IN as much as they can have been, representatives of the fishing industry from all over Ireland, including West Cork, seem re-assured that the government, along with the EU negotiators on Brexit, are doing the best they can to prevent, or at least greatly minimise damage to the sector. An historic meeting took place in Dublin towards the end of last month between industry representatives, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Tánaiste & Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (with special responsibility for Brexit), Simon Coveney, and Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed.
However, Mr Creed did say that, while the progress to date has been positive, we have a long way to go and will face serious challenges. He added that he was encouraged that ‘the strength in unity and clarity of purpose that has been clear from the start will continue to serve us well in the hard negotiations to come,’ as the industry braces itself for Brexit.
Mr Creed and his predecessors in recent years – including the current Tánaiste – have built up a strong rapport with the fishing industry, especially when it comes to the annual December fish quota negotiations, and it would be fair to say that they all work well together to deliver the best outcomes they can. However, the challenge they face from Brexit will certainly test their resolve and, if they want to retain historic rights of access and fishing quotas as close to the present share as possible, they will have to work even harder as part of the EU 27 – the countries that will be left when Britain exits in less than 11 months’ time – and the deadline for wrapping up these negotiations in this October,
The fishermen have three main concerns: access for their vessels to UK fishing grounds post-Brexit; retaining the quota share of the fish that they currently catch in UK waters; trade between Ireland and the UK for their landed fish and processed fish products. The latter is vital because fish and fish products are traded, not only between Ireland the UK, but also onwards to mainland EU markets, so the need to ensure free and unfettered access to these markets without tariffs is of the utmost importance.
If British waters are closed to EU fishermen after Brexit, it would mean that the fleets that currently fish in them, mainly from Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, will be forced west into our waters, adding to congestion already there and leaving less of a quota share-out into the future. The Irish fishermen’s organisations have been working with the European Fisheries Alliance on a united approach to the issue and keeping in regular touch with the EU’s lead negotiator, Michel Barnier.
Coastal communities, such as Castletownbere and Union Hall in West Cork, depend very much on fishing and fish processing and providing ancillary services to the industry, so any reduction in quotas as a result of Brexit would be damaging to many people’s livelihoods and have a detrimental knock-on effect across their hinterlands. Thanks to the promotional efforts of An Bord Bia and Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) – both with strong West Cork leadership – the increase in seafood exports has boosted our fishing industry in recent years and it would be a huge setback to have the great progress made slowed down significantly by Brexit.
Last year, the value of trade in the Irish seafood industry passed the €1bn mark for the first time, being worth €1.15bn to the economy – a 6.4% increase year-on-year – and directly and indirectly providing 14,000 jobs, with the 3,000 of these in Co Cork accounting for 6% of local employment. Despite a drop of 7% in our seafood exports to the UK to €85m, there was a 10% increase overall to €666m, boosted by a massive 47% increase in exports to Africa as well significant increases to Asia, the Middle East and the rest of the world.
Our biggest market is the European Union, excluding the UK, which took €392m worth of seafood from us, with the biggest importer here being France with €170m of this, which was twice the value of our seafood exports to the UK. A lot of our seafood exports are taken through the UK en route to European markets, so the prospect of tariffs post-Brexit is frightening and potentially damaging to our international trade.
In the medium term, the Irish fishing industry can take solace from the fact that there will be no change to their rights of access and quota share during the 21-month transition phase that will follow Britain’s exit from the European Union on March 29th, 2019. After that, it is hoped that the EU27 negotiating team will be aiming, in the overall context of a Free Trade Agreement between them and the UK, that existing reciprocal access to fishing waters and resources would be maintained, however while hope springs eternal, there is absolutely no certainty that this can be achieved.