Fish farms to fight back with EU help

Fish farms to fight back with EU help

By Russell Padmore 
Europe business reporter, BBC News, Brussels

The European Commission will unveil a new strategy later on Wednesday to revive the fish farming industry.

At a time when stocks of some species of fish in the world's oceans are dangerously low, the authorities in Brussels are concerned that Europe's aquaculture sector has stagnated.

Most of the seafood consumed within the EU is imported, but the Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Joe Borg, believes that can be reduced with the right strategy to encourage the industry to grow.

Among the key measures likely to be announced are plans to encourage more investment in the sector, by making it easier to open a fish farm. That, in turn, will create more jobs.

The commissioner also believes that the EU should offer more support for research and development.

"If we manage to strengthen aquaculture production within the European Union there could be a consequential effect of reducing pressure on fish," said Mr Borg.

Europe's farmed fish producers are facing increasingly tougher competition from Asia and Latin America. BIM, Ireland's state run body for fisheries, says the huge growth in imports of mussels from Chile and pangasius, a species of catfish, from Vietnam, shows how much pressure producers are under.

Job creation

The industry is not just focused on farming species, such as salmon, eel or trout. Production of shellfish, such as clams and oysters, also needs support. For the European Union, aquaculture is a sector that provides jobs for 65,000 people.

France, the UK, Italy and Spain are the leaders, but some countries are at the forefront of producing certain species.

For example, Greece is the dominant producer of farmed sea bass and sea bream, while Scotland and the Irish Republic lead the way in producing Atlantic salmon.

Long-term observers of the industry will recognise that from the European Commission's perspective, we have been here before.

Seven years ago, the decision-makers in Brussels reached the same conclusions that the industry needed help to develop and they set out a new strategy for aquaculture.

However, at the same time, another arm of the European Commission was setting in motion a directive that eventually undermined plans to give fish farming a boost.

The Habitat Directive was aimed at protecting certain rare species of wildlife in coastal areas and rivers. The subsequent regulations introduced across the EU to abide by the directive required anyone who wanted to set up a fish farm had to prove that it would not have a harmful impact on the local environment and the protected species.

That proved a tough barrier for aquaculture companies to overcome and provided a competitive advantage to fish producers in Asia, where local regulation is much more relaxed.

The Irish Republic's BIM has told the BBC that the European Commission should roll back the Habitats Directive to make it easier to open a fish farm.

Healthy option

So now it is back to the drawing board for the European Commission, although the powers in Brussels are putting a different spin on it, saying they want to give new impetus to the 2002 strategy.

There are several good reasons why the fish farming sector needs to be encouraged to develop.

The experts agree eating fish is a healthy option and as stocks are low in the world's oceans, farming the food is a good solution.

Then there is the economic argument that expanding the industry will create more jobs, at a time when much of the European Union is gripped by recession.

The European Commission has looked at Norway and believes lessons can be learned from the way the government in Oslo has successfully nurtured its own aquaculture industry.

Norway produces 800,00 tonnes of farmed Atlantic salmon every year, a far greater level of production than Scotland's 160,000 tonnes or Ireland's annual output of 12,000 tonnes.

However, EU competition rules prevent direct state aid, so an indirect way of boosting the industry will have to be adopted.

Image problem

Aquaculture has a battle on its hands to restore its image with some consumers. The industry has been accused of polluting rivers and of allowing disease to spread among caged fish.

The Netherlands-based company Nutreco is one of Europe's leading providers of food for fish farms.

One of its directors has told the BBC that the industry is hampered by too much regulation and it has to restore its image with worried consumers.

"Nobody is doubting whether a chicken or a pig is farmed, but still we have the choice for fish. I think that over time, it will be more and more accepted that fish is farmed, especially when you take it into consideration with biodiversity and protecting the wild stock in the oceans," he said.

As Mr Borg outlines a new strategy to reinvigorate fish farming, he is probably hoping that another remote arm of the authority in Brussels is not hatching another unrelated plan that could once again undermine aquaculture.


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