Thursday, 9 December 2021
Seafood Taskforce Final Report: Statements
The issues facing our fishing industry are many. It would be impossible to mention or discuss all the problems that fishermen have raised with me in the context of this report, but I will do my best.
Looking at the executive summary of the seafood task force report, a couple of paragraphs jumped out at me. These state that:
The Irish seafood sector is, in many ways, ‘in the eye of the storm’. It has been shaped by the common experience of EU membership, alongside the UK, since both joined the EC, as it then was, in 1973. Irish boats fished the shared waters in the English Channel or off Scotland and Killybegs trawlers became familiar sights in ports such as Ullapool and Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands. The Brexit/TCA deal has brought a sudden and dramatic shift in the landscape for the entire Irish seafood sector, in a number of respects: - Irish fleet has lost access to 15% of its annual quota, mainly affecting pelagic stocks, prawns (Nephrops)and whitefish stocks such as megrim, monkfish and haddock
- Irish seafood exports to UK, a key market, worth €80 million pre-Brexit, are impacted
- Irish seafood imports from UK (worth €219 million in 2018), a key input to the Irish retail and processing supply chain, have been disrupted
- Vital seafood export routes, primarily the ’land-bridge’ via the UK, have been curtailed
- Established Irish/UK links at scientific and policy levels in EU and ICES have been lost.
The key question arising, of course, is what are we going to do about this situation and how are we going to protect our fishing industry from further harm and devastation. "Burden sharing" is a phase often spoken when it comes to fishing. It is such an apt name, because so many burdens have been placed on the Irish fishing sector. It is not reward sharing, but burden sharing. Surely the spirit of the EU is to help people and not to place burdens on them. The Common Fisheries Policy is an outdated, severe burden on our Irish fishers. To quote again from the report:
"[...] Ireland contributed about 15% of the total value of our total 2020 fisheries quota to the Agreement. Proportionally, this is substantially more than that of any other Member State impacted by the TCA".
Again, we see that it is the Irish fishers who pay the heaviest price. The Government owes it to the Irish fishing industry to do all that it can to create the conditions for our fishing industry to thrive. We made many concessions to get an EU agreement over the line. Our fishermen were neglected. The unlevel playing field is another major concern of fishermen that I have mentioned previously in debates here concerning the Sea-Fisheries (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021. Some of what I said then needs to be repeated, because it is still causing significant anger among those in the industry and, moreover, particularly in our Wexford ports. Irish people who commit infringements in Irish waters will have penalty points applied by the Irish authorities. Yet, when foreign masters commit infringements in Irish waters, they will not have penalty points applied by the Irish authorities. All we can do is to notify the authorities in their countries of origin. That is if they were to be an inspected at all. We should have the opportunity to police our waters as we see fit, rather than only being able to refer offences to the authorities in other jurisdictions. It is a fundamental issue of sovereignty over our affairs. While Ireland has seen many benefits from our membership of the EU, our sovereignty over things such as our fishing rights has been steadily eroded to the detriment of Irish fishers.
We do not have a level playing field. It seems that we are not currently able to police our waters and we do not have the right to punish offenders in our waters, which is a concerning state of affairs. There is an urgent need for a review of the Common Fisheries Policy, if ever these issues are to be dealt with to deliver a policy for how we fish today and not 50 years ago. The report states that:
The Minister has set down that Ireland is seeking a comprehensive review, to inform a full reform of the current policy. He has made clear that the CFP review must take stock of the disproportionate impacts imposed on the Irish fishing industry by Brexit and the TCA. He also made clear that Ireland will be seeking to address the imbalance in the quota transfers [of] the TCA.
I have heard him say that myself. I welcome the news and I sincerely hope it is not an empty promise on his behalf. We must stand firm on this issue during negotiations and debates. I wish the Minister well in this work because the fishing sector is absolutely relying on him. All Irish fishers want a fair deal and a level playing field to allow the sector to be sustainable.
From 1 April 2021, certain Irish fishing boats, many based in County Wexford, have not been allowed to land their catches in UK ports. They have had to use EU ports instead, adding extra time and cost to their journeys, including hundreds of extra nautical miles and kilometres, plus the added costs of getting their catches back to Ireland. They have to do that to earn their living and to help their communities to survive, with added risk to life and limb. It also results in greater levels of emissions, which the Government seems only to be concerned with at some level. This burden of not being able to land catches in UK ports would not have been quite as bad except that we offered five extra landing ports in Ireland to facilitate foreign-registered fishing vessels landing catches here. Therefore, we bent over backwards to accommodate people we have no responsibility for. Yet, our fishermen feel cast to one side.
I also wish to raise the issue of salmon drift net fishing. This is a forgotten sector and one I discussed briefly with the Minister. In 2005, the sector was effectively closed down using the guise of protecting fish stocks. In 2006, a €25 million decommissioning scheme, or hardship scheme, was introduced. Only those who agreed not to reapply for their licences were compensated for their loss of livelihood. A response to a parliamentary question that I submitted a few weeks ago said that 1,046 licence holders had availed of that scheme. A number of licence holders had decided against applying for the scheme, as they wanted to be able to resume fishing in the future, as many had done for decades beforehand. They were assured that they could do so. Now, 16 years later, they still have not been allowed to resume their fishing activity. In some instances, people have been stripped of their livelihoods and prevented from engaging in salmon drift net fishing for 16 years.
The Government has a responsibility to these people. The response to my parliamentary question stated that only 79 people still had active licences in 2021. That might be a relatively small number, but those are 79 people without the opportunity to earn a living from salmon drift net fishing. The situation has impacted far more than just those 79 people holding the licences, however. It has also impacted their families, if we take into account that at one point this activity provided those people’s livelihoods.
This fishing has been banned for a period that has been extremely long and that could not have been unforeseen. I can only assume that in 2005 it was expected to last for possibly a year or two. Now that there are only 79 licence holders, can we not reinstate their right to fish? If we are not going to do that, we have to compensate them. Fair is fair. When the fishing was stopped for these people, there were well over 1,100 licences active and now there are only 79. They deserve better from Government than to be just cast aside and ignored. It is their opinion that Government does not care as these are only 79 votes. I do not wish to believe that we would cast any group aside because of a vote. I ask the Minister to consider how we would deal with the 79 licence holders going forward. If resumption of the fishing is not possible, a hardship scheme should be reintroduced to take care of that.