Restricted quotas leave fishing industry all at sea

Imports account for 75 per cent of seafood sold here, yet Irish catches are being sent to overseas markets

Picture this: you are out shopping in the company of your smartphone or android, and you spot some tempting tuna, or cod or hake. The price looks good, but you are an ethical Irish Times reader. So, naturally, you want to know more.

Thanks to a new project currently being developed by two State agencies, you should be able to use a phone or tablet app to scan the barcode, link in to relevant websites and find out where the fish was caught, how, by whom and when.

What’s more, the same links should even suggest some useful recipes, and give suitably impressive details on the sustainability of the stock.

The E-Locate project, as it is called, is a joint Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM)/Sea Fisheries Development Agency (SFPA) initiative which promises to give a 21st century level of traceability to the 21st century consumer.


Labelling regulations

Funded by the European Commission, it has been devised in response to yet more EU legislation on weighing, labelling and traceability of fish – a "positive approach" to something potentially onerous, in the words of BIM's fisheries development manager Michael Keatinge.

It will have particular benefits for fish-lovers who are keen to buy catch caught by Irish boats in these waters.

“Irish fish” has been something of a misnomer since the State became a member of the EU, and signed up to shared waters under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

Current labelling regulations make it almost impossible for the seafood industry to identify wild fish, caught in shared European waters, as distinctly Irish.

“North-east Atlantic” is about as close a location permitted on retail fish stalls for most species, except for farmed salmon which can be described by nationality.

It's one of the reasons that the Responsible Irish Fish (RIF) label was initiated by Frank Fleming and fellow catchers four years ago.

Supported by both BIM and Bord Bia, the label guarantees that the fish is not undersized and has been caught in a sustainable way.

More than 100 Irish vessels and all four main fishing co-operatives have signed up to the RIF label, and it has resulted in a small increase in price for catches, Fleming says.

'Five times the price'
However, some 75 per cent of seafood sold here is imported, due to restrictions on Irish whitefish quotas, while better prices abroad have resulted in some 75 per cent of catches here being shipped away.

“It’s a crazy situation, especially when we have second largest sea area in the EU,” Irish Fish Producers’ Organisation (IFPO) chief executive, Francis O’Donnell says.

“We have had to live with small quotas, but this is not translating into higher prices for the primary producer,” he says. “It’s very difficult to explain why some fresh fish is being sold for five times the price that was paid at point of landing.”

A spot check which the IFPO conducted last week found that monkfish which had fetched €4 a kilo on landing was retailing at €31 a kilo in a Cork supermarket.

Lemon sole which fetched €4.50 a kilo on the quay was being sold for €22 a kilo, while plaice sold initially at €3-3.50 a kilo was being advertised at €18 to €20 a kilo, the IFPO says.

“Other than filleting, a lot of this fresh fish is being sold whole, so it is hard to justify such a mark-up,” O’Donnell says.

"At the same time, fishermen have bought into conservation measures which have restored stocks like Celtic Sea herring, while cod is also in good supply, and the industry will be taking on board the new measures to ban discards at sea."

A decision to transfer marketing of seafood here from BIM to Bord Bia in 2009 may be a factor in poor domestic sales for fresh Irish catch, the IFPO believes.

However, Bord Bia says that it has undertaken six national seafood promotional campaigns in the past four years, specifically aimed at increasing consumption of a range of whitefish landed by the Irish catching sector.

The sixth of these was initiated this Easter weekend, and all of the campaigns have focused on three less appreciated whitefish species – hake, haddock and whiting, it says.

This has already yielded results, with some 50 per cent of hake landings sold here – whereas 90 per cent of hake had been exported to Spain, which prizes the magical "merluza".

Research commissioned by BIM last year found that fresh fish accounts for just over 60 per cent of total fish spend, and seafood is bought about 24 times a year.

Salmon, cod and prawns are still the most popular species, but salmon, mackerel and hake are the species purchased “most frequently”.

Selling directly
The Kantar World Panel research also found that fish sales are growing, and rank behind beef and poultry on the protein scale. In 2012, fish has the second highest annual growth in sales value – of 5.2 per cent – behind lamb.

Meanwhile, some fishing skippers have opted to start selling directly, by setting up artisanal stalls in country markets. “It’s not the total solution, because there is only so much of your catch that you can sell in this way,” says Fleming.

The IFPO is currently looking at “cash and carry” options, which might offer greater returns to its members. “We’d be keen to talk to people with particular retail expertise who might have ideas about this,” says O’Donnell.

"I went into restaurants in Brittany in northwest France recently and menus were identifying whitefish as of Irish west coast origin to indicate its high quality," he says.

“So there must be some way we can greater awareness of, and instill more pride at home, in our own catch.”