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Quotas cut by 15%, and a €1 billion industry on the brink: The confusing figures fuelling fishers' anger

A Seafood Sector Task Force interim report that was released last week – here’s what it says about the industry.

Fresh fish for sale in “Nicky's Plaice” fish shop on Howth Pier.
Fresh fish for sale in “Nicky's Plaice” fish shop on Howth Pier.
Image: Sasko Lazarov

WHEN SPEAKING TO fishers about why they were concerned about the proposed Brexit trade deal, about why they don’t see a viable future for their industry, a flurry of various figures are usually cited to explain the decline in their industry in recent years.

A lot of figures are given as to why they’re struggling to survive, and various species of fish might be mentioned – all of which can be hard to get your head around.

So here’s a rundown of those figures, fishers’ concerns, and the post-Brexit trade deal quotas that are driving them to march on the Taoiseach’s Cork office and the Dáil in recent weeks, mostly based off a Seafood Sector Task Force interim report that was released last week.

€1.22 billion

This is how much the Irish seafood economy is estimated to be worth. There are around 16,400 people employed by the industry, which includes ancillary services like production, people who service fishing boats, and net producers.

Bórd Iascaigh Mhara, Ireland’s seafood development agency, says that €400 million is generated through domestic consumption, and €263 through exports and imports.

There are 2,030 fishing vessels registered in Ireland as of 2020. France (€115m), the United Kingdom (€93m) and Spain (€53m) are the top export areas for Irish seafood. 

A 15% drop in quota value

Quotas are complicated, so let’s explain all this out:

  • Fishing quotas are a maximum limit on the amount of fish that can be caught by fishers. The national quota for fish catches is also sub-divided into quotas for specific species, areas, and seasons.
  • Ireland’s share of the EU quota in 2020 was as follows: herring in the Irish Sea (86%); whiting in the Irish Sea (58%); cod in the Celtic Sea (57%); 22% cod in the West of Scotland.

This is to give stocks a chance to replenish and to ensure overfishing doesn’t happen. Some fishers say it is easy to overfish now, because quotas are so low and they are struggling to make the same living they did before.

Quotas are different from, but are usually based on, the ‘maximum sustainable yield’ (MSY) for a species of fish, which is an ecological estimation of what proportion of fish can be caught to ensure stocks are not depleted to unsustainable levels.

Stock caught above this level are classed as ‘overfished’.

Source: /Flourish

It should be noted that fishers have said because quotas keep increasing, and because they are so low for certain species, it is easy to ‘go over the line’, and overfish.

In the Brexit trade deal agreed between the EU and the UK, the EU wanted to return 15-18% of the value of fish quota caught in UK waters, and the UK wanted 35%.

Instead, both settled on 25% the value of fish quotas on a five-year phased basis.

In practice, this meant that €199 million worth of EU-wide quotas will be transferred back to the UK, with Ireland contributing around €43 million of that total – a drop of 26,412 tonnes of fish, representing 15% in Ireland’s national fishing quota.

Quota fish Source: Seafood Taskforce interim report

Fish worth an annual average of €650 million had been caught by EU fishing fleets in British waters.

Who is catching Ireland’s fishing quota?

As our sister publication Noteworthy reported, Ireland has a system of giving the quota to those that catch the fish first, which gives an advantage to bigger vessels with greater resources.

2019 European Commission report compiled a database of the entire EU fleet register and found that most Irish vessels are owned by individual Irish fishers, with only about 3.5% of the fleet registered to a foreign owner or foreign-registered company.

The top eight quota owners share 28% of the national quota between them, with the Atlantic Dawn Company topping the table, at over 7% of the total quota.

There are many small fishing vessels in Ireland that are out-financed and disadvantaged by Ireland’s first-come first-served system of awarding quotas, and who may be more likely to use hand-based practices that may be a more sustainable way of fishing.

The nitty-gritty

Fish quotas are broken down based on the species of fish, and on where they live:

  • Inshore fish, such as shellfish, eels and tope, live close to Ireland’s coast;
  • Demersal fish, such as monkfish, sole, plaice and cod, live near the bottom of the sea floor (whitefish are a subcategory of this); and
  • Pelagic fish, such as blue whiting, herring and mackerel, live in the middle – the water column.

For shellfish, around 1,500 inshore vessels which target mostly non-quota shellfish will not be directly impacted by quota transfers, as they have only minimal catches of quotas.

Two thirds of the losses sustained by the fleet in 2021 will be incurred by the Refrigerated Seawater (RSW) segment of the fleet, which mostly fish for pelagic species.

Those post-Brexit deal losses are as follows:

  • Mackerel: The impact of the Brexit trade deal on an estimated 23 vessels from loss of mackerel quota is estimated to be €15m in 2021, and €25m by 2026.
  • Whiting and herring: The quota shares for other pelagic stocks – blue whiting, Irish Sea herring, Atlanto-Scandian herring and West of Scotland herring – impacted by the Brexit trade deal are estimated to amount to a reduction in quota value of €0.26m in 2021, increasing to €0.36m by 2026.
  • No change: The quota shares for western horse mackerel, Celtic Sea herring and boarfish are not changed under the Brexit deal.
  • Total: The total impact on this pelagic segment from quota transfers under the Brexit deal is estimated at €15.3m in 2021, increasing to €25.4m by 2026.

Other fishing catches are also affected, but to a lesser extent than the above group:

  • Nephrops (Dublin Bay prawns): These vessels will be impacted in loss of Nephrops quota by around €3.9m in 2021, increasing to €6.6m by 2026.
    Including ‘bycatch’ species (fish caught ‘by accident’ while fishing for another species), the estimated impact from the Brexit trade deal is €4.2m in 2021, increasing to €6.8m by 2026.
  • 1 Polyvalent Vessels: The quota losses are estimated at €1.9m in 2021, increasing to €3.1 million by 2026.
  • Polyvalent whitefish trawlers (area 7): The loss of quota is estimated at €2.2m in 2021, increasing to €3.1m by 2026 (including transfers of bycatch species such as Nephrops, pelagic stocks, pollack, ling, plaice, skates and rays).
  • Polyvalent whitefish trawlers (area 6): The estimated loss is €1.4m in 2021, increasing to €2.7m by 2026 (including transfers of catches from mixed demersal fisheries and Nephrops in area 7 as well as a limited catch of pelagic stocks).
  • Seiners: Nine seiner vessels, which fish all year round mainly in the Celtic Sea and Irish Sea targeting haddock, hake and whiting with a bycatch of monkfish and megrim, the estimated loss of quota for the seine net vessels would increase to €0.26m in 2021, rising to €0.36m by 2026.
  • Beam trawlers: There are eleven ‘beam’ vessels that mainly fish in the Irish Sea and Celtic Sea, targeting megrim, monkfish and plaice (and bycatches). The total loss of quota is estimated at €0.29m in 2021, increasing to €0.34m by 2026.
  • Hake gillnetters: There are around 14 vessels greater than 12m with landings of hake representing more than 30% of their total landings value. These vessels will also be impacted somewhat by reductions of quota for bycatch species such as saithe, pollack, ling and monkfish. When factored in, the total estimated losses would be in the region of €0.11m in 2021, rising to €0.13m by 2026.

The costly Rockall issue

This estimated losses for whitefish trawlers assumes access will be given to the 12-mile limit around Rockall, which the Irish Government is currently in dispute with the UK Government over.

If access was lost permanently, the report states that the total squid fishery valued at around €6.6m (based on 2019 landings) and up to 60% of the total Rockall haddock quota, valued €1m (based on 2020 Irish quota), could potentially be lost.

This would not only impact on the 9 of these 12 vessels that fish at Rockall but also an additional 16 vessels, mostly Nephrops freezer vessels that target squid seasonally. When factoring in catches of other species – monk, megrim, ling, saithe – caught inside 12 miles from Rockall, the total impact of the loss of these fisheries is estimated at €7.7m.

Fishers have requested as part of their seven demands that the traditional fishing grounds at Rockall be reinstated to something similar to the 2019 arrangement.

One of the major recommendations from the Task Force’s interim report is that a one-month long voluntary temporary cessation scheme be offered to 220 whitefish vessels impacted by the quota reductions, in the period from September to December.

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12% of EU waters

The Department of Agriculture and Marine said that before Breixt, Ireland’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) made up 10% of the EU’s EEZ and the UK’s EEZ made up 17%.

After Brexit, Irish waters now make up 12% of EU waters, the Department said.

The Government’s Seafood Sector Task Force was set up to examine the implications for the Irish fishing industry and coastal communities following the Brexit trade deal.

Its membership includes representatives of the fishers production organisations, small fishers’ groups, fishers cooperatives, and Údarás na Gaeltachta. The taskforce is lead by barrister and former Bord Bia CEO Aidan Cotter.

With reporting from Maria Delaney.

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