'Incompetence' from Government in the handling of Ireland's aquaculture industry is strangling its potential for creating jobs and generating huge export earnings. Without a solution, this green and most innovative of industries is in danger of sinking, according to Irish Independent.
A ham-fisted approach to the handling of Ireland's aquaculture industry is strangling its potential and costing both jobs and export earnings.
This is the harsh assessment of both fish farmers and processors involved in the sector, according to Richie Flynn of the Irish Farmers Association (IFA).
Fish farming currently employs 2,000 people directly and generates earnings of between €100 and €120 million annually. Close to 70 per cent of all produce is exported, with many companies having secured high-end markets in Britain and Continental Europe.
The general consensus is that both employment and output could be doubled if the correct support structures were put in place.
However, difficulties with the renewal of existing licences, along with the licensing of new sites and extensions to existing operations, have stifled investment.
More than 500 licence applications for aquaculture projects that have been lodged with the Department of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries have yet to be processed.
Worryingly, it appears that the majority of these applications are unlikely to be processed anytime soon.
Mr Flynn, who is aquaculture executive secretary with the IFA, is adamant that what he describes as a "bureaucratic nightmare" is costing jobs and export earnings.
The problems centre on the failure of Ireland to act on the provisions of the Natura 2000 Directive and EU Habitats Directive.
These specified that baseline studies had to be undertaken on all marine areas, both bays and inlets, which have been designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) or Special Protection Areas (SPA) for birds.
With 80 per cent of marine aquaculture projects located in designated bays, Ireland's failure to act on the EU directives is now proving a major threat to the continued operation of the industry, and is viewed as a roadblock to development.
Divisions between the departments of agriculture and environment over who should carry the cost of undertaking the baseline surveys have exacerbated the problems.
While the Department of Agriculture claims that "significant progress" has been made on the baseline analysis projects, Mr Flynn insists that no conservation objective studies have been completed to-date, apart from in a small number of bays.
Irish Independent reports Mr Flynn saying fish farmers are continually battling State departments who do not appear to understand the basic requirements of the sector.
A major investment drive for the fish farming sector was announced by the Department of Agriculture in July but it is now feared that much of the funds targeted for the sector will not be spent.
Under the initiative, €5 million in grant aid was earmarked for new projects but Mr Flynn claims that up to €4.5 million of this aid package will be left unused because grant aid cannot be accessed by projects in an SAC or SPA that do not have the appropriate environmental assessments undertaken.
"These assessments cannot be undertaken until the baseline studies are carried out by the NPWS. It's hard for fish farmers to claim they are meeting conservation objectives when the objectives have not been set," the IFA official explains.
"At least 200 jobs have been lost in fish farming businesses over the last three years and the opportunity to create up to 500 new jobs has been missed," Mr Flynn maintains.
Mr O'Neill has invested up to €4 million in the new facility, which will be one of the largest producers of the shellfish delicacy in the world, reports Irish Independent.
With fished stocks of abalone in sharp decline globally, Mr O'Neill's venture has real potential for expansion.
The existing plant has the capacity to generate an annual turnover of €2.5 million but Mr O'Neill believes there is market potential for at least double the current output.
While capital is in place for expansion, Mr O'Neill is struggling to get approval to harvest seaweed from a nearby site.
The Government has set ambitious targets for the fish farming sector. These goals are set out in the National Seafood Plan 2007-13, which was drawn up earlier this decade.
Total production of mussels in 2006 was 37,543 tonnes but the plan envisages increasing this to more than 60,000 tonnes by 2013. Similarly, the intention is to drive oyster output from 9,660 tonnes to over 16,400 tonnes.
The targets from finfish were even more challenging. Total output from farmed salmon, trout and other species is to treble, going from 12,726 tonnes to 35,300 tonnes.
However, the Department of Agriculture has now admitted that no grant aid will be forthcoming to salmon farms due to allegations that they are infecting wild stocks with sea lice.
"The minister supports the development of a sustainable salmon farming sector but concerns have arisen from a public and statutory consultation process with regard to the negative impact that sea lice emanating from salmon farms could be having on migratory wild salmonids," a Department statement says.
"To address these concerns, it has been decided that no financial assistance will be given to marine salmon aquaculture licence holders during the course of this National Plan until such time as the sea lice issue has been satisfactorily resolved," it adds.
Those involved in the sector reject the accusation and claim that it is another example of Government bowing to interest groups opposed to the sector.
Mr Flynn points to continued efforts by the Minister for the Environment to increase the number of bays and inlets that are designated as SACs.
Fish farmers argue that the manner in which their industry has been treated contradicts the stated Government objective of creating tens of thousands of jobs in the green industry, reports Irish Independent.
"Here you have an indigenous, sustainable industry that has shown innovation in the way it farms, that has developed markets for our natural produce, that is located in some of the most peripheral regions of the country and still Government departments appear to be doing their best to sink it," Mr Flynn insists.