Steering our fishing fleet away from stormy waters
The outcome of the Fisheries Council of Ministers' negotiations is good news for the industry, says Michelle O'Neill
The fish-catching sector in the north employs around 550 full-time employees and 100 part-time employees, with 560 full-time equivalent jobs in the processing sector.
These jobs are underpinned by the fishing opportunities available to our fleet and, over recent months, I have been working to ensure that these opportunities are protected.
Our fleet catches around £15m-worth of prawns (langoustines), mainly from grounds in the northern part of the Irish Sea. The gross turnover of the processing firms that depend on this fleet amounts to around £70m.
The Fisheries Council of Ministers meets each December to reach agreement on the fishing opportunities for the following year. This year's negotiations - my first since becoming minister - were dominated by discussions on fishing effort, or days at sea.
These controls stem from the Cod Recovery Plan (CRP), which affects the number of days that our local fleet can fish in the Irish Sea. The CRP affects all of our vessels, whether they are targeting cod and other whitefish species, or fishing for prawns and taking some whitefish as a by-catch.
Fishing days are reduced every year if cod stocks are doing badly. But the plan also allows member states to 'buy back' days at sea if their fleets comply with measures to reduce cod mortality.
There were differences in opinion between the European Commission and some member states about the interpretation of this.
Had the commission's interpretation prevailed, it would effectively have meant an end to fishing by our fleet in the Irish Sea by the middle of this year.
Our industry was faced with its most significant threat in recent years. But I met with Commissioner Damanaki in early December.
Following detailed negotiations, all parties committed to finding a solution that would be acceptable to the commission and member states. The local fishing industry responded positively and has agreed to use highly-selective gears in the prawn fleet, which will result in very low levels of cod mortality.
This will exempt 95% of our fleet from CRP controls on the time they can spend fishing, assist the recovery of cod stocks and allow them to continue to fish the Irish Sea.
This commitment strengthened our negotiating position, resulting in revision of the proposal for Irish Sea cod from no landings to a 25% cut in the current quota.
The European Commission also proposed a 19% cut in prawn landings - contrary to scientific advice. Working closely with my counterpart in the south, Simon Coveney TD, an alternative approach was presented to the commission which demonstrated healthy stock levels. The commission was persuaded by our arguments and the level of total allowable catch was maintained.
The commission also proposed a 25% cut for Irish Sea herring, in spite of the scientific evidence.
It is frustrating that the final settlement resulted in a 10% herring cut. This is a clear case where the commission has not followed the science, which was for "no increase in catch" (therefore 2011 catch-levels should have been maintained).
For other so-called 'data-poor' stocks, the initial 25% proposed reduction for Irish Sea haddock was revised to a 5% reduction, while Irish Sea plaice remained steady.
The negotiations were difficult, but we got a good result. Fishing opportunities will be maintained for 95% of our fleet, which depends on prawns; we resolved the situation on interpretations of the cod plan in our favour and a way forward has been agreed on use of selective gear.
I will continue to work hard for the sector which is sustainable, profitable and maximises its economic contribution.