It is striking that the policy of protecting Irish industry, which Éamon de Valera's Fianna Fáil was implementing in 1933 coincided with the ending of Prohibition in the United States, but by the early 1960s, the Irish whiskey (see bottom of page) and fisheries industries were struggling and both were insignificant exporters. Today there is resentment in fishing communities about European Union (EU) quotas and conservation measures (including a requirement to land all fish caught) while there is also an enduring myth that other European countries are having a free fish lunch at Ireland's expense.


In the period 1973-2013, the fish landings in tonnes by Irish vessels over 10m in length more than doubled. Based on one estimate of the 1973 data, the landings in the record year of 1995 were five times the level in the initial year of membership of the then European Economic Community (ECC).     

According to a 1970 Department of Agriculture report, which was produced in advance of Ireland joining the then EEC in 1973, Irish exports of fish and fishery products in 1968 were valued at £2.7m — less than 1% of total exports in that year — of which £1.3m was consigned to EEC countries and £1.2m to the UK Imports in 1968 were valued at £1.5m of which nearly £0.7m came from the UK mainly as fish fingers and smoked fish.

The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) said in a 1980 report:

The development of the Irish sea fisheries in the post-war period is evident from the figures for landings of wet fish (excluding salmon) which were only 8,700 tonnes in 1938, compared with 20,000 tonnes in 1963.

While caution is required with the statistics, there was a big jump to 92,000 tonnes in 1972 (see below where the Sea Around Us Project estimate in that year was 78,500) compared with 1.4m in Denmark (ex Greenland) — a similar small country with a reliance on food production.

The numbers employed were significant for coastal communities but not on a national scale. In 1963, 5,588 people were employed: 1,666 (30%) were engaged wholly in sea fishing and 3,922 (70%) were engaged part time. By 1969, the number of full-time sea fishermen had increased by 9% to 1,821, and the number of part-time fishermen had declined by about 3% to 3,810. Total employment in the industry was at 6,800 according to the ESRI.

In recent times, employment has fallen from 15,000 in 1997 to 11,000 (including part-time workers) in the industry: 5,000 in fishing; 1,700 in aquaculture; 2,900 in processing and the rest in ancillary activities (excluding distribution) according to Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM - Sea Fisheries Board).

The value of Irish seafood exports in 2014 was €533m — 2.9% of indigenous tradeable exports in the year and 0.26% of total headline exports. Overall, the total sales of seafood both export and on the home market amounted to about €845m.

Trade statistics show that export volume was at 259,120 tonnes and the top export markets for Irish seafood in terms of value were France (€124m), Spain (€60m), UK (€56m), Nigeria (€53m) and Italy (€30m).

UK Trade and Investment reports that Ireland imported €235m worth of seafood in 2014, which amounted to 68,151 tonnes. Its most popular seafood imports in terms of value were tunas, skipjacks and Atlantic bonito, whole or in pieces; other fish, fresh or chilled; salmon; herrings, sardines, sardinella, brislings or sprats, fresh or chilled (excluding livers and roes); crustaceans, prepared or preserved. The top import markets for the Irish market in terms of value are the UK (€145.1m), France (€18.2m), Germany (€16.7m), Denmark (€9.52m) and Netherlands (€5.5m).

The European Commission says that the Irish seafood processing industry is comprised of mostly small enterprises with less than 10 employees.

Indigenous processing is about 5% of total catch in Irish waters and an estimated 80% of exports are commodity traded.

The companies in the sector are dominated by family owned firms and there are 180 registered seafood companies with processing facilities in Ireland according to BIM.

A large proportion of this number are small scale firms with a turnover ranging from €3m to €10m. In addition there is a significant number of artisanal scale operations supplying dispersed local markets such as shops and restaurants. This contrasts with a typical European competitor with a turnover in the order of €50m. Compounding the lack of scale is our geographic position on the periphery of mainland Europe.

Ireland has only two firms with revenues of over €50m.

Denmark with a population of 5.6m compared with Ireland's 4.6m, has a food industry with a high level of innovation and while catches by local vessels have fallen in recent decades, it is the fifth largest exporter of fish and fish products in the world, according to a European Parliament report. Fish related exports including fish meal and fish oil, amounted to about €3bn in 2014 — almost 4% of goods exports and the total food category accounted for 19%. The value of Food, Beverages & Tobacco exports in 2014 was €15.5bn in Denmark and €10.5bn in Ireland.

According to the 2013 annual report of the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA), in 2013 Irish vessels were responsible for fish landings of 203,000 tonnes, with a value of €212m. The total landed volume was 280,000 and the value was €302m.

Total landings in 2014 amounted to 294,383 — a breakdown of landings by nationality of the vessel registration will not be available until early 2016 when the 2014 annual report will be published. There were 2,114 Irish registered fishing vessels in 2014 and Killybegs and Castletownbere (Castletown Berehaven) are the chief fishing ports in the country.

Common Fisheries Policy

Ireland, EU, EEC, fishing, fisheries, 1973The genesis of what would become an EEC Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) with access of all member states to EEC fishing grounds,  was in the late 1960s with the expected accession of the UK, Denmark, Norway (proposed membership was rejected in a referendum in 1972) and Ireland, in 1973, significantly expanding the EEC's fishing resources. The CFP was launched in 1983,

A 10-year period was agreed in which the accession countries could reserve existing six nautical mile fishing limits exclusively for vessels which traditionally fished in those waters and which operated from local ports.

For part of 1970, Ireland had no ship available to protect its fishing grounds. In 1976 when the EEC followed Iceland in declaring a 200 mile fishing limit, it gave funds to Ireland to commission 3 new protection vessels.

Ireland had no deep sea fishing fleet at the time.

The Sea Around Us Project, based at the University of British Columbia, reconstructed data for Irish waters from 1950 to 2010 that debunks the myth that Ireland sold or lost out on Irish fish catches to other EU after joining the EEC in 1973.

The project's ‘reconstructed data’ are a combination of official reported data and reconstructed estimates of unreported data (including major discards).

Discarding — the practice of throwing unwanted fish overboard, was estimated at 23% of total catches in 2013, according to the European Commission

Ireland accounted for 28% of the catch in Irish waters (as defined in 1976) in 1973 and it was Norway, a non-EEC/EU member but with access to the internal market, that with Ireland accounted for the main shares from that time.

The Irish catch peaked at 407,000 tonnes in 1995 which gave Ireland a 59% share; Norway peaked at 459,000 tonnes in 2005 giving Ireland a 31% share and in 2010 Ireland had a 60% share with at 260,000 tonnes and Norway was down to 135,000.

The narrative of Ireland being a victim is not borne out by the data.

We started at a low base but there was a jump in fish landings; there was mostly continuous growth in 1980-1995 and likely overfishing as well. Fishermen and farmers got EU funds and Ireland has yet to pay a net penny or cent to the EU budget.

It's foolish to argue that we should have had exclusive use of the 200 mile zone and every other country with a coastline the same entitlement.

This would have created a boom and bust situation in Ireland as unlike the Danes, we would not have had the gumption to establish a sustainable indigenous processing sector that would have also required access to dependable import supplies.

As we noted above, most Irish seafood exports are commodity traded not processed products

The European Commission will give €147.6m to the Irish fishing industry in 2014-2020. The Irish Government is providing an additional €94m in co-funding, meaning there’s a total of over €241m available.

Irish fishing industry, EEC, EU, quotas

Click for interactive chart

Fish consumption

In the past, Irish Catholics ate fish on a Friday as a penance in compliance with an ancient custom and apart from the religious aspect, in  West Cork at least, eating fish was also a penance as there was little culinary innovation.

In 1966 Pope Paul VI gave the bishops in each country discretion on applying the ban on eating meat. Over time the change boosted the demand for fish as did issues like health.

The 1980 ESRI report cited above notes on the level of consumption:

Even though fish consumption has increased over the years, Ireland is still one of the lowest fish consuming nations in the EEC. In the year 1962/63, Ireland had a per capita consumption figure for fish of only 5.3 kg (live weight) ; the next lowest consumer was the Netherlands, where ,consumption was 10.1 kg per head. The country with the largest consumption of fish in 1962/63 was Denmark, which stood at 28 kg per person. By 1976, Ireland had increased its consumption of fish to 12.4 kg per capita. Only four other countries, the Netherlands, France and Luxembourg/Belgium, experienced any sustained increase in consumption between 1962 and 1976. In the latter year, Denmark was still top of the league, though consumption had dropped from 37.8 kg in 1971 to 26.0 kg. Between 1962/63 and 1976, consumption per capita in Germany fell from 10.9 kg to 10.2 kg, and it was the lowest per capita fish consuming country in the EEC in 1976. Consumption of fish in Italy remained more or less constant over the period at 11.7 kg, and, in the United Kingdom, per capita consumption fell from 19.1 kg in 1962/63 to 18.1 kg in 1976.

In 2007 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) published research by economists at the Centre for the Economics and Management of Aquatic Resources, Portsmouth, England, and data on consumption per capita in 28 European countries, including forecasts to 2030 which show Ireland's consumption at about 21 kg per capita and comparable with the UK, Sweden and Denmark. France was a third higher; Spain double the rate; Norway at more than double,  and Portugal is at three times.

The Department of Agriculture said in 2011 that the "amount of seafood produced within the European Union, to meet local market demand, has declined substantially over the last two decades. In the 1990’s, imports accounted for approximately 40% of demand, whereas today that figure is closer to 65% and is showing no sign of falling."

In recent years Eurostat, the EU's statistics office, has stopped publishing meat consumption per capita statistics because of issues about reliability. Should the comparison be ready to cook meat weight? How to estimate the number of vegetarians etc.?

Ireland's national statistics last published data in respect of 2011 which show a consumption per capita total of 77.5 kg compared with 93.1 in 2001.

This is a comparison from 2007 which showed a per capita total of 125.4 kg for the US (Luxembourg should be ignored as part of its workforce lives outside its borders).

The FAO says that with a growing human population worldwide, the demand for fish and fish products will increase even if the per capita consumption remains at the present world average level of almost 19 kg/year — one third the level of meat. Capture fisheries production has, in general, levelled off. The increasing demand for fish products will drive improved utilization of present resources, which could reduce wastage and divert more fish into food and less to feed. However, the growing demand for fish will, in practice, mainly be met by increased production from aquaculture, thus, also driving the demand for feed.

The Famine

Why Irish people died of starvation in coastal communities of for example West Cork, during the Potato Famine of the 1840s, is often raised, and in her acclaimed 1962 book 'The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849,' Cecil Blanche Woodham-Smith (née Fitzgerald), the Anglo-Irish historian, wrote: 

The primitive boats and curraghs in which the Irish fished, combined with the hazards of the 'tremendous coast', made regular fishing difficult; the Irish fisherman could never go out in bad weather, and was often kept on shore for weeks at a time. He then depended for food on his potatoes — though the seas might be teeming with fish, they were inaccessible to him. The difficulties which had prevented a fishing industry from developing in Ireland remained; the poverty of the county, the want of proper boats, the remoteness from a market, the dangers of the 'tremendous coast' in the west. In many places trawling was declared to be impossible, owing to the rocky and foul nature of the sea bottom; in others for part of the season the fishermen had to row twenty-five miles to the fishing grounds; the weather was unreliable, and small boats, curraghs especially, laden with their catch were difficult to bring in when a squall blew up. Fish-curing stations could not operate economically when the supply of fish was not regular, nor did it prove easy to dispose of finished product; a number of stations had cured fish left on their hands.

The winter of 1846/47 was very severe in Ireland and across Europe.

Low priority pre-EEC/ EU membership

Finally, these are the comments of two wise men on the attitude to the industry prior to 1973:

Arthur Griffith, the first leader of independent Ireland as head of the provisional government in 1922, had remarked in 1911:

We dare say the number of public men in Ireland who realise that the sea fisheries of this country could be an industry second only to agriculture might be counted on one hand.

Tim Pat Coogan, the historian and last editor of The Irish Press, in 2009 recounted a conversation that he had with the then fisheries minister in the 1960s:

...a more fundamental cause goes back to that conversation I had with Brian Lenihan (the present finance minister's  father) back in the 60s when Ireland was planning to enter the European Economic Community ( EEC) as it was then known. The conversation occurred during an interview I was conducting with the junior minister — that status should have given me a clue — on the prospects for developing the vast untapped fisheries potential of the Irish coastline. Brian, a pleasant man, interrupted me suddenly to ask “Tim Pat! Do you know how many whole time and part time farmers there are in this country?” I did not know exactly but he rattled off the answer correct to a decimal point (around a quarter million, as I remember). Then he asked me did I know how many whole time and part time fishermen there were in the country. “including lobster men, currachmen, and the teacher who goes out in the summer night with a net after a few salmon?” Again I could not reply with certainty but Brian could again answer with pin point accuracy, something just over 9,000 as I recall. “That,” he continued, “would hardly elect one Fianna Fáil TD on the first count in a five seater. Now do you get me?”

Marine Institute map second edition

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Pic on top from a Bord Iascaigh Mhara video of fishing off the west coast of Ireland.

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'Muintir na Mara' — the sea people of County Kerry (English language subtitles)


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