Fisheries in Ireland at time of EEC Accession
29 Sep 2009
Author: Etain Doyle
This note reviews key data from the time of accession which shows the relative importance and development level of fisheries at the time as compared with the agriculture sector, the key sector to benefit initially from EEC membership.
It shows how limited the fisheries sector was, and concludes that staying out of the EEC on the basis that we could have done better outside it is not supported by the facts.
2. The examination of the accession negotiations and the myths surrounding fisheries and how they gained currency is outside the scope of this note, as is an account of the very significant benefits Ireland did gain for fisheries within the EEC, under the initial accession terms and in particular under The Hague Council agreement of 1976.
The EEC Context
Firstly, the EEC involvement in fisheries was quite new when we joined the EEC in 1973
‘The first common measures in the fishing sector date from 1970, when it was agreed that, in principle, EU fishermen should have equal access to Member States' waters. However, in order to ensure that smaller vessels could continue to fish close to their home ports, a coastal band was reserved for local fishermen who have traditionally fished these areas. Measures were also adopted for a common market in fisheries products. A structural policy was set up to coordinate the modernisation of fishing vessels and on-shore installations.
All these measures became more significant when, in 1976, Member States extended their rights to marine resources from 12 to 200 miles from their coasts, in line with international developments. Member States also decided that the European Union was best placed to manage fisheries in the waters under their jurisdiction and to defend their interests in international negotiations. After years of difficult negotiations the CFP was born in 1983. Two decades later, the policy underwent a radical reform. The 2002 reform of the CFP aimed at ensuring the sustainable development of fishing activities from an environmental, economic and social point of view. It also aimed to improve the basis of the decision-making process through sound and transparent scientific advice and increased participation of stakeholders. Coherence with other EU policies such as environmental and development policies was an important element, as were accountability and effectiveness.’
4 In the Accession negotiations for Ireland, UK and Denmark it was agreed that the 3 new member states would be entitled to reserve a 6 mile zone for vessels which had traditionally fished in the waters and which operated from ports in that geographic location for a period of 10 years, with a review at the end of that period. The current position is noted on the DFA website - http://www.eumatters.ie/Ireland-and-the-EU/Fisheries.aspx
‘Access to Ireland’s six-mile coastal zone is confined to Irish registered fishing vessels and vessels from Northern Ireland. In the six to twelve mile coastal zone, access is limited to Irish vessels and vessels of other Member States that traditionally fish in these waters going back to the period between 1953 and 1962.’
The Irish Fisheries Sector in 1970
Secondly, the protection of inshore waters referred to above generally matched the Irish fishing fleet’s current capability as it was a small inshore fleet. As noted in an expert study on Irish Agriculture and Fisheries in the EEC published in April 1970, which inter alia reviewed proposals for the common fisheries measures, ‘the opening up of the waters of Member States would be of little benefit to Ireland in the foreseeable future as Irish vessels, because of their size and the general pattern of fishing, would be unlikely to avail themselves of it, except perhaps on the west coast of Britain.’ A decade later, after the fleet had been upgraded significantly, an ESRI study noted ‘much of the Irish fleet consists of inshore and middle distance trawlers.....’ but also noted that the boat size in the fleets of other countries were bigger again.
6 The 1970 study noted that if fishing vessels of all member states were given equal access to the exclusive fishing grounds of other member states and be allowed to land in any port, there could be serious problems for Ireland, creating serious competition for Irish fishermen and stocks could be irreparably damaged. However, the study noted that proposals were under consideration to ensure that certain fishery areas might be restricted to the local littoral population where the latter was mainly dependent on coastal fishing, and that the proposed Council of Ministers power to adopt conservation measures would offer safeguards for the Irish fish stocks. It was felt that, ‘in view of the limited size of the Irish market, it was unlikely that the landing facility would be availed of (by other member state vessels) to any great extent. However any such landings might be utilised to advantage by Irish processing factories which at times were unable to obtain their requirements from home landings.
7 Discussing the market prospects for categories of fish, the 1970 report noted that opportunities for expansion of the export trade with the EEC were limited by import duties/quantitative restrictions in respect of freshwater fish (salmon, trout, eels), shellfish, and pelagic fish (in particular herrings and mackerel). The elimination of such restrictions in the context of EEC membership would be helpful, although membership would also bring more competition in the UK in respect of freshwater fish. Membership would also affect imports, and domestic tariffs/restrictions would have to be replaced by the EEC external tariffs/quotas as appropriate. It was not expected that these latter measures would have much impact.
8 Trade in demersal fish (whiting, cod, plaice) was seen as more problematic, for while it constituted a small percentage of exports, it accounted for nearly half the value of sea-fish landings and was the only sector of the fish trade pursued by the Irish fishing fleet on a year round basis. Imports were controlled at the time and licences only granted when landings were inadequate to meet requirements, with fish fingers subject to quota. The problem was that Irish prices were higher than import prices, and there was a marked consumer preference for plaice and cod, neither of which figured in Irish landings to the same extent as less popular varieties such as whiting and haddock. The concern was that open markets could result in consumers buying the fish they liked cheaper than what was landed from Irish boats. It was felt that additional marketing measures, freshness of product and expansion of fish landings – together with expanding export markets for varieties caught by Irish boats - would obviate serious marketing difficulties.
Assessment in 1970 report
9 Thus the overall assessment was positive for fisheries. The benefits outlined for agriculture in the report are far more substantial. The Minister at the time made it clear in the foreword to the report, that many of the economic benefits likely to result from Ireland’s entry to the EEC would arise in the agricultural sector, and while there would be challenges he was fully confident that the challenges would be met and the most made of the opportunities which would arise when Irish agricultural products could be placed on an equal footing with the products of the other member states. There was no specific mention of fisheries.
Irish Ambitions in Respect of Fisheries and their Implications
10 Thirdly, looking at the 1970 material on fisheries as described above, it is notable that the analysis related only to the sector as it was, that there is an absence of ambition to create a huge industry to exploit our location as an island in the Atlantic. Maybe independent Ireland, given its location, should have developed a much larger fisheries sector. Doing so would not simply have meant declaring a substantial exclusive zone, but actually protecting it with appropriate vessels and exploiting it with the necessary scale of fleet and trained fishermen, which in turn would have needed substantial harbours and fish landing and processing facilities as well as ready markets into which to sell the product.
11 Ireland had none of these.
12 The navy was small with very limited resources. The Irish fishing fleet was small and focussed on in-shore fishing. Irish seas were larger in area, but not as productive of fish per square mile as other areas such as the North Sea, with significant implications for the efficient harvesting of fish. The total number of sea fishermen was about 6,000 in the late 1960s and early 1970’s, of whom about one third were regularly employed in fishing, the rest part time. Training was limited, with courses at the State fisheries training school which opened in Greencastle in Donegal in the 1960’s often undersubscribed. A significant amount of harbour work was carried out following the Bjuke report on fishery harbours of 1960, which identified a small group of harbours for intensive development, but the pace of this work was outstripped by the pace of development internationally. By the time the ESRI report was written in 1980, the harbour work was largely completed, but the scale of boat needed at that stage was larger again, necessitating further development.
13 Fish landing and processing facilities were improving in the late 1960s, but still were limited. In 1970 and still in 1980, the scale of fish landings was small in terms of the minimum scale for economic development of fish processing. In 1970, Irish fish landings accounted for only 1.7% of the total EEC plus 3 accession States, with only Belgium having a lower %: the Netherlands accounted for 15% while Italy, France, West Germany were higher again and the UK and Denmark accounted for about a quarter each of the total. Out of these very large quantities it was possible to keep major processors in these other countries supplied on a consistent basis.
14 In market terms, the Irish population was small and it ate little fish – total protein consumed in 1963 was 58.2lbs, and fish accounted for 3.4lbs, or less than 6%. By 1970, the figures had risen to 70.6lbs for total consumption and 4.6lbs for fish, about 6.5% of the total. Ireland had the lowest per capita consumption of fish in the EEC in 1974, although it rose to third lowest two years later. In terms of export markets, as noted above, prior to membership there were tariffs and quantitative restrictions on access to the EEC market (and we had our own restrictions on imports which limited choice for consumers).
15 Solving these problems would have required a massive, sustained effort, and it would have had to have been seen as a major and very likely source of economic development to get resources on the scale needed to deliver results. The fishing sector was small and scattered and its capability to lobby for itself was very limited compared with others such as the farmers or business. Other areas appeared to offer better opportunities for economic advance. Prior to EEC membership, fisheries was generally seen as a marginal activity mainly important because of its role in sustaining some employment/population in marginal areas, producing products which most Irish people did not eat by choice.
16 Sector Comparisons
In the Annex to this note are some key comparisons with the agriculture sector, which did get massive attention and was a key focus of the drive for EEC membership. It is clear from Table A, showing National Income, that the agriculture sector accounted for nearly one fifth of the total, while it is estimated that fisheries was significantly under 1%. In terms of employment, agriculture was hugely important in the 1960’s, although there was a strong downward trend, and also much underemployment concealed in the figures. In the 1966 census, agricultural occupations accounted for 345,000 persons, or over 30% of the total workforce of 1.118m. In 1971, the comparable figures were 289,000 and 26% of 1.120m and in 1981, 189,000 and 17% of 1.138m. As noted above, there were about 8,000 engaged in fishing.
Table B shows that exports for agriculture and agriculture based products such as milk and beef, far exceeded those for fish and fish products which accounted for under 1.5% in most years. Agriculture and agriculture based products accounted for about two fifths for much of the period 1967-77, and still constituted one third of the total towards the end.
17 Prior to joining the EEC, the Irish fisheries sector was small and the obstacles to its development were complex and deeply entrenched. Joining the EEC enabled it to develop significantly from its very low base, providing additional markets and EEC funding for market and infrastructure development. Fish stocks – in particular, herring - were rapidly depleted after membership in the 1970s, but herring prices rose and landings of other fish increased, resulting in the export figures shown above.
18 EEC membership more than delivered on the expectations of the 1970 report referred to above. EEC membership did not transform the Irish fishing sector to a European leader, and the issues outlined in the ESRI 1980 report are similar to those of the pre-membership period. The Irish fisheries sector had advanced considerably – with substantial EEC help – but its’ competitors had moved on further, in fleet and harbour size, in processing and in market sophistication.
19 However, the solution was not to have stayed out of the EEC, with all the difficulties of market access that would have entailed, not to mention the costs in developing the fleet and infrastructure to protect and harvest the seas around our shores. Non-Irish boats had traditional rights in the seas off the Irish coasts, which would not have been given up without countervailing concessions and possibly a ‘fish war’. In any set of negotiations, with 20:20 vision, one can see things afterwards that could have been improved on; that said, it is difficult to see how Irish accession negotiators could have credibly given top priority to the case for fisheries in the run up to membership in 1973, given the state of the Irish fishing industry at the time and the realistic prospects for its development.
I wish to thank Ms Mary Doyle, librarian in the Department of Agriculture, Mr Aidan Synnott, National/Government Accounts at the CSO and Mr Michael Murphy of the Department of Finance, for their encouraging and detailed assistance in gathering material for this paper and dealing patiently with my queries. I also wish to thank Dr Tony Meaney for reading it through and proving me with invaluable insights into the fisheries sector during the period, which have helped me expand and correct the text in a number of places. If there are any errors or omissions in this note, I alone am responsible.
. As other policies such as regional policy developed and the single market was achieved, the range and depth of economic benefits expanded and were critical to the transformation of the Irish economy.
The first measures in 1970 were adopted as negotiations with prospective entrants started – which included the requirement to adopt the community ‘acquis’ all the measures adopted prior to entry. It was – and is still – strongly felt that the original Member States were protecting their existing positions against new entrants.
Irish Agriculture and Fisheries in the EEC – Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Stationery Office, April 1970. This report did not purport to set out negotiating recommendations, but to give a picture of the situation at the time. See also comments below on perceived dangers to fisheries in the EEC.
 ESRI – Development of the Irish Sea Fisheries Industry and its Regional Implications – O’Connor, Crutchfield, Whelan and Mellon – paper 100. The paper goes on to say that the Irish ‘larger boats capable of fishing far out, continue to exploit inshore waters. They fish the most profitable grounds available to them, which are usually inshore..’ The report suggests that this is because they could not compete with larger boats further out: another explanation may be that there was less fish to be obtained in more distant waters.
The demand at the time and for about 10 years onwards was for a ‘50 mile exclusive zone.’
Statistical Abstract – CSO table 90; there would have been some additional related employment - the ESRI 1980 report estimated that in 1977, some 1550 were employed in processing and 1,000 more in ancillary services – with 270 in the Government Department and Bord Iascaig Mhara. See below on agricultural employment.
Some part time fishermen could do very well out of high value part time fishing such as oysters, giving them a viable living when added to farming or other employment.
It also noted that the cost of providing larger boats meant that the creation of jobs in fishing was calculated at that time (1977-80) to be significantly more expensive than jobs in manufacturing.
Substantial further improvements were made under EU part funded schemes from the 1970’s onwards.
ESRI report – Table 7.1. In subsequent years fish consumption rose significantly as a proportion of the total 3.9lbs of protein intake, reaching 5.4 or 13.7% in 1977.
This is not to say that the fishing sector could not generate publicity for its case – see for example, p316 et seq. of John Walsh’s biography of Patrick Hillery (2008) about the pre-accession negotiations on fish, which frequently hit the headlines.
Putting this in an EEC context, the fishery figures for do not look so small. In 1973, the Irish figure for fish landings was 0.282% of GDP, not dissimilar to that of most Member States where it accounted for between 0.2 and 0.3% of GDP. Denmark alone had a higher level - 0.733%. It is noteworthy that by 1977, the % of GDP represented by fish landings had fallen for all Member State apart from Ireland.
Up to 10 foreign fleets fished around the Irish coast for years before we started to develop its capability in the 1960s. These fleets had the protection of international law (e.g. London Convention 1964). With the prospect of losing more distant fishing grounds with extensions of national fishery limits in the context of the Law of the Sea, European fishing fleets in the seas around Ireland were most anxious to protect their position in the early 1970s.
The John Walsh biography of Paddy Hillery discusses the negotiations. After agriculture and industrial/regional development were dealt with, a major effort was made in co-ordination with the UK in respect of fisheries and significant concessions were gained giving access to more fish, which were to operate for 10 years with a review at the end of that period. Ireland settled, and the UK also did not hold out as long as the Norwegians (who had a far larger, more developed fish sector) on fisheries. Ireland (and the UK) joined the EEC, but Norwegians rejected membership.
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