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Exploiting our liquid asset

The sea is often seen as a barrier to trade but are we making the most of the resource represented by the ocean economy?

Jim O’Toole, chief executive of Bord Iascaigh Mhara: “Ireland’s seafood sector has many natural advantages, including access to some of the cleanest and most productive fishing grounds in the EU.”

Jim O’Toole, chief executive of Bord Iascaigh Mhara: “Ireland’s seafood sector has many natural advantages, including access to some of the cleanest and most productive fishing grounds in the EU.”


In 2017, the direct economic value of Ireland’s ocean economy was an estimated €1.97 billion, or about 1 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), with a turnover of €5.5 billion. Some 32,000 people are employed full-time in the industry.

The ocean economy grew at a faster pace than the general economy too, but there is still huge potential to grow and exploit this even further, industry experts say.

“Our ocean is a national asset, supporting a diverse marine economy, with vast potential to tap into a €1,200 billion global marine market for seafood, tourism, oil and gas, marine renewable energy, and new applications for health, medicine and technology. Our marine resources also provide essential non-commercial benefits such as amenity, biodiversity and our mild climate,” Dr Peter Heffernan, chief executive of the Marine Institute says.

Ireland’s integrated marine plan Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth sets out a roadmap for the Government’s vision, high-level goals and integrated actions across policy, governance and business to enable Ireland’s marine potential to be realised. One of those targets is to exceed €6.4 billion turnover annually by 2020 and double the contribution of the ocean economy to GDP to 2.4 per cent by 2030.

There are 13 sectors taken into account in the ocean economy, Dr Stephen Hynes, director of the Socio-Economic Marine Research Unit at the Whitaker Institute for Innovation and Societal Change at NUI Galway says.

These include established industries such as shipping and maritime transport, marine tourism, international cruise fishing and seafood processing. They also consider emerging sectors, many that will grow on the back of Brexit, including ship-leasing activity, insurance and ship brokerage.

“The Irish Maritime Development Office is really keen on developing that particular area as we have expertise there. The fact that we’re such a major player in aviation leasing, they think we could do really well on the back of Brexit and attract some of that business here,” Dr Hynes says.

As an island nation, shipping and maritime transport represents an essential part of the strategic infrastructure that allows the Irish economy to connect with the global marketplace, Heffernan says.

“The shipping and maritime transport sector has historically been the largest contributor to Ireland’s ocean economy in terms of turnover and gross value added. The sector comprises Irish sea-based transport operations for freight and passenger transport, as well as associated services, including those related to ship-leasing. Estimates suggest that the turnover generated by this sector in 2016 was €2.1 million, representing an increase in activity of over 9 per cent between 2014 and 2016,” he says.

The cruise industry also has huge potential and is not being fully exploited, according to Dr Hynes.

“We lack infrastructure in regard to ports – Cobh and Dublin are the only places that large cruise liners can berth. They come in to Galway Bay but passengers have to be shipped in and out and there are no facilities at the port for them,” he says.

Marine tourism is one of the larger sectors within the ocean economy – the Cliffs of Moher are the second biggest tourist attraction in Ireland and the clever marketing of the Wild Atlantic Way has also fed into this.

“There has been a huge jump in tourism generally – it’s the second biggest industry after shipping and maritime transport. Marine tourism and leisure is vital in terms of employment – it stands for about 50 per cent, Dr Hynes says.

Corrib coming online contributed to those strong figures between 2015 and 2017, but a number of Bills coming through the Dáil looking to limit the amount of offshore gas and oil extraction is not good for the industry and creates a level of uncertainty, he says.

On the west coast of Ireland, there has been a jump in the number of individuals returning to fishing as well as seaweed harvesting.

“This is a valve when there’s a downturn,” Dr Hynes says.

Fishing and seafood industry

The Irish seafood sector has experienced three years of consecutive growth since 2015 and its value exceeded €1 billion for the first time in 2017. Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) is working closely with the sector to drive innovation and competitiveness throughout the entire sector to drive further growth and opportunities, Jim O’Toole, chief executive of BIM says.

“Ireland’s seafood sector has many natural advantages, including access to some of the cleanest and most productive fishing grounds in the EU, as well as an internationally recognised commitment to sustainable fishing practices.

“Ireland’s seafood industry is a key natural resource. It contributes €1.15 billion to our economy, a figure which is showing year-on-year growth. It currently supports 14,000 jobs in fishing, farming, processing, distribution and sales. These jobs are mainly across rural coastal communities which depend heavily on the income and local employment. In Donegal alone, the sector accounts for 12 per cent of total coastal employment,” O’Toole says.

The Irish seafood sector has shown itself to be counter-cyclical, responding to international market dynamics, which have been trending positively for more than a decade. Figures for Irish seafood employment and sales value have been rising steadily since 2012.

In relation to aquaculture in Ireland, attitudes need to change, Dr Hynes says.

Norway produces 1.2 million tons of salmon each year, compared to only 20,000 tons in Ireland – and he says this is down to the Norwegians being “much more clued in and accepting of the industry”.

“A lot of rubbish is spoken about [FISH FARMS)]and it’s not based on fact. There are some environmental repercussions but we have come a long way in terms of how we manage fish farms and you will see them going further off shore in future, which will limit the opposition to them. However, we are way behind in what we could be doing. We want to see growth but it also has to be sustainable,” he says.

In terms of marine renewals, Ireland is sitting on some of the best resources in terms of offshore wind and wave in the world.

“There are test sites in Belmullet and Galway Bay but the technology is not there yet, and there are issues around anchoring – building them in the deep is difficult but now there are floating platforms that are proving successful for wind turbines. Where we are sitting on the globe in terms of wind and wave energy, is the best in the world.

“Finally, there is a lot going on in marine biotechnology – things like using enzymes and marine plants in medicine, cosmetics, biofuels, or plant fertilisers from seaweeds – this is a growing emerging sector.”

In terms of starting up within one of the sectors, there is a strong collaboration between Government, universities, business and State agencies to provide support to companies looking to establish themselves within one of these industries in Ireland.

“Business development is outlined as one of the enablers to support the vision and goals of Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth. Creating the right conditions for business, branding and building on Ireland’s reputation as a high-tech, innovative economy, are critical for harnessing our ocean wealth. These factors help to generate interest and stimulate investment by foreign and indigenous enterprises in established and emerging sectors,” Heffernan says.

A range of support services are provided to marine businesses and entrepreneurs through State agencies, including Bord Bia, Bord Iascaigh Mhara, Enterprise Ireland, Fáilte Ireland, IDA Ireland, Irish Maritime Development Office, Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, Trade Ireland, and Údarás na Gaeltachta.

“At a local level, support training and funding is available to start-ups and SMEs through local authorities and local enterprise offices as well as Leader programmes. There are also specific programmes aimed at creating new and sustainable sources of income for coastal communities being promoted, including establishing Fisheries Local Action Groups through the European Fisheries Fund,” Heffernan adds.

Overall, the seafood sector is now receiving more financial support than ever through the operation of the current European Maritime Fisheries Fund. The increased level of State investment is strengthening market confidence and driving greater levels of investment from the private sector.

BIM’s regional officers, located around the coast, provide hands-on business mentoring and support services including grant aid across fishing, farming, processing and sales.