Ireland is ideally positioned to take advantage of a major opportunity presented by the massive projected growth in global fish consumption. According to the World Bank and the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation an additional 42 million tonnes of food will be required globally by the year 2030 as a result of population growth.
With quotas and natural constraints limiting the amount of wild catches available to meet this need the vast majority of the additional supply will have to come from sustainable fish farming. Sustainable fish farming when regulated and managed correctly, provides valuable employment, investment and revenue.
This increasing demand is particularly evident for farmed salmon. Even in mature markets like the EU consumption of farmed salmon is growing by 7 per cent annually and newer, previously untapped markets, such as Russia are showing even steeper increases of up to 27 per cent per annum according to research carried out by Pareto Securities. World production of farmed salmon now stands at two million tonnes per annum and market analysts predict that an increase of 50 per cent will be required by 2020.
This presents a major market opportunity for Ireland. Remarkably, despite our exceptionally good conditions for sustainable salmon farming, Ireland produces just 15,000 tonnes each year, the majority of which is organic farmed salmon as opposed to the 160,000 produced by Scotland and the 1.2 million tonnes by Norway.
However, Irish organic farmed salmon is a much sought after product in Europe, commanding on average a 50per cent premium on farmed salmon produced elsewhere.Indeed, the biggest single issue facing Irish producers at present is meeting demand for their output. Despite that, Bord Bia announced this month that the value of Irish seafood exports during 2012 rose by 18 per cent, or €75 million, to €493 million. This was, by far, the highest growth of all of the Irish food export categories.
It is against this background that the Government has identified and set specific targets with regard to our seas. The goal is to make our ocean wealth a key component of our economic recovery and sustainable growth, generating benefits for all our citizens.
The Harnessing our Ocean Wealth report published by the Government in July 2012 states: “There is significant scope to expand Ireland’s aquaculture industry, with increases expected from both conventional aquaculture and a new deep sea salmon farming initiative, amounting to a 78per cent increase in volume of production by 2020.”
The report also sets the target of increasing the turnover of our ocean economy to more than €6.4 billion by 2020 and subsequently doubling it to account for 2.4per cent of GDP by 2030. These are ambitious targets which will only be achieved with direct involvement by the State. Among the actions specified in the report is the examination and preparation of three suitable large-scale deep water sites for salmon farming. The report estimates that each such site could generate an extra €100 million in exports per annum and create 350 direct jobs with a further 150 indirect jobs in service sector supplying fish feed, netting, transportation and other services.
As the State agency responsible for the sustainable development of Ireland’s commercial sea fishing and aquaculture industries Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM ) is applying for a licence to farm Atlantic salmon at one such deepwater location off the west coast of Ireland off Inis Oírr, the southernmost Aran Island.
This €60 million deep sea project has the potential to generate annual expenditure on wages and salaries locally of some €14.5 million, creating the 500 jobs envisaged in the Harnessing our Ocean Wealth report in the process.
Some concerns and anxieties have been expressed in relation to this project, particularly by bodies representing sea and inshore anglers. These concerns centre on the impact such a large project could have on the marine environment and on stocks of wild salmon and trout. In particular, concern has been expressed regarding the impact of a potential transfer of sea lice from the farmed fish to the wild fish.
These fears while real are unfounded. In terms of the marine environment, the exposed nature of the proposed site and high levels of water exchange ensures there will be little or no build-up of wastes. In addition, any nutrients released into the water will very quickly be dispersed and diluted. This is confirmed both by the Environmental Impact Study carried out for the project and by Marine Institute data. It should also be noted that organic salmon farming means there is 99per cent water and 1per cent salmon in the enclosure – very low stocking densities which will further minimise any potential impact on the receiving environment.
On the sea lice issue, Marine Institute studies show that Irish salmon farming is having no negative effect on wild salmon. Despite this the Irish Government has adopted a precautionary approach to dealing with sea lice on salmon farms, by imposing strict sea lice controls on the Irish industry. The effectiveness of the National Sea lice Monitoring and Control Programme has resulted in the European Commission recently confirming that Irelands’ sea lice control system is the best in Europe.
Notwithstanding that and in order to ensure the highest levels of environmental and operational compliance, BIM intends to act as the licence holder and not operator for the new site. If we are successful in achieving the licence, it is our intention to hold it in trust for the State and bring in commercial developers to operate the fish farm. This approach will allow BIM to apply additional standards to the running of the Inis Oírr organic salmon farm, to exceed environmental and safety regulations and maximise returns to the local coastal economy in accordance with our mission to develop the Irish seafood industry and sustain coastal communities.
BIM has already engaged in widespread public consultation in an effort to make people aware of the proposed project, its nature and scale and also to explain the unique approach that is being taken to secure this opportunity to create jobs and wealth for the local economy. It is time now to move forward together to seize this huge opportunity for Ireland before it slips from our grasp the opportunity to create 500 jobs before it is taken up by our competitors in Britain and Scandinavia.