The dwindling cod fishing industry could disappear if Irish Sea stocks of the species do not recover, Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew warned today.
The minister addressed the Assembly on the state of the fishing industry in the wake of new limits on catches imposed by the Fisheries Council in Brussels last month.
The Sinn Fein minister said she was committed to defending the industry and said her department successfully negotiated major reductions in cuts that could have hit the crucial prawn fishing sector.
But in response to a question from the SDLP's Alban Maginness (North Belfast) the minister said only two fishing vessels were today dedicated to catching white fish.
"Clearly there is a critical situation (with cod stocks)," said Mr Maginness.
"Would the minister agree with me that by the time the stocks actually recover there will be no cod fleet left?"
The minister said the Cod Recovery Plan for the Irish Sea was being implemented as stocks had fallen below critical levels.
The plan aims to raise levels of cod spawning stock to 10,000 tonnes and while a level below 6,000 tonnes is deemed critically low, it is estimated the Irish Sea is below 2,000 tonnes.
As a result a cut of 25% was imposed in the total allowable catch of cod.
"If stocks don't improve, it could be the cod fleet will be a thing of the past," said the minister.
"In reality that's already happening: two full-time white fish boats and over 90% of the vessels now concentrating on nephrops (prawns) and that is a recognition that cod is not there."
She said the low market value of other fish such as whiting meant they were not profitable.
The fishing industry had also been hit by the rising cost of fuel during 2008.
The Agriculture Minister said the Executive had tried to ease the burden on the industry by agreeing financial support, including a £700,000 hardship package to help pay fees such as harbour dues.
While the minister was on maternity leave last October and November her party colleague and Regional Development Minister Conor Murphy, took part in negotiations with with the Fisheries Council following talks with the local fishing industry.
Ms Gildernew said joint efforts with other ministries, including authorities in the Republic, had formed part of a negotiating process where she said a proposed cut in prawn fishing of up to 30% was reduced to a 2% cut for the Irish Sea.
"I think this particular experience confirms the importance of having devolved ministers at council to articulate the needs of their respective fishing industries," she said.
The minister added: "We don't know ultimately if cod stocks will come back in time to ensure there is still a fleet left to catch it, or if it will come back at all.
"We don't know what impact climate change is having on cod, or if cod is moving to other sea areas.
"But the commission have been determined to introduce a more effective cod recovery plan and the broad principles of the plan weren't open for negotiation in November.
"Instead we were faced with trying to argue for flexibilities within the plan that would maximise the opportunities for our fishing fleets."
She said concessions had been agreed that represented a cushion on the proposed cuts in 2009.
The minister said she could introduce further boat decommissioning schemes to help ensure the industry's profitability.
"What I do not want to see happening is for industry to be depleted and brought down to a point where the critical mass isn't there, where we no longer have need for a processing sector, where there is no longer any viability in fishing.
"It is my ultimate objective to reverse that trend and try to enhance fishing opportunities for the communities that depend heavily on it."