1,000 new jobs could be created in £36m Kilkeel Harbour expansion plan
A massive £36m expansion of a Northern Ireland harbour could create up to 1,000 new jobs, ambitious plans have revealed.
A group of Kilkeel fishermen, engineering firms and fish processors are planning to build a new breakwater, and an onshore development which would allow bigger boats into the harbour.
And while fishermen are currently catching prawns, the expansion could see the Co Down harbour landing mackerel and herring.
Alan McCulla, chief executive officer of Sea Source, the Kilkeel based consortium behind the plans, said: "Kilkeel is on the brink of a new era in which fishing and offshore work combine to create a wealth of industrial activity which will re-ignite the marine economy.
"There is, however, no managed workspace available in the Kilkeel area to facilitate business start-ups or expansion and every scrap of land around the harbour is used by various businesses which are working at full capacity.
"Coastal communities around Europe are beginning to see the benefits of offshore energy developments and more efficient and ecologically-sensitive fishing methods and Kilkeel is no exception."
Plans also include industrial units and a future 'marine skills academy'.
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The current fishing fleet supports 1,300 jobs, with a further 620 in the processing sector, the group has said.
However, finding funding for the scheme is the next step.
It is understood several Stormont ministers have pledged support for it.
The plan could then be taken to various funders, including the Department for Business, Skills and Innovation in Westminster.
The next step will be to complete an environmental risk assessment before the group can seek funding.
Members of the Sea Source co-operative say the potential for a further 1,000 jobs in Kilkeel is realistic.
Davey Hill, chairman of the Kilkeel Harbour Works, said it is likely the expansion could be paid for with a "cocktail of funds".
And he said the possibility of EU support was not being ruled out.
"The business plan says that it works," he said.
"(The community) is very positive. It's about developing social economics, and it's knowledge of the sea and the ability to diversify ... this is the game-changer."
And Mr McCulla said: "In the Irish Sea basin, there are many competitor ports along the south west coast of Scotland, the west coasts of England and Wales and the Republic of Ireland, yet Kilkeel stands out as the most forward-thinking and ambitious of them all.
"This position needs to be consolidated and Kilkeel must be upgraded to make it fit for purpose for the challenges and opportunities which lie ahead," he said.
"Three years ago fewer than 500 people were employed in the local marine economy. Today that figure has more than doubled.
"In order to capitalise on our successes and to establish ourselves firmly as the go-to port for marine expertise, fishing, fish processing, boat building and all the other aspects of the marine economy, the expansion plan must be listed as a high priority for the Northern Ireland economy."
Earlier this year, before the Brexit vote, fishermen told the Belfast Telegraph the industry feels hampered by "EU meddling".
One fisherman, Paul Coffey, who is based in Portavogie, said: "We want out of Europe to control our own seas, our own waters, and to make our own rules."
His gripes include quotas, satellite monitoring, the number of days he can be at sea, and "red tape".
"Most of the differences are with quota and days at sea, and not being able to control our own waters and rules being made from Brussels," he added.
Between 2007 and 2013 the EU contributed £14m across the fishing industry as part of the European Fisheries Fund.
Shortly after the EU referendum, fishermen in the UK were warned catch quotas will not increase before Brexit is finalised and may not even grow after Brexit.
That was according to the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations (NFFO).