Thursday, 9 December 2021
Seafood Taskforce Final Report: Statements
I thank all the speakers for their contributions to this very important debate. It is obviously an important time and has been a crucial year for our fishing sector. It was a very difficult year for our fishermen, coming out of the impact of the Brexit agreement. It was really important we had this debate to discuss the sea fisheries task force report, which was presented to me in October, and to get Deputies' views on it. I thank the Sinn Féin Deputies who contributed and Deputies Holly Cairns, Verona Murphy, Michael Collins and Michael Fitzmaurice.
I will make a couple of points overall about the contributions. A number of Sinn Féin Deputies spoke, and even after all that time and all those contributions, I am still none the wiser as to whether Sinn Féin supports the sea fisheries task force report or does not. I have no idea. I listened carefully to all the contributions and I have not a clue what its position is. I do not think the Sinn Féin Deputies themselves know. It certainly will not have been clear to anyone listening in to the debate. They might clarify that in due course. My objective over the past year, and indeed in advance of Brexit, has been to support our fishers in every way possible. I have been fully supported in that by my Government colleagues both in advance of Brexit, in protecting us against the threat it posed, a very fundamental threat to fishers' livelihoods and, subsequently, in respect of the damage that agreement did. We all knew the threat that Brexit posed to our fishing sector. It was never going to be a good story. It was always about protecting the sector in every way we could against it. I find it ironic that Sinn Féin Deputies have stood up this evening to talk about standing up for fishermen and working hard for fishermen when I think back to when Brexit was happening. As the House will recall, the Brexit deal finally happened on Christmas Eve last year, on Thursday, 24 December. I remember that the previous weekend the news broke as to what could be in the deal from a fisheries point of view and how damaging it might be. Very significant efforts were going on within the Government to push back on that. I remember that afterwards, on Christmas Day, our officials were working in Brussels dealing with the outcome of the agreement. I remember that on the following day, St. Stephen's Day, the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and I met with fisher representatives to discuss the stark implications of the agreement for us. Despite members of the Sinn Féin Party now talking about standing up for fishermen, there was over that period not a word out of them on fishing, despite the fundamental moment that was for our fishing sector. We as a Government were standing up in every way we could. There was not a word out of them. They say that the weekend before Christmas it became clear what the implications might be - not a word. On Christmas Eve - not a word. It was into the new year before there was any comment from a Sinn Féin spokesperson about the impact Brexit would have on fishing. Yet once the water calmed and the storm passed and once it was safe to come back out, they were out talking about standing up for fishermen again. It is therefore a little ironic to listen to their comments now when they were nowhere to be seen at that pivotal moment.
At least Deputy Collins was absolutely clear that he does not support the task force report. The report was put together by stakeholders, that is, by fishers themselves. It is a pivotal moment for our fishing sector. I brought together the fishing stakeholders to advise me as Minister on how we as a Government could best support the fishing sector to address the implications of Brexit, fight at European level on its behalf and address the implications to come out of that in respect of the impact on quotas. Those fishing stakeholders, including fisher representatives and co-operative representatives, have put together this report and these many recommendations advising me and the Government as to how we can best support this sector. I note that Deputy Collins does not support their recommendations and does not support the seafood task force report put together by those same stakeholders whose livelihoods depend on it. At least Deputy Collins is clear on his position in that regard, unlike some other Deputies. However, I thank Deputies across the board for the many contributions.
In establishing the task force earlier this year, I strongly believed that such a once-in-a-generation event as the Trade and Cooperation Agreement required a collective response involving the sectors and communities most affected. For these reasons, as I said, I set up the task force in such a way that there were 17 representatives of the sectors and communities impacted by Brexit on it, together with State enterprise development agencies. I received the final report of the task force on 11 October. I compliment the task force on the exceptional job it did in identifying the impacts of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement on our fishing fleet and coastal communities and on proposing an integrated plan to mitigate those impacts and set those communities back on a path to prosperity. The report recommends 16 support schemes at a total estimated cost of €423 million. Approximately €300 million of that could potentially be eligible through the BAR. The task force identifies a number of high-level impacts arising from the TCA that I wish to recall.
First, the TCA quota reductions have created an economic imbalance between fleet capacity and fishing opportunities, rendering the whitefish fleet unprofitable. Second, the TCA quota cuts have caused a significant loss of raw material supply to our vibrant seafood processing sector. The loss of that raw material supply to our processors risks these processors losing hard-won markets, risks reducing their profitability and risks loss of employment in coastal communities. Third, while large parts of the inshore sector have not been directly impacted by the quota transfers under the TCA, many have been impacted by route-to-market issues and increased operating costs, which compound other weaknesses in the sector. The combination of impacts from the Trade and Cooperation Agreement risks significant loss of employment and economic value in coastal communities.
Coming out of that, the task force report sets out an integrated plan to mitigate the four core impacts and other consequent effects on the TCA. As discussed, first, on returning the white fish fleet to profitability, there is a proposal in relation to a decommissioning scheme. Second, in supporting the processors with the loss of raw material, there is a proposal on direct investment in seafood processing companies. Third, in addressing the impact on the inshore fleet, there is a recommendation to introduce a decommissioning scheme and assess ways to remove inactive vessels from the inshore fleet. Finally, along with the investment in seafood processors and aquaculture enterprises, there is a proposal to invest to diversify the economies of our coastal communities through a combination of investment in public marine infrastructure and community-led local development through fisheries local action groups, FLAGs.
Overall, the seafood task force report is comprehensive. It deals with this once-in-a-generation impact and outlines and supports how I can take, as I have done, measures at European level to try to improve our quota situation to address the burden sharing outcome of the TCA which has been so impactful and damaging to our sector, and importantly, to invest in our sector to maximise its capacity, to create and maintain employment and to support coastal communities over the next number of years. Once again, I wish to thank Aidan Cotter, chair of the task force; Margaret Daly and Micheál Ó Cinneide, steering group members; and the many stakeholders from our fishing communities and fishing representatives who put in much time and effort and attended full-day meetings on many occasions to put together this comprehensive response, looking at all aspects of how we, as a Government, can support them in the time ahead. I will continue to work my way through the recommendations and will do all I can to support our fishing sector and our fishers, both at European and national levels in the time ahead.