causing the depletion of stocks is overfishing and in recent weeks over 30 vessels fishing in the Aran Island grounds were towing four to six nets, effectively cleaning out the area of any stock in three weeks. Those vessels then moved onto the South coast. The use of any more than two nets goes against scientific advice and whilst the problem has been highlighted to the minister, no decision is forthcoming from the department and the problem goes on.
In Scotland, fishermen have banned this method. The responsibility for changing policy and banning a method of fishing that is destroying a natural resource rests with the minister but I wonder how many more natural resources have to be lost before we see a department step forward to effectively manage an industry that is capable of delivering job creation and significant returns to the exchequer? Prawn fishing doesn’t need to be the next mussel seed. The long-term sustainability of all fishing is under threat without effective management.