Thursday, 9 December 2021
Seafood Taskforce Final Report: Statements
The report sets out the stark reality facing the Irish fishing sector, which is in the eye of the storm that is Brexit. In the hundreds of headlines and news reports on Brexit, fishing is not mentioned enough. Despite the massive impact of the ongoing change, coastal and island communities' livelihoods depend on the sea and they are often overlooked. The Irish fleet has lost more than 15% of its annual quota, which is compounded by supply chain disruption to and from the UK as well as transport links with continental Europe.
The key issue here is one of imbalance. The report highlights the imbalances between fleet capacity and resource availability as a result of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. There is also the imbalance in the distribution of the decreasing Irish quota with the inshore sector getting disgracefully low allowances in some cases. Brexit is an incredible challenge for the fishing and seafood sector, but now all we can do is see it as an opportunity to recognise and set out policies that will guarantee the sustainability of coastal and island communities.
Our fishing quota is a public resource. It has to be distributed equitably between smaller vessels and operators as well as large players. Any schemes or measures to counter the Brexit impact cannot be allowed to reinforce current imbalances. The loss of fishing opportunities is felt by all fishers, and any response must recognise this and adjust historical and existing disparities. The closure of the artisan hook and line fishery for mackerel for vessels under 15 m in length in June is a clear example of the inequality. The 2% of the quota assigned to the inshore sector ran out halfway through the year, leaving more than 2,000 boats - almost 2,000 families - without access to this type of fishing. At the same time, 98% of that quota is allocated to just 49 boats. I raised this injustice with the Minister in June, and nothing happened. Since then, the smallest of vessels, which were just trying to getting by, were not permitted to catch even a few dozen mackerel to sell at the likes of a farmers' market using a fishing method which, as we all know, is probably the most environmentally friendly of all. Why is our fishing regime set up to benefit a few big players and not the majority of fishers? This is similar to our agriculture policy and pretty much like our housing and health policies. The same story unfolds.
This policy choice also conflicts with Article 17 of the Common Fisheries Policy, which states that the allocation of quota must be based on "environmental, social and economic" benefits. Where is the evidence of that in Ireland's policy? The preamble to the policy specifically states "Small offshore islands which are dependent on fishing should, where appropriate, be especially recognised and supported in order to enable them to survive and prosper." Our inshore fisheries are more environmentally friendly. They practise the kind of fishing that has been found in coastal and island communities for centuries. This is where the vast majority of employment in the sector is. This is the segment that should get the most support. It should get at least a fair allocation of quotas and funding.
The submission of the Irish Islands Marine Resource Organisation, now a producer organisation, PO, makes very clear recommendations which need to be met if the Minister and the Department are serious and genuine about supporting inshore fishers. These recommendations include a flat-rate payment for all registered vessels of 12 m or less. The submission also recommends that vessels of between 12 m and 18 m which do not qualify for supports under other Brexit adjustment reserve, BAR, measures should be supported under a similar scheme. It also says that the issue of access to fishing opportunities by the national fleet should be examined through a formal public consultation in light of the decreases in quota. These are also sensible and important actions the Government can and should take.
Piers and marine infrastructure are vital in facilitating the seafood sector. I welcome the report’s acknowledgment of this. It states that ‘"Public Marine Infrastructure (Piers, Slipways, Pontoons etc) is a critical enabler to maximising the use of and benefits to be gained from our rich marine resources" and recommends an €80 million, five-year initiative for the development of these features. This is not only vital and necessary funding, but it will also reap multiple benefits for the fishing, recreation and tourism sectors, which will generate considerably more for local economies. However, this funding must be in addition to existing investment in piers and slipways because, as everyone who is from a coastal area will know, current resources for this area are vastly inadequate and the Government needs to recognise this and provide fresh investment rather than relabel existing measures. I hope that makes sense.
I have continually raised the need to fund our small piers as vital infrastructure for inshore fishing. A pier in a bay or on an island can support ten or 20 families and can keep people in rural areas and on our islands. In west Cork, there are a great many examples of piers like this. Many people fish off them, creating employment. The likes of Dunmanus, Colla, Durrus, Allihies, and Turk Head - I could list more - all need investment. Too many small piers dotted around our coastline and islands are falling into disrepair and lack basic amenities like slipways.
Islands must also be recognised in this category. They require basic infrastructure if they are to participate effectively in a sustainable fishing industry into the future. The Minister needs to support the development of a network of onshore infrastructure on the offshore islands to facilitate the island fishing fleet and shore-based seafood collectors. Given the limited range of small vessels and their vulnerability to weather conditions, offshore islands should be equipped with combined landing, storage, processing and retail units to facilitate short fishery supply chains and the adding of value to catches.
The task force outlines the case for investment in public marine infrastructure. The Government needs to implement this and ensure that small piers and islands get the investment they desperately need. I have spoken to the Minister about this but, when I was on Cork County Council, the coastal management committee ended up talking about how to get more funding rather than about what projects in Cork needed funding because there was no money there for them. There is no point in everybody going in and fighting for their own local pier. There needs to be funding for more of them.
Different representative organisations have also raised concerns that must be addressed. The Irish Fishing and Seafood Alliance has highlighted the lack of clarity regarding how many of the recommended measures will come from the EU Brexit fund. There is also confusion as to whether those applying for decommissioning will have to refund any tie-up scheme payments they received. In addition, the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation has pointed out the inadequacies of the proposed decommissioning scheme.
This discussion is not only about seafood, but about the future of our coastal and island communities as a whole. It is about families and whole cohorts who are dependent on this sector, including those involved in culinary and environmental tourism. There is a glaring need for a citizens' assembly on our maritime future. The legislative framework around marine planning and development is rapidly changing with vastly insufficient input from the communities affected. Brexit has now underscored the inequities of our quota and funding allocations. We are still awaiting an offshore islands policy and massive sections of marine zones are going to become protected areas. We need to have a clear understanding of how this all fits together. We need to have a vision for the future of our coast. I urge the Government to convene a citizens' assembly on this in the next year.
The seafood sector task force’s report is an enormous opportunity to set out a fairer policy which recognises the inshore sector and supports coastal and island communities. It is now up to the Government to make that happen.