Shannon Angered After Fisheries Minister Rejects Hardship Fund
STRANGFORD MP Jim Shannon has expressed his anger and frustration at Northern Ireland Fisheries Minister Michele O’Neill and claimed her actions decision is “unbelievable and untenable”, adding that the Minister has lost the confidence of the Northern Ireland fishing industry with her decision to reject the request for a hardship payments to local fishermen across the ports of Ardglass, Kilkeel and Portavogie.
Minister O’Neill has hit back explaining her fisheries’ policy position saying that she “strongly refutes” claims of indifference to the Northern Ireland fishing industry made by Mr Shannon.
There have been widespread calls for the Minister in recent months to bale out the fishing industry and Jim Shannon’s plea is another in the litany of frustrated appeals to the MInister for aid to the hard pressed fishermen.
Mr Shannon in a stinging criticism said: “ I find her response to the concerns raised by myself and Councillor Robert Adair is totally unacceptable. The Minister’s reply for a call for assistance by the fishing industry is at best one from someone who doesn’t understand the real issues facing the industry or at worst is from someone who simply doesn’t care.
“We contacted the Minister to relay to her the deep concerns of the County Down fishing sector who since September 2012 had not been able to go to sea due to the cold east wind which kept the entire fishing fleets in port. In her letter of response, which took her 9 ½ weeks to formulate, Minister O’Neill stated the difficulties had been in the first quarter of this year. How out of touch the Minister is – the weather has been bad since September 2012 – which is 7 months of bad weather.
“The fishing communities have been under immense pressure. The Minister has finally responded and what we can’t understand is the failure of Minister O’Neill to grasp the seriousness of the situation.
“Minister O’Neill did acknowledge extra quota achieved from Brussels and for that we are grateful, however, extra quota doesn’t translate into extra income if you can’t get to sea, and that has been to crux of the matter for 7-8 months. The demand for prawns is not there at present. Even in the sunny weather the boats are back in due to the winds. The market is depressed and at the same time the price of oil has risen. New requirements from DARD and EU for special nets, equipment and rising running costs for boats such as insurance have seen operating costs rise by a third .”
Mr Shannon also backed local fishermen’s organisation who had also written to the MInister back in March. A meeting was arranged with the First Minister who was very sympathetic and understood the issues. I also spoke with the Finance Minister Sammy Wilson and outlined the method of payment of Harbour Dues (including Water) Landing Dues and Light Dues. As the Minister for DARD played her Ministerial fiddle, our fishing fleets have been faced with ruin.
“Bank Managers insisted on meeting them to agree new structures of repayment and an industry has been brought to its knees which is all the more disheartening because it truly has the potential to thrive if the men were left alone to do what they do best.”
He also added that Diane Dodds MEP had been working on this issue with himself as well as independently and she too shared his frustration along with Michelle McIlveen MLA who has raised the matter at an adjournment debate at the Assembly. Mr Shannon said: “Even though the sunny weather is here, the bills that needed paid in January still need to be paid.
“Four years ago, former Fisheries Minister Gildernew announced hardship payment in difficult times. I have extended to the Minister O’Neill an invitation to come to Portavogie to see first-hand the problems and she has consistently refused to take up that offer – much to the anger, dismay and frustration at the inaction of the Minister – if she dressed up in a Santa Claus outfit she would still, I fear after speaking to fishermen in all three ports, not be welcome in any of the three fishing ports.
“A Minister who takes no time to talk with those she represents and who will not trouble herself to understand what is being relayed to her is certainly not being effective in her role and I understand much of the frustration that has been expressed to me. I understand why the fishermen have said to me ‘Bring us a DARD Minister that actually has a clue and cares – bring someone who listens and responds instead of waiting nine weeks for a sunny day in which to respond. This is just unbelievable and untenable.”
One Ardglass boat owner speaking to Down News said that he has seen an increasing difficulty across the fishing ports with vessels being port bound due to unusually bad weather and changes in water temperatures affecting prawn behaviour. He said: “This has been the worst winter I can remember in the industry in at least 30 years. I have seen it all – the good and the bad – and this is just awful. We have a good fleet in Ardglass and almost all of the fishermen had been trained up to the statutory levels needed with more training – we have done everything we can to meet the regulations including technical changes to our nets. Our young fishermen need to be given an incentive or they just may leave the industry for good.
“There has been a drop of our prawn catch… not surprising as we find it difficult to get to sea and get a good run at the fishing. We just can’t seem to get a break at all. I just don’t know where this will all end. It is a very dire situation. Fishermen tend not to be too vocal and they are a proud bunch. We do need some help soon as I fear some boat owners will just be forced to give up. I think the Fisheries Minister needs to keep a close eye on this situation before it blows up.”
O’Neill Answers Criticism from Strangford MP
Fisheries Minister Michelle O’Neill MLA has replied to Mr Shannon’s criticism and in her response said a number of efforts had been made to help the fishing industry including consideration for vessel decommissioning.
She said: “I strongly refute suggestions made that I am indifferent to the fishing industry. In my time as Minister I have engaged on many occasions with the fishing industry at Stormont, Brussels, fishing ports and other areas across the north. I have argued strongly on behalf of the industry for improved fishing opportunities based on robust scientific evidence. I have also sought to protect the industry from the worst impacts of the cod recovery plan. I will continue to work with the local industry to help it have a more profitable future based on sustainable fishing practices.
“I appreciate how the bad weather has impacted on local fleet. I know that vessels have had difficulty getting to sea over the last number of months and fishing incomes are down. But the fishing opportunities remain for 2013 – the quotas are still there to be caught and the days at sea remain to catch them. Although 2013 has got off to a bad start, the potential is this still there for a reasonable year’s fishing if not perhaps to the level of the last two years. There is significantly more Irish Sea and West of Scotland prawn quota available for the fleet to catch in 2013 and with the most productive part of the fishing year ahead it is expected that the fleet will make every effort to take these opportunities.”
The MInister added: “It is worth noting that comparisons are being made with fishing last year. The last two years have been relatively good years for the fleet, characterised by higher prices for prawns. In both 2011 and 2012 the value of prawn landings by the NI fleet were around £24m, £5m more than the value of landings in 2010.
“I have indicated that a hardship package is not justifiable at this time. I have already announced that my Department will be providing financial assistance to help the industry deal with the new challenges flowing from the reform of the Common Fisheries policy. Probably the most significant change that will affect everyday fishing operations is an obligation to land all fish – which will mean an end to discarding.
“I want to make sure that the local industry is well placed to address this challenge and I want to minimise the potential financial impact this could have on the local fleet. For that reason I am establishing a research and development fund to discover the very best technical solutions to avoid unwanted catches. There will also be financial help available to replace fishing gears.
“My Department will also be working with the industry to identify its skills and safety training needs as well as reviewing other important areas such as vessel operating efficiency, maintaining fish quality and handling and storage of fish on board vessels and on shore. There will be a range of financial help from the European Fisheries Fund to follow through on this programme. There are other grants available from the EFF to assist the industry to modernise vessels. Of the £2.5m available the Department has received just £750k in applications.
“My officials will also be in contact with the Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organisation in the near future to arrange a meeting to explore the issues surrounding discard reduction as well as the potential for vessel decommissioning.” said Minister O’Neill.
See related article on 20 May 2013 in Down News: