I warmly welcome this opportunity to address the House on the key issues affecting the fishing sector. It is fair to say that the industry has endured difficult times of late, which were brought to crisis level earlier this year by the impact of high fuel prices. Notwithstanding the considerable easing in oil costs, fishing is as vulnerable as other sectors of the economy to the impact of the present global financial and economic situation.
However, I am optimistic for the future of the fisheries sector because I firmly believe that the fundamentals of the industry remain sound. The demand for seafood continues to rise, albeit at a time when there are restrictions on supply. We must also realise that the reason for quota restrictions is to allow fish stocks to rebuild, thereby ensuring a sustainable supply of fish for future generations. Another reason for my optimism is the quality and character of the people involved in this sector. They are resilient and innovative and have proved their ability to adapt to change and make difficult choices for the betterment of their industry. These attributes are as important for the future development of the sector as any economic fundamentals.
I do not underestimate the nature of the challenge facing us at present. It is complex and will not be solved by a single magic bullet. Higher levels of co-operation will be required across the full spectrum of the fisheries sector, from catching to marketing and processing. We have to develop a shared understanding of the key market forces that impact on the sector and engage in more joined up thinking to identify and maximise new opportunities while consolidating current best practice.
We have entered an economic era which only some of us can claim to have previously experienced. Younger members of society have only known good economic times but we have triumphed over harsh economic climates before and we will do so again. I previously spoke about our good fortune in having already developed a strategic blueprint for the fisheries sector in the 21st century in the report of the seafood strategy review group, Steering a New Course, otherwise known as the Cawley report. This road map is more important now than ever because it puts us in a strong position in that we are already transforming the sector and delivering on a sustainable, profitable and self-reliant industry. I pay tribute to my predecessors who were involved in delivering this strategy and those in the industry who played a role in agreeing the joint position. It is imperative that we continue to implement the strategy's recommendations and get agreement from all stakeholders in this endeavour.
I turn to the quotas which underpin the fisheries sector. The poor state of many whitefish stocks targeted by the Irish fishing fleet is clearly reflected in the decreases in annual total allowable catch, TAG, the quota allocations that Ireland receives and the landings of the fishing fleet in the past decade. The levels of TAG and, ultimately, the quotas for Ireland are determined each year at the December meeting of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council following negotiations with member states. The process for 2009 has begun in earnest with the publication of the Commission's proposals, which will be subject to detailed and protracted discussions in the coming weeks. In summary, the proposal as set out is bad news for many of our fleet's economically important stocks.
There is good news with regard to mackerel, in respect of which agreement was reached at the coastal states meeting in London on 30 and 31 October. The overall TAG for mackerel will increase by 33% from 456,000 tonnes in 2008 to 605,000 tonnes in 2009. This will result in the net Irish quota, after deductions for the payback for undeclared Scottish landings, going from approximately 45,000 tonnes to 62,000 tonnes. This significant increase is the reward for Irish fishermen adopting responsible fishing practices for the stock. In value terms, using an estimated price per tonne of €1,200 this results in an increase of over €20 million to the pelagic fishing sector in 2009, from €54 million to €74.4 million. Prices of up to €1,500 are being offered in Norway at present.
Notwithstanding the good news story on mackerel, I am concerned about the socio-economic impact of the cuts proposed for whitefish stocks. Coming as they do on top of possible effort restrictions as part of a new cod recovery plan, these cuts will make for testing times for fishermen. I assure the House that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I are actively engaged alongside our officials in delivering the best possible deal for Ireland. A lot of late nights and long days will be endured in the forthcoming negotiations before a final settlement is reached.
In February 2008, the former Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Browne, acted on a central recommendation from the Cawley report after receiving state aid approval by the European Commission by launching a scheme to permanently withdraw capacity from the whitefish sector of the Irish fishing fleet. The 2008 decommissioning scheme, which is administered by Bord lascaigh Mhara, complements the earlier successful 2005-06 decommissioning programme. To date, of the 57 vessels that were approved and offered decommissioning grants, 39 vessels have accepted and a further six have until 19 November to accept. The 39 vessels that are permanently exiting the whitefish fleet account for 6,332 gross tonnes. With an average size of 165 gross tonnes per vessel, these boats represent 57% of the overall target set for the scheme and are additional to the 27 whitefish boats already decommissioned in 2005-06.
Overall, a total of 72 whitefish fleet vessels of longer than 18 metres will have been decommissioned since 2005 at a total cost of €47.9 million. This represents 70% of the original gross tonnage target set out in the Cawley report. The result of this decommissioning will be a significant boost to the economics of the boats that remain in the fleet. This economic lift comes from the redistribution of the whitefish and prawn catch previously taken by the vessels being decommissioned, which is currently estimated at €22 million. Over the next five years, this will result in up to €110 million worth of additional catch opportunities for the remaining boats.
Decommissioning is primarily intended to benefit the owners and skippers who remain in the fleet rather than those who leave and I am confident they will see the benefit of this policy. The downwards shift in our whitefish fleet fishing capacity will help offset quota reductions and effort restrictions and will deliver an efficient, effective and viable fishing fleet capable of supporting a vibrant coastal community in the future.
The European Commission's proposals for a new cod recovery plan are of key importance to Irish fishermen. The current plan has been with us since 2004 and combines effort restrictions and quota reductions with technical measures and other management arrangements in an effort to improve and rebuild stock levels to support sustainable fisheries. Unfortunately, scientific assessments have shown that the measures adopted in 2004 have not yielded the desired results and cod stocks in the Irish Sea and off the north-west coast remain seriously over-exploited. The new proposals aim at strengthening the recovery plan for these cod stocks. In addition, the proposals include the Celtic Sea cod fishery for the first time.
The Celtic Sea has rich fishing grounds which allow us to harvest many of our whitefish quotas. The new management practices, in particular those which aim to reduce fishing efforts, will reduce the time a fishing vessel may spend at sea in the area. While Ireland has argued against effort restrictions in terms of limits on time at sea for the recovery of the Celtic Sea cod stock and considers that other means would deliver recovery of this stock, it appears likely that the Council will press ahead with the inclusion of the Celtic Sea cod fishery in the plan. On this basis we are seeking to tailor the plan for the Celtic Sea and, indeed, for the other fisheries in the Irish Sea and the north west to best suit the position of the Irish fleet and reduce as far as possible the negative impacts on the fleet generally. Last week, the Minister and I held discussions with industry representatives on issues and possible changes that would reduce the impacts for fleets not targeting cod. We will continue to liaise closely with the Federation of Irish Fishermen, FIF, during Council discussions on this important topic next week.
The months of October, November and December are of key importance to fisheries, not just because the December Fisheries Council sets the overall TACs and quotas for 2009 but because it is also the time when crucially important fisheries agreements with non-EU countries are negotiated and concluded. I refer to the multilateral coastal states agreements on the management arrangements for 2009 of blue whiting, Atlanto-Scandian herring and mackerel stocks in the north-east Atlantic. These negotiations between the European Community, Norway, Faroe Islands and Iceland were conducted over a two-week period in London and concluded on 31 October. Agreement was reached on new arrangements for mackerel, which resulted in a significant increase in quota for 2009. However, agreement could not be reached on blue whiting or Atlanto-Scandian herring and these have been referred to the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission negotiations being conducted in London this week. Some progress has been made.
Bilateral agreements remain to be negotiated for 2009. The most important of these is between the EU and Norway, which is conducted over two rounds. The first focused on mainly technical issues such as control and conservation measures and was held in Bergen, Norway, on 3-8 November. The second, which will focus the setting of TACs, access arrangements and the balancing of inter-party transfers, will be conducted in Brussels on 24-28 November.
In my opening remarks I referred to the impact that high fuel prices had on the Irish fleet. Recent developments in the global fuel market have resulted in cheaper fuel and a subsequent easing of the pressures on our fishermen. The crisis highlighted areas within our fleet that needed further attention. I am conscious that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Smith, addressed this House in July and gave full details of the position at that time so I wish only to give a brief update on the emergency aid package.
Ireland submitted a detailed, costed set of proposals to the European Commission on 12 September. In keeping with our previous stance on the matter, and supported by the Commission's policy document of 8 July, these proposals sought additional EU funding of €32 million to support the restructuring of the fishing fleet in line with the provisions of EU Regulation 744/2008, instituting a temporary specific action aiming to promote the restructuring of the European Community fishing fleets affected by the high fuel prices. We are actively pursuing the case at Council and Commission level.
The Irish plan was the subject of a lengthy bilateral meeting at official level with the European Commission in Brussels on 30 September. At that meeting the current situation of the Irish fishing industry was outlined to the Commission and it was made clear that the plan cannot be implemented unless the Commission secures and allocates the necessary funding to Ireland. I also raised the matter at the September Fisheries Council and pressed for Commission proposals to enable the implementation of the plan in Ireland at an early date. The Commission's stated position is for member states to re-engineer their fisheries operational programmes to give priority to the new measures catered for in the emergency package. This is not an option for Ireland as we have already committed €32 million of our total EFF allocation to the current decommissioning scheme which does not allow for any further flexibility with the remaining measures proposed. We will continue to push Ireland's case over the coming period with a view to the Commission bringing forward firm proposals to provide additional funds that will enable the full implementation of the plan.
Ireland's operational programme for fisheries which was the subject of much debate and correspondence. I am happy to say that the Commission formally adopted the Irish operational programme in its decision of 9 September. The first meeting of the monitoring committee for the operational programme will take place on 2 December. BIM will be the implementing body for the roll-out of the measures contained in the operational programme.
As one of the few indigenous industries, aquaculture is of major significance to the Irish economy due mainly to the contribution made by the sector in the creation of jobs and wealth. In recognition of this fact, €5 million has been made available in the 2009 Estimates for aquaculture development support. This continued support in times of financial restraint demonstrates the Government's commitment to the sector.
In the context of the Cawley report, Steering a New Course, the main objectives for the Irish aquaculture industry are the development and expansion of the sector within the context of clearly defined national planning policies, output targets, environmental standards and codes of best practice for production methods and fish health. Aquaculture is regulated in accordance with the provisions of the Fisheries (Amendment) Act 1997. Licences, of which there are 700, are granted only following full consideration of the likely environmental effects of the proposed operations and are granted subject to specified terms and conditions. There is a substantial backlog in licence applications at present. This is due in large measure to the fact that many of the existing licences were granted for a period of ten years on foot of the Fisheries (Amendment) Act 1997 and therefore fall due for renewal at present. In addition, many of the outstanding aquaculture licence applications are located in Natura 2000 sites.
The Department is working actively with the national parks and wildlife service of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the European Commission to develop proposals acceptable to the European Commission to enable these aquaculture licences to be renewed in compliance with the habitats and birds directives. A sum of €1.4 million has been set aside in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Vote for 2009 to assist environmental compliance activities for aquaculture and sea fishing activities in Natura 2000 sites.
Looking to the medium to long-term priorities for fisheries, the review of the Common Fisheries Policy will be foremost in my and the officials' agenda. The Common Fisheries Policy is the fisheries policy of the European Union which was first put in place in 1983 and has been, subject to ten yearly reviews, the most recent in 2002 and the next formally provided for in 2012. It has been acknowledged across EU member states that further reform of the CFP is necessary. In this context, an approach similar to that for agriculture involving a health check of the policy is now planned.
The Commission's documents were published on 17 September with other member states, notably France, putting their own discussion papers forward for review and comment. The issue was also the subject of detailed discussions at an informal meeting of agriculture and fisheries Ministers on 29 September in Brussels. Ireland wants to influence the agenda and will continue to be active in our attempts to shape the direction of this review. We wish to provide for and promote the interests of our catching sectors, which are very important to the protection of the livelihoods of the coastal communities.
It is fair to say that the last reform of the CFP was instrumental in the introduction of measures that have resulted in significant improvements in the sustainable management of our fisheries. The new CFP must continue and build on the achievements made. It is clear to me that with respect to the debate on the future review on the CFP, we should instigate change only where it is clear that the change will bring about improvements to the current policy. Change for the sake of change is not a solution. I do not underestimate the challenges we face in this review process in the face of what is a negative opening assessment from the Commission of the current state of play. Full recognition of programmes such as Ireland's programme to right size the fleet and their impacts on the balance between catching capacity and fishing resources is not evident.
For Ireland, the priority is to have a strong, sustainable and profitable seafood industry that supports fishing activities and related economic activity in our coastal communities. These communities have traditionally been based on fishing activity and without a community-linked catching sector we believe that these communities will wither and die.
We are committed to the new review process and without doubt there is a need for the simplification of the policies but more importantly any new policy must engage and have the support of stakeholders on the ground. They must believe that it is fair and equitable and that the rules in place are equally applicable to all operators. I refer to a recurrent theme — we must have a level playing field on control. Therefore, we will not be supporting a policy for the fishing fleet that promotes internationalisation and the concentration of activity and the benefits in the hands of a small number of large companies. We believe that this is not in the best interests of our fishermen or of our fisheries. I refer to specific areas of key importance to Ireland, which will become part of the overall review.
In respect of access to the 12-mile nautical zone, Ireland's position has consistently been that opening up access is not an option. Indeed we are of the opinion that the coastal limits should be extended further with preferential access for the coastal state to support the local coastal communities which are dependent on fishing. However, we must recognise that this would be a considerable challenge to deliver. We feel strongly that resources for fleet management measures should be targeted at member states who are willing to reduce fleet size. In this regard, we are strongly of the view that the Commission must make available additional EU funds to support the introduction of the emergency fuel package for countries such as Ireland which has already used up its EFF allocation on decommissioning of fishing vessels. Regarding fisheries management, we are in full agreement with the need to simplify the decision making process and, while welcoming the earlier provision of scientific data for TACs and quotas, we feel strongly that we need to be able to move towards incentives for fishermen and real time decision making to reduce and eliminate discarding of fish.
With regard to the debate on allocating fishing opportunities, I want to be blunt. Ireland is completely opposed to the concept of market-based individual transferable quotas as we believe it would result in the economic and social destruction of small Irish coastal communities. We are not convinced at present that there is any other equitable and workable system other than the present TAC and quota system. We do not support the establishment of a European fleet that would have open access to all waters, where fishing rights can be purchased and all links to the traditional coastal communities are severed. It is our position that quotas and their management must be retained under national competence. Undoubtedly, this is a major issue for all of Europe and we are committed to working closely with stakeholders, our member state colleagues and the Commission to strengthen the current policy for the betterment of fisheries as a whole.
I started this address by saying I am optimistic but I am also realistic. I acknowledge that the fishing sector is undergoing change, some of which is enforced by factors over which we do not have full control. However, most of the change is generated from within, to deliver an industry that can sustain the impacts of unknown global forces. Collectively we are delivering an industry that is market-focused, efficient and effective. The Irish fishing sector of the future will be environmentally sustainable, will be profitable and flexible in its ability to face future challenges. Time stands still for no man or industry. I was taken by the headline in the most recent Marine Times, “Golden Opportunity to Effect Change?” We are at those crossroads now. My optimism for the future is based on the real collective efforts being undertaken to deliver on a joint vision for the future of the Irish fishing industry in particular.
I have visited a number of areas which I hope to deal with when replying to the debate. I am sure Members will raise points to which I will need to respond.