There could be plenty more fish in the sea . . .
Ireland’s status as an island nation is much-touted, yet we have failed to capitalise on it by building a thriving fish-farming industry.
Global demand for seafood is growing rapidly, far beyond what can be delivered from traditional wild-caught fish.
An estimated 42 million tonnes of extra seafood will be required annually by the year 2030 because of population growth. The global production of farmed salmon, which stands at two million tonnes a year, is expected to rise to three million tonnes by 2020.
So where does Ireland stand in the league of salmon farmers? The three main producers in Europe are Norway, Scotland and Ireland and all started developing salmon farms at around the same time. Norway is now producing one million tonnes of farmed salmon a year and plans to double that by 2020. Scotland produced 158,000 tonnes last year and salmon accounted for one-third of its food exports.
And Ireland? We are languishing at the bottom, having produced just 13,000 tonnes of salmon in 2011. However, much of this was organic, which secured a strong premium.
Irish Farmers Association (IFA) aquaculture executive Richie Flynn says we are not even close to taking full advantage of our opportunities for fish farming. “Not by a million miles. We produce as much farmed salmon in a year as they do in Norway in a very bad week.”
There are about 2,000 fish farm sites around the State, mainly growing salmon, trout, oysters and mussels. Flynn says they are run by an estimated 300 shellfish farmers and 40 fin-fish farmers. They range from tiny one-person operations in the west, to Marine Harvest – Ireland’s single biggest seafood company.
He says our coastline is one of the best placed in the world to grow fish, shellfish and seaweed. “But through a combination of lack of understanding, neglect and prejudice, the chance to secure the real potential employment for young people has been wasted for nearly two decades while the rest of the world has moved on.”
Flynn says fish farmers are struggling with the legacy of an incoherent bureaucracy and successive governments who have not bothered to educate themselves about the value of seafood production. This is compounded by “the inexplicable reluctance in the general public, media and business worlds to embrace our greatest asset, the sea”.
But the Government has big ambitions. The Food Harvest 2020 plan for the agri-food and fisheries sector contains a target to increase the volume of aquaculture production by 78 per cent by 2020, while increasing employment in the seafood sector from 11,000 to 14,000 people.
Last month, an eight-week public consultation period began into Bord Iascaigh Mhara’s (BIM) licence application for a deep-sea fish farm in Galway bay near the Aran islands. The project takes in 456 hectares spread over two sites and is 1.7km from the nearest land mass. This is much further out to sea than conventional fish farms and was planned this way to give more scope in terms of scale while lessening the visual impact.