Woods to offer fleet renewal package

 

The Minister for the Marine, Dr Woods, is expected to defend the Government's failure to provide for commercial fishermen in the Budget by outlining plans for a fleet renewal package in the Dail today.

A scheme of tax-based incentives and EU-funded grant aid for new boats will be introduced in the new year as part of the Government's programme to encourage development in the industry and improve marine safety. The Department of the Marine has been working with Bord Iascaigh Mhara to design an attractive tax-based scheme, according to Department sources.

Commercial fishing representatives reacted angrily last week to the absence of any reference to the multi-million pound industry in the Budget. Renewal of the ageing whitefish fleet on safety grounds was one of Fianna Fail's main marine election promises.

Mr Joey Murrin, chief executive of the Killybegs Fishermen's Organisation, said the industry had been given very firm indications by the Department that the Minister for Finance, Mr McCreevy, would refer to incentives in his Budget speech.

The Irish South and West Fishermen's Organisation (IS&WFO) was also critical. Quoting from the Fianna Fail election campaign document on the marine, the IS&WFO said it was no wonder fishermen felt this Government's policies were "no different to that of any other administration".

The IS&WFO has proposed tax relief for the industry which would acknowledge its unique place in the economy by providing jobs in remote areas. It has proposed introducing tax credits for days at sea and tax relief on improvements to vessels.

As an example, the IS&WFO has pointed out that if a fishing vessel made £100 profit, and the owner decided to maintain and improve the vessel by re-engining and other works - costing a notional £100,000 - he or she would incur a tax liability of £34,000. It has said that under the current system it is necessary to keep reinvesting in older vessels.

EU restrictions on fleet size have thwarted development in the whitefish fleet in recent years but Ireland was given some leeway in the recent EU agreement on tonnage for 1997 to 2002. Some £3 million which had been earmarked for decommissioning vessels can now be diverted to fleet development and a pilot scheme to build four whitefish vessels is expected to be expanded.

This will be assisted by EU structural funds until 1999 and finance will then depend on structural fund availability, according to Department of Marine sources.

The fiscal incentives are expected to be announced in the context of the Finance Bill in February, and the capital grant aid scheme will be confirmed subject to EU approval "very shortly after", according to the Department.

The new EU agreement, known as MGP IV, also permits owners to make safety improvements without being penalised under vessel tonnage restrictions. This was an issue that arose after the loss of the Donegal fishing vessel, the Carrickatine, with all six crew on board in November, 1995.

Ironically, other EU member states have been busy gearing up in spite of the EU Fisheries Commissioner's efforts to stem expansion on conservation grounds.

Spain is to receive over £700 million in EU funds for upgrading its fleet and an "unknown sum" from structural and cohesion funds, according to a House of Lords debate in Britain last month.

The EU will pay over £600 million over a four-year period to 2000 for purchasing fishing rights in "third country" waters. Britain has paid about 14 per cent of this amount, Lord Pearson of Rannoch told the House of Lords, and "Spain has been the main beneficiary".