A very successful Irish Skipper Expo 2023 took place at U.L Limerick in late February as the dark clouds of Decommissioning, Fuel Prices, MPAs, Wind Farms and Quota cuts continued to loom over the industry
Despite the ongoing challenges, a large attendance and increased exhibitor stands highlighted the resilience and optimism of our fishing communities.
The IFA Aquaculture AGM & Conference and the Seafarers Conference held the day previously to coincide with the Expo also brought many first time visitors and provided a blueprint going forward to make the Irish Skipper Expo an annual gathering encompassing all our coastal industries.
Family companies participating in the show ranged from Cavanagh Nets in Greencastle, Co Donegal, to Jimmy Walsh Propellers and Marine Engineering, based in Rosslare harbour, Co Wexford.
Laurence Cavanagh of Cavanagh Nets said that the inshore sector was highly resilient in spite of many challenges, and this was reflected in his company’s business.
Parkol Marine Engineering, which marked its 50th anniversary last year, was exhibiting at The Skipper Expo for the first time. Parkol Marine director and project manager Sally Atkinson explained that this was on the back of two recent builds for Ireland – the multi-rig prawn freezer trawler Ambitious II for David and Niall Kirwan of Clogherhead, Co Louth, and the Green Isle for Michael Cavanagh of Greencastle, Co Donegal, in 2022.
Atkinson said there had been several more inquiries and the company was optimistic about doing more business with the Irish fishing industry.
Minister for Marine Charlie McConalogue said he was struck by how “dynamic” the commercial fishing industry sector was when he visited The Skipper Expo.
McConalogue was upbeat about “the potential it has “, even as decommissioning was the main talking point among the many visitors to the show at University of Limerick.
A total of 20 applicants had accepted decommissioning offers from BIM at the time of the show’s opening, out of over 60 applicants.
“We’re often talking about the challenges fishing has, but when you come here you see the opportunities it has as well …the great people that work in it, the engineering that’s available, the innovation that’s there,”McConalogue said.
He said he was opening up a new sea fisheries sustainability scheme for capital grants, relating to catch or engine gear.
“We’ve had similar schemes in the past, we are waiting for the EU Maritime Aquaculture and Fisheries Fund (EMAFF) schemes to be up and running, and this is a scheme I am operating in the meantime to provide capital investment and support,”McConalogue said.
Asked about the low take-up so far for the whitefish decommissioning scheme – with 20 offers accepted as of late February out of 57 offers issued by BIM – McConalogue said it was “an option… a voluntary scheme” that would “be appropriate for some” and there would still be a “very strong fleet” after the scheme.
It would not affect national quota and “strengthens the economic viability of the remaining boats”, he said.
Asked if he was still “fighting tooth and nail” for more quota – as he had pledged after the Brexit Trade and Co-operation Agreement resulted in a severe hit to the Irish prawn and mackerel fleets in particular – McConalogue said he was continuing to do so “every month, and every time we engage swords on it”.
He cited as an example of this the current EU-Norway negotiations on blue whiting “both in terms of protecting and valuing access to Irish waters..but also trying to maximise the amount of fish that we get for Irish fishermen”.
He said that three years ago when he took up office, there was a transfer of nine per cent of Ireland’s blue whiting quota to Norway.
“Over the last two years, I’ve fought that down to four per cent,”he said, and “I intend to keep it at that level”.
“So, we’ve taken a hard line,”he said. While he accepted there was a principle involved when a non-EU member like Norway was seeking greater access, the blue whiting species, like mackerel, is a migratory stock.
“You have to engage with all countries” to set a manageable quota and catch rate that “doesn’t undermine the stocks,”he said.
“He said he had been working very closely with the fishing industry representatives themselves, and “we’ve all been fighting the national interest here and I’d be hopeful of a strong outcome”.
Asked if he would act on the IFPO proposal that the State would acquire or “bank” decommissioned tonnage to ensure there is a route for young people into the industry in the future, McConalogue said that the fishing industry organisations had sought decommissioning during the seafood task force consultations.
The organisations had also “agreed on the structure of” decommissioning, he argued. Ireland was the first country to introduce decommissioning after Brexit, and “my understanding is that…ours is the strongest”, he said.
“Obviously, our quota has been more impacted, but other member states are doing decommissioning schemes too,”he said.
The terms and conditions were agreed by the seafood taskforce, he reiterated, and it also had to comply with the rules and regulations around the Brexit Adjustment Reserve (BAR) – the 1 billion euro fund awarded by the EU to Ireland to compensate for the impact of Brexit – he said.
“There’s been full line of sight of that from the outset, and the vast majority of fishermen have not applied,”he said.
Reiterating that the seafood task force acted on industry recommendations on decommissioning, McConalogue said there was “no minority report”.
Asked what he thought himself about providing a route for new entrants, he said that “renewal, energy, innovation” was really important, but there were also “many different views” within the fishing industry.
“What I think is that I should, and will be, guided by the fishing representatives themselves,”he said.
Asked to respond to criticism that not enough of the 1 billion euro in BAR funding was being allocated to the marine sector which took the biggest hit from Brexit, he said “all of the schemes that have been proposed to me, I’m stepping out”.
He said he had announced 267 million euro to date for the fishing sector, to ensure the potential of the sector was “maximised, that it is innovative, that it is dynamic”. He said there would be investment in processing, in piers and harbours, in boats “and making it attractive for young people is a really important part of that as well “.
National Inshore Fishermen’s Association chairman Michael Desmond said the main issues affecting the inshore sector included quota and the cost of living.
He said his members were hoping for a positive outcome from the consultation on the north-west herring.
“Hopefully we will be get a bit more quota for the small boats and it won’t be ring-fenced anymore,”he said. “We’ll have to wait and see how the consultation goes, but hopefully we’ll get the same thing for the south-west with the Celtic Sea herrings”.
He said hundreds of small boats had been left out of pocket with the collapse of the shrimp market over this winter.
Ukraine and the fuel crisis, and the cost of living crisis, had affected the inshore sector far more than Brexit , Desmond said.
Insurance, fuel and bait costs had all doubled, he said, at the same time as the price of fish, and shellfish in particular, had dropped.
“We’re waiting for funding, asking for funding, and it’s been two months since a debate in the Dáil on this,”he said.
Desmond said inshore fishermen were also very concerned about the new blue economy scheme which BIM was administering on behalf of coastal communities.
“It is available for everything and anything such as whale watching and tourism, but absolutely nothing for fishermen,”he said. “It is looking like BIM is the coastal tourism board, not what they set about to be…”
A number of offshore wind farm developers were among exhibitors at the show, having attended the second national seafarers’ conference the day before in Limerick.
At that conference, BIM’s new chief executive Caroline Bocquel has warned the offshore renewable energy (ORE) sector that it must improve its communication with the Irish fishing industry.
She has also told offshore wind developers that there should be “minimal impact” with the commercial fishing sector which is already experiencing significant challenges, including the impact of Brexit.
Bocquel said that communication is a “key piece”, and such communication must be “early” and “authentic” and “not just for the sake of it”.
Communication has to be a “key part of the discussion” , she said at the event which was hosted by the National Maritime College of Ireland with ORE developer Simply Blue Group.
The Government’s seafood/ORE working group chaired by Capt Robert McCabe had done “huge work” on this, and would be producing a set of communication protocols, Bocquel said.
These communication protocols need to be “embedded” in the consenting regime to the extent that they “cannot be sidelined”, she said.
Irish South and East Fish Producers’ Organisation chief executive John Lynch said that he had warned that the ORE and fishing industry sectors were on a “collision course” last year, when he spoke at the first seafarers’ conference. He said this was “still the case”.
The fishing industry was “united” in its concerns about spatial squeeze, and food security was an important human requirement as energy, Lynch emphasised.
He said the industry was working on its own marine spatial plan from a fishing industry point of view.
Several speakers were critical of the lack of a marine spatial plan from the Government.