Careful planning vital for future of fishing industry
Fish quota negotiations in Brussels are a distraction when what the sector needs is stability, says Alan McCulla
The words 'decline', 'historic' and 'legacy' have often been used to describe Northern Ireland's fishing industry. How do you judge decline?
Is it on the number of trawlers based in Northern Ireland? Or on the basis of the number of people employed in the industry, both at sea and onshore? No doubt, based on these criteria, the numbers have declined.
Yet, in 2011, the value of wild caught fish and shellfish landed into Northern Ireland reached almost £27.5m - the highest annual figure for some considerable time, with a similar figure landed by the Northern Ireland fleet in other parts of the UK, Ireland and Europe.
This improvement resulted from welcomed increases in quayside prices for the catch, as well as additional landings of species such as mackerel and herring.
Improving quayside returns, combined with economic recession on land, has, in turn, led to a significant number of new entrants to the industry.
For the first time, 2012 saw the delivery of a new entrants training course and, by year-end, more than 700 statutory and non-statutory training courses will have been delivered to local fishermen. Major investments in both the fleet and processing sectors have continued. In fact, during the past 12 to 18 months, the fishing industry has been one of the few sectors creating jobs in south Down.
Of course, this good news is tempered by a myriad of challenges facing the fishing industry.
Sustainable fish stocks are key to an economically viable fishing industry. The work (and, indeed, sacrifice) put in by local fishermen in seeking to rebuild and stabilise fish stocks here in Northern Ireland has largely been ignored by the centralised fisheries bureaucracy in Brussels - this in the midst of naturally recurring environmental cycles.
The saga with cod - what state is the Irish Sea stock in? - continues to be a major frustration. Our most important fishery - that for Dublin Bay prawns - is stable.
Irish Sea herring is at its highest level for 40 years. Inshore species, such as crab and lobster, need careful nurturing.
This week's annual round of quota negotiations and a plethora of related issues create instability when what the industry wants most is multi-annual stability.
The initial limited hope offered by the reform of Europe's Common Fisheries Policy may well be lost. Regional management, which would devolve much of the decision-making process out of Brussels, could be sacrificed to satisfy the egos of a few in the EU's institutions.
Rising overhead costs, most notably with fuel, is a constant threat. Wind conditions can play havoc with fishing plans - there are no bad weather, or 'single fisheries', payments for fishermen.
With quayside prices retreating in 2012, the onus is on the industry itself to maximise the value of the catch.
It is a shame that at least one of the major retailers in Northern Ireland confides that it does not stock even one locally caught and landed fishery product. We await answers from the others.
At the same time, our processors successfully secure export markets from Dublin to Dubai.
Increasing demands for the use of our seas, most recently by the offshore renewable energy sector, presents challenges, but also opportunities.
At the core of our ethos must be protection of the habitats on which we depend for our fish and shellfish stocks, as well as our fisheries for these stocks.
Yet the expertise and assets gifted on fishermen have already provided dividends as we diversify into working with these sectors.
Northern Ireland's fishing industry is economically vital to our coastal communities. It is an industry that is proud of the renewable, sustainable and quality products it harvests from the Irish Sea and beyond.
It is an industry with a future, but it is also an industry that has to carefully plan for the challenges and opportunities on the radar.