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Getting to the truth

Last weekend (Saturday November 20th) there was an interesting report from Sean Moroney from ‘The Fisher’s Voice’ in which he reveals a ‘grand plan’ at government level not to focus on saving the Irish whitefish fleet but more to take the opportunity of the vast number of foreign vessels fishing in Irish waters by building huge processing factories here and in turn, making ports such as Castletownbere in Co. Cork into a ‘little Vigo’ as Spanish vessels would make this harbour their Irish base.

Alarming as this sounds, it is, from a purely business viewpoint, perfectly logical that if Ireland is not going to be allowed catch the fish in its own waters then the next best move for the Irish processing industry is to take the opportunity to buy the fish that is being landed here by vessels from other nations rather than see truckloads of it leaving Ireland every day to go to the continent.

I use the word “logical” as such a plan is calculated and strictly commercial and, understandably, there is no room for emotion when it comes to big business.

But looking broadly at this report I do believe that the comments of IFPEA CEO Brendan Byrne were taken slightly out of context when he appeared to say that the Irish processing industry urgently had to acquire additional raw material ‘no matter what the source‘ - as one can observe from the video clip that a lot of his comments were heavily edited and, according to Mr Byrne himself, this resulted in an hour-long interview being reduced to just 17 minutes.

The IFPEA have strongly supported the fishermen and the catching sector, in particular during this past turbulent year, and personally I don’t think the processing sector were saying that they did not care if Irish fishermen did not recover their unjustly lost quota – indeed, it is to the obvious benefit of Irish processors that Irish vessels have more quota.

The most significant point raised in the entire interview was Brendan Byrne’s comment that “We are only looking for the right to catch fish in our own waters” - “We have not fought that argument at European level”.

Despite the attempt to make this an issue between processors and fishermen, surely this IFPEA statement is a call to action that a united industry (both catching and processing) must heed by forcing the political agenda in our favour.

Having done a little research myself since The Fisher’s Voice report, several things have come to light:

1. This idea all began as part of a BIM ‘collaborative program’ in 2016, supposedly involving the processing and catching sectors, in a bid to look at any opportunities toward retaining more of the fish for processing in Ireland;

2. Although the study was initiated in 2016, by the end of 2019 there was still no formal conclusion reached;

3. Also, it is believed that when a proposal of the price on offer to Spanish vessels selling their fish to a new Irish processing facility was unofficially discussed, this was immediately dismissed by the Spanish industry for several reasons - the main one being that even allowing for the cost of lorry transportation from Ireland to Spain, the Spanish industry could still earn 1.5 euros more per kilo than was being offered in this proposal.

4. Finally and perhaps most importantly of all – does anyone think that these coastal states would give up their bi-lateral agreements whereby they are presently allowed to offload fish from their vessels in Ireland and put all their catch into the back of a lorry and send it back to their home country without any monitoring or weighing regulations?

If they agreed to the suggested proposal of a ‘little Vigo’ Irish-based fleet landing to an Irish-owned and Irish based factory - then they, like us, would have to weigh all fish upon landing and be subject to full rigorous monitoring - so let’s be real here – were Spain, France and Belgium ever going to give that up, regardless of what price for fish was on offer?

Tough questions

It would therefore seem that while Sean Moroney’s ‘revelation’ of goings-on at higher levels of the industry might have been well intentioned, it appears that it has unfortunately achieved little more than to drive a wedge of suspicion between the catchers and processors which, if transpires to be the case, is something that only certain civil servants will be happy about -- the old strategy of ‘divide and conquer’ has worked well for decades in keeping the fishing industry down whenever the slightest hint of unity begins to rise.

But regardless that it would seem that the entire plan has died in its infancy, it doesn’t alter the fact that it WAS being considered at senior governmental and state body levels and the question is who in the fishing industry was aware of it?

A lack of transparency has been one of the major ailments suffered within this industry for over 30 years and here we have a classic case in point.

If Ireland’s catching sector representatives were not aware of this plan then the question must be asked as to why?

Did the BIM collaborative program not identify itself as encompassing the “processing AND catching sectors”?

And if these representatives were made aware that such a scheme was even being considered, then why did they not make public the fact that the Irish State was working towards taking and processing Spanish landings in Ireland?

Indeed why are these same people not coming out at this time to declare if they knew or not – and if they did know, explain why they kept quiet about it?

Conspiracy theorists will now point to Ireland’s poor defence of its quotas during the farcical BREXIT negotiations and say, perhaps rightly so, that this government had no will to save the Irish catching sector anyway when they were more interested in turning Ireland into the processing capital of Europe with seafood that could be marketed the world over as being ‘caught in Irish waters’ but omitting the fact that it was not caught by Irish fishing vessels.

There is also the ‘green’ element – Ireland is under pressure to continue to reduce carbon emissions and, being able to say that they have now found a way to end the thousand or so fish trucks that travel from Ireland to Spain every year would indeed be a feather in their cap.

But at the end of Sean Moroney’s report he concludes by talking about respect and I believe herein lies the problem.

No one (and I do mean NO ONE) in the system – from the EU Commission to senior Irish Government figures to the DAFM civil servants and even certain industry figures have a single ounce of respect for the Irish fishing industry or for those who work in it.

Above all else, treating people in this industry like mushrooms (fill them with sh*t and keep them in the dark) has become second nature for those in power – and although the aforementioned scheme regarding an Irish-based Spanish fleet looks unlikely to ever come to pass, it is yet another case where the people with the most to lose (Irish fishermen) are the last to know.

*The full video report can be viewed on facebook on TheFishersVoice and is also reposted on the IFSA facebook group (posted up Saturday 20th November)

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