Belfast Telegraph

Minister's positive spin on fish talks is a red herring

Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill was premature in welcoming the outcome of the Fisheries Council negotiations, says Diane Dodds

As agriculture minister, Michelle O'Neill's portfolio includes responsibility for our fishing industry - and she assumed responsibility at a critical time.

Negotiations on reform of Europe's Common Fisheries Policy should reach a conclusion later this year and could have far-reaching consequences.

The purpose of the industry is to harvest the seas sustainably and add value to the catch. From this business, more than £100m per annum is pumped into the (mainly) Co Down economy.

The industry has undergone huge change, in particular the fishing fleet based at Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel.

Monitoring of fishing activities via 24/7 satellite technology, combined with restrictions on time spent at sea, are among the regulatory burdens few others have to grapple with.

EU figures confirm that total fishing effort in the Irish Sea has been reduced by more than 50% during the past decade. Fishermen have adopted a range of technical conservation measures, designed to reduce unwanted catches, but with little reward for sacrifices made.

After every annual Fisheries Council, it has become a tradition for ministers to present the outcome positively. They are "pleased" with the result, even when the industry and indeed environmental NGOs are not. It is regrettable that Ms O'Neill fell into this trap.

It is true; the result was not as bad as had been anticipated. A roll-over on the quota for our most-important catch - prawns - was good news compared to the proposed 19% cut.

The acceptance by the European Commission of the UK's interpretation of important rules governing days at sea was also vital.

However, the UK ministerial team in Brussels, including Ms O'Neill, failed to deliver the number one priority - namely pausing any further days-at-sea cuts emanating from the commission's failed long-term cod recovery plan.

Herring represented the third of Northern Ireland's three priorities and the minister failed to deliver a positive result, in spite of the stock being at its highest level for 18 years.

Securing one out of Northern Ireland's three priorities at the December Fisheries Council does not represent a pass mark.

In addition, the huge gulf between fishermen and fisheries scientists on the state of the cod stock in the Irish Sea remains.

On one side of an imaginary boundary defining sea areas, fishermen from the Republic benefit from a 150% increase in cod quota and a 60% increase in their herring quota.

On the other side of the line, however, fishermen from Northern Ireland face a 25% cut in the cod quota and a 9% cut in the herring quota.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) needs to promote the strides taken by fishermen to reduce discards of all species - especially cod.

The "independent" science referred to by the minister is largely contracted by the EC, but it is the only avenue through which the industry can win its arguments.

Therefore, it is vital that, with increasing marine ecosystem demands, Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute scientists are properly resourced and meaningful partnerships are agreed, which will help secure fishing opportunities reflecting positive stock trends.

Until then, we can't express pleasure with the results of any diktats from Brussels which, although better than what was proposed, continue to represent further degrading of our fishing industry.

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