by Richard Buckley, Editor, Business Eye

Alan McCulla is CEO of Sea Source, a Kilkeel based co-operative owned by fishermen in Northern Ireland that catches, lands, processes, sells and distributes its own seafood. With a career spanning over 25 years, Alan is also CEO of the Anglo North Irish Fish Producers Organisation (ANIFPO) which is committed to promoting sustainable fishing methods.


Here, he explains what lies on the horizon for NI’s fishing industry…

“People talk about a decline in the fishing industry and while there has been a consolidation in the sector, decline is not a word I would use! In reality there are as many fishing vessels now as there was back in 1973 when we joined the European Economic Community (EEC). In fact vessels are catching as much fish and shellfish now as they did back then. Like every industry, we continue to encounter challenges but we face those challenges head on by taking control of our own sales and the marketing of our own fish and through innovative solutions. For example, an impressive number of our fleet of 60 boats are diversifying and adapting in order to qualify for the surveying and servicing work required by offshore energy developers. In addition we are working with trawlers from Ardglass and Portavogie to expand the pool of suitably qualified fishing vessels. This resilience and ability to adapt makes the fishing industry a good news story at a time when there are few. Competition in the Irish Sea basin is fierce with many competitor ports along the south west coast of Scotland, the west coasts of England and Wales and the Republic of Ireland, yet Kilkeel has the potential to stand out as the most forward-thinking and ambitious of them all. It is centrally located on the east coast of Ireland, near the border with the Republic of Ireland and employs roughly 1,000 people including boat crews, processors, retailers, marine engineers, electronic engineers, painters and boat builders. The Harbour infrastructure however must be upgraded to make it fit for purpose and able to deal with today’s much larger vessels. The plan in place for an outer harbour extension could be a real gamer changer for the industry creating up to a 1,000 new jobs, enabling larger boats to land their catches and opening Kilkeel up to new products such as mackerel and herring. Fishing is somewhat unique as an industry in Northern Ireland as on the whole it has been supportive of Brexit and the potential opportunities therein, particularly around fishing quota management and the removal of bureaucracy. While we do export the largest part of our fish to the EU, we believe a strong post-Brexit UK fisheries policy will be fairer to operators in the Irish Sea than current EU rules. Looking beyond Brexit, the biggest challenge we as a sector face is the availability of skilled labour – an issue I know other facets of the agri-industry are also encountering. Ideally we would love to be able to recruit all our crews locally, but in reality we have had to recruit from further afield due to a lack of local talent. This adds to the pressure on businesses because legislation surrounding the recruitment process is very complex, and over the last few years we have been lobbying local government and Westminster to ensure that skilled fishermen from outside the EU – in particular countries such as the Philippines and Ghana- are able to secure the appropriate work permits. This is important as we strive to plug the talent gap while also promoting the sector as a positive career choice to young people locally. Catching opportunities in the Irish Sea for 2018 are the best I’ve ever seen in my 25 years working within the industry. If we look at cod for example, the recommendation for next year is a 376% increase on what we are currently allowed to catch. Traditionally Northern Ireland ranks at the bottom of the league table when it comes to fish consumption levels, but the tide on this trend is turning ! More and more, Co Down is recognised as the essential stop for good quality fish. You don’t need to go to the Mediterranean on your summer holidays to sample langoustine! The fishing sector and development of offshore renewable energy projects all around the Irish Sea has helped Kilkeel re-emerge as an important economic hub and we continue to see optimism across the sector as evidenced by investment in new vessels and infrastructure projects. When you see major projects such as the £30 million ‘Voyager’ fishing boat – the most modern vessel of its kind in the UK and Ireland – commissioned recently by local owners Arnold and Robert McCullough, you get a sense of the confidence in the sector. Likewise, Sea Source itself is developing, moving from having one factory, to two factories, to exporting across Europe and across the world. Our focus remains stead-fast, delivering world class seafood and thankfully, the Irish Sea is full of fish.”

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