Reports and strategies recently published at national (Harvest 2020, BIM Strategic Review), EU (CFP reform proposals, Communication on Aquaculture) and International levels (The World Bank, United Nations FAO) all emphasise the need to develop fish and shellfish farming to feed growing populations and demand, to balance the seafood deficit in the EU and to create jobs and exports in peripheral areas. Almost 70 per cent of all the seafood consumed in Europe is imported.
Ireland is one of the best-placed countries in the world to develop aquaculture and IFA, as the national representative organisation for producers of salmon, mussels, oysters and other farmed species has consistently advocated the strongest possible support for this sector. It is an indigenous, high-quality, labour intensive, export-driven industry with long experience, good marketing know-how and a positive image worldwide.
So why do IFA members have to turn away potential customers due to inability to guarantee consistent supply? Why can the industry not raise private capital to fund development? Why are small but individually valuable grants available throughout the EU to our rivals blocked to our members? Why have SMEs increased costs in administration yet in some cases not had their applications for development dealt with for over seven years?
These are the key issues for the Irish industry today. Resolving them will mean the difference between handing on a thriving industry to the next generation or watching it wither and die. Marine and freshwater farmers deal day-in and day-out with the realities of tough business and an unforgiving natural environment, but do so in their stride. It is when we look for support or breathing space from our own authorities that small companies hit a brick wall.
The reasons are many and complex from the chaos created by a disastrous decentralisation policy, on-going confusion and lack of understanding of industry needs to communication breakdown between departments a lack of focus on clearly defined targets for development and how to achieve them, an overly complex and muddled regulatory framework and ultimately a lack of respect right throughout the official system for the hard work, investment and challenges faced by the ordinary men and women in the sector.
There are notable exceptions, but not enough to change what is rapidly becoming a culture of neglect of a vital industry. IFA is in the solutions business and its voluntary aquaculture representative national committees for finfish (Irish Salmon Growers Association) and shellfish (Irish Shellfish Association) have made it crystal clear at political and official levels where the roadblocks to development lie and how they must be tackled:
- Focus must be addressed to ensuring a major shift towards better communication, rationalisation and reduction of cost to the taxpayer between all Departments and agencies tasked with overseeing the sector (last count, five Govt. Departments, eight state agencies and numerous local authorities to deal with a sector worth 120 at the farm gate);
- Assign dedicated case officers and deputies to each licence application on hand in the department as points of contact for applicants with clear guidelines and time limits set out for each step of the process. This must go hand in hand with a major drive to increase the basic knowledge of practical aquaculture production among those dealing with the sector.
- Remove unilateral decisions taken behind closed doors in the past 5 years without consultation such as the treatment of straight licence renewals, remove full Environmental Assessment or licence application review requirements for individual licence condition changes, remove demands for information which exceed national and EU law and remove restrictions on access to grant aid in NATURA 2000 areas. Before any new burden is placed on industry in future a full regulatory impact assessment must be carried out first.
- Reduce repetition and cost in paperwork and remove inefficiencies in monitoring, auditing, spot checks and reporting by having a single agency deal with regulation rather than a queue of officials demanding duplicate information on a monthly basis from family run SMEs;
- Both reform and properly resource the Aquaculture Licence Appeals Board to reflect its legal basis or find an agreed radical new form of public consultation;
- Assist producers with practical issues from raising capital based on longer-term licences (currently they only last up to three generations of stock 10 years) of tangible value to investors to using EU funds to assist in naturally occurring algal bloom or pollution incidents;
- Respect the right of aquaculture operators to grow their produce in clean waters by upgrading waste water treatment works upstream of shellfish and finfish farming;
- Assist and encourage marketing under national quality and environmental management schemes through Bord Bia promotion, improved enforcement of consumer labelling regulations and help displace foreign imports by encouraging more added value be created in Irish processing companies using Irish raw material.
- Focus R&D funding into practical science to promote self-sufficiency in juvenile production, improved growth and disease resistance, logistics, early warning systems for plankton and jellyfish, predator management, adaptation of technology to Irish conditions, etc.
- Use the wealth of environmental, health and industry date collected by the state in a positive promotion of the high standard of Irish aquaculture instead of leaving it to gather unused and inaccessible in a haphazard fashion.
It is only through a focus on these deliverables that Irish industry will prosper and coastal and rural areas create jobs and exports and look to the future with confidence.