Government must make Ireland’s €1bn fishing industry a “top priority” in the Brexit negotiations, the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation has said.

Seán O’Donoghue added that the snap election in the UK on June 8 will add “further obstacles and challenges” and will impact the form Brexit will take. “UK Minister for Fisheries, George Eustice, has stated publicly that British fishermen will catch hundreds of thousands of tonnes more fish after Brexit.”

Brexit Map

With Ireland sharing 47 out of its 50 Total Allowable Catch (TAC) quota stocks with Britain, “it stands to reason that Ireland will suffer disproportionately if negotiations on fisheries are separated from trade negotiations,” he warned.

O’Donoghue however said he was encouraged following recent remarks by the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, during a visit to Dublin: “I got a very clear answer he was adamant that fisheries and trade would not be separated. That’s what we wanted. The Irish and British fishing industries occupy a unique space. They are entwined like no other sector in sharing a limited resource as well as grounds and markets.”

Brexit is “potentially disastrous” for the Irish fleet in three key issues of access to waters, quota share and trade. Ireland’s two biggest fisheries, mackerel and nephrops, are “inextricably linked” to Britain.

“Theresa May’s government is already advocating calls ‘to repair what went wrong in 1973’ which means Britain will be fighting for higher quotas” and will endeavour to take “the metaphorical fish off our plate. We believe there is no justification whatsoever for any such move,” he added.

“We implore the Irish Government not to allow fisheries to become a bargaining chip in the high-level negotiations to follow.”

Export challenges

Irish seafood processors exporting to the UK are also facing uncertainty for their industry valued at €71m in 2015. While European exporters are also concerned about Brexit, Ireland’s geographic location, existing arrangements and high dependency on Britain means it is “perilously positioned” if the negotiations are not extremely effective,” Seán O’Donoghue warned.

Such is the seriousness and uncertainty, the European Fisheries Alliance — a coalition of fishing fleets from nine European countries including Ireland, accounting for 18,000 fishermen with an annual turnover of €21bn — is setting aside internal grievances regarding the Common Fisheries Policy, to present a united lobbying front to protect the industry.

It has written to all EU heads of government, as well as the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, calling for fisheries to be explicitly included in the negotiation mandate to guarantee mutual access to traditional fishing grounds; preservation of the current distribution of TAC and quotas, as well as maintaining the existing trading arrangements, post Brexit.

Share agreement

TACs of relevant commercial species are currently distributed between the UK and other EU Member States, in accordance with the 1983 sharing agreement. This agreement reflects the situation after the UK and Ireland joined the European Economic Community in 1973, and has been the foundation of European fisheries for over 30 years.

Quota distribution has taken into account both historical practices and specific local considerations. The UK and Ireland enjoy preferential treatment [under Hague Preferences] for specific species, further demonstrating the complexity of the fisheries relationship between Ireland, the UK and Europe.

“A clean break is neither desirable nor possible,” says Seán O’Donoghue.

DAFM comment

In a statement to Inshore Ireland, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine said it was ‘impossible to say with certainty’ the effect of Brexit on the Irish fishing industry: 

’We don’t know yet what changes the UK may seek to the current arrangements. Nevertheless it is clear that Brexit poses a very significant challenge… What we do know is that there is a strong desire and expectation from parts of the UK fishing industry for a hard Brexit on fish – to ensure that non-UK fishing vessels will no longer have access to the UK Zone and that all fish in that zone — currently shared with EU partners — will be retained by the UK.

‘Limitations on access and any attempt by the UK to increase its current quota share at the expense of Ireland and others will be resisted strenuously.’

The twin threats, on access and quota, could also lead to increased activity by other EU vessels in the waters around Ireland, threatening the long-term sustainability of stocks.

Marine minister Michael Creed has held discussions with fisheries Ministers from Member States who fish within the UK 200 mile zone ‘to ensure that fisheries remain a top priority in the negotiations. Protecting existing shares will be a top priority for that group.

‘The Minister and An Taoiseach have made clear that they intend to ensure that fisheries remains high on the Brexit agenda in the EU, and that Ireland obtains the best possible outcome from the negotiations.’

Minister Creed is ‘strongly supportive’ of the work being undertaken by Seán O’Donoghue in the European Fisheries Alliance on behalf of the Irish fishing industry and the fishing industries of the main Member States impacted.

‘The Minister has been and remains committed to working closely with the Irish industry to inform and support the upcoming negotiations and in opposing any dilution of our existing EU quota shares, including protecting the benefit to Ireland of the Hague Preferences, and any limitations on our existing rights of access.’