Northern Ireland fishermen ‘looking forward to new markets’ after Brexit

But industry concerned about labour supply and frictionless trade, MPs hear

Irish waters: Britain will still need to negotiate fishing rights with the European Union after Brexit. Photograph: Marcel Mochet/AFP/Getty

Northern Ireland’s fishing industry is looking forward to gaining access to more fish and new markets after Brexit but is worried about the implications of leaving the European Union for labour supply and frictionless trade, MPs have heard.

Lynn Gilmore of Seafish Northern Ireland, which represents the industry, told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster that tariffs and nontariff barriers to trade are a major concern.

“With seafood you’re dealing with a fresh product. It’s in even sharper focus when you’re dealing with the aquaculture sector, who in many cases are exporting a live product, and also eels. So any sort of friction at borders is a huge concern for the industry both in terms of the additional cost and access to market but also in terms of the ruination of stocks with holdups at borders and things like that,” she said.

Northern Ireland's 375 or so fishing vessels and more than 700 full-time fishermen land catches worth about £50 million (€57.5 million) a year, about half of it to Northern Ireland ports. Processing adds about £88 million (€102 million) in value, but Dr Gilmore said that both factory owners and fishermen are worried about recruiting workers after Brexit. More than half of those working on Northern Irish fishing vessels are from outside the United Kingdom, many of them from the Philippines, and factories depend on labour from the EU.


“Some of the factory owners say they’re already seeing some of the eastern Europeans leaving because they’re just uncomfortable with their position in the UK. So I think we need to provide some comfort to those people and assure them that they’re valued,” Dr Gilmore said.

The industry is confident that, outside the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, it will have greater opportunities to catch fish, along with the prospect of new markets for its products. Richard Barnes, an expert in the international law of the sea at the University of Hull, told the committee that the UK will still be subject to international agreements after Brexit and warned that it could not bypass the EU to negotiate a bilateral deal on fisheries with Ireland.

"When we come out the EU will still be responsible for managing European fisheries issues," he said. "So although Ireland is our neighbour, and our closest neighbour in this particular context, it won't be with Ireland directly that we deal in fisheries matters. It will be the European Commission, because it acts externally for its members for that. So it will be very much the same position as, for example, Norway or Iceland, where those non-EU states negotiate with the EU as regards access."

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times