Catch by NI fishing fleet ‘could double after Brexit’

The fishing fleet in Kilkeel has dropped from 120 boats to over 60 in the past 20 years
The fishing fleet in Kilkeel has dropped from 120 boats to over 60 in the past 20 years

Brexit could result in the resurgence of catches by the Northern Ireland fishing fleet to levels not seen in 20 years, an industry leader has predicted.

Dick James of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers Association made the estimate after the government announced it is withdrawing the UK from an arrangement that allows foreign countries to fish in British waters.

The London Fisheries Convention, which was signed in 1964 before the UK joined the European Union, allows vessels from France, Belgium, Germany, the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands to fish within six to 12 nautical miles of the UK’s coastline.

It sits alongside the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) which allows all European countries access between 12 and 200 nautical miles of the UK.

Mr James said that the UK should have exited both agreements by 2019.

“Brexit is about the UK asserting its sovereignty over coastal fishing rights out to 200 miles,” he said. “As we are now quitting the EU, these will no longer apply.

“Hopefully this will be good news. In the Irish Sea at present we have 40% of the fish but post-Brexit we expect 75% which is nearly doubling our catch.”

This should see somewhat of a resurgence in the Northern Ireland fleet while not changing the overall volume of fish taken from the Irish Sea, he said.

Over the past 20 years the Kilkeel fleet has dropped from 120 vessels to over 60, while the Portavogie fleet has dropped from 90 to over 40.

In 2017 UK fleets are expected to catch £29m of fish from the Irish Sea while non-UK fleets are expected to land twice that – £59m.

However, after Brexit Mr James expects somewhat of a reversal, with non-UK fleets to catch only £16m while UK fleets are projected to catch £39m.

DUP MEP Diane Dodds said the Northern Ireland fleet is “fed up with the command and control” approach to fishing from Brussels.

“Brexit will mean we will have responsibilty for our own stock management and will have better access to quotas,” she said.

At present 60% of Danish stock is landed from UK waters while 90% of cod taken in the English Channel is by the French, she added.

However, Brexit could pose serious problems for the Kilkeel fleet, Mr James said. About a third of its vessels are dependent on rich prawn fishing in the Bay of Dundalk, south of Carlingford, where they have fished for generations.

The withdrawal of the UK from the London Convention threatens access by Kilkeel vessels from fishing in the six to 12 miles offshore in the bay.

“We have to make the politicians aware of the risks we have in this very tricky process,” he said.

A legal challenge by southern mussel farmers has also seen Northern Ireland vessels banned from fishing closer to shore in the bay – up to six miles off the coast, he added.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP were invited to comment but had not replied.