18th December

Irish salmon: the questions that must be asked

Philip Clesham Natural scientist, commercial lawyer and keen angler

Ireland has unique inshore assets that must be managed in an enduring and sustainable way for the maximum benefit of as many people as possible. But for too long we have looked to other countries and have asked: ‘Why can’t we have what they have?’ Instead, perhaps Ireland should be asking: ‘What has Ireland got that other countries don’t have?’

So, it is refreshing to see that the proposed mega-scale caged salmon farm in Galway Bay has awoken a debate that focuses on our own unique inshore assets, in a serious way. When contemplating this development, it might be prudent however to first ask some questions and look for answers before making a decision: 

Maam RiverThe Maam River - one of Lough Corrib's head streams                                                 Photo Gillian Mills

How can Ireland be a leader and develop its unique assets by means of product differentiation from other competing countries to ensure an enduring and sustainable gain for as many people as possible?

Will intensive salmon farming in Galway Bay operate in a sustainable and enduring way for the maximum benefit of all, and should Ireland first look at alternatives before committing to a mega-scale caged salmon farm strategy?

What would be the impact of this development on the natural habitat and existing business? Would the proposed development put the same product on the market as that produced by other salmon farming countries, and what would be the impact of large-scale farm production on the price of farmed salmon on the international market?

Would a farmed ‘salmonopoly’ business strategy work? Is there an alternative development strategy that would reap greater rewards for a wider group of people - wild salmon ranching, for example, with benefits going to both angling tourism and food processing?

Wild salmon harvesting alternative

Ireland has magnificent freshwater river and lake system assets set by the Atlantic on the western outpost of Europe. Perhaps Ireland could develop unfed fry salmon hatcheries (low cost when compared to intensive freshwater smolt-units), to be released into the multitude of head streams high up in our river systems to generate a population of young salmon that would feed in freshwater; migrate to sea; feed on the high seas and return to the very same river of their origin ―to be harvested in a sustainable and enduring way to the maxim benefit of all?

For example, 33% returning wild salmon harvested for food on return to their respective rivers of origin; 33% quota set aside for angling tourism (an anglers code of catch and release may reduce this proportion) and 33% allowed through to spawn and replenish stocks for the future. Would the proportion of wild salmon harvested for food carry a unique Irish product differentiator ― wild Atlantic salmon commanding a premium price ― not to mention the wild brand and value-add processing opportunity?

Could such an initiative span and scale across a multitude of businesses, perhaps gaining protected geographic indications across many localities within the Irish domestic economy? This could lead to demand for premium quality with significant VAT returns; create diverse vertical employments, increase exports and enhance Ireland’s reputation as a true leader in the food sector, as well as Ireland becoming a premium destination for angling tourism with all the associated potential business spins offs?

As the crow flies clockwise round Ireland a multitude of rivers systems can be identified: Boyne; Liffey; Avoca; Slaney; Barrow; Nore; Suir; Blackwater; Lee; Bandon; Arrigadeen; Ilen; various Kerry systems (including Caragh, Waterville, Laune); Feale; Deel; Mague; The Shannon System; The Corrib System; various Connemara spate systems including Screebe and Ballynahinch); The Moy System and other Mayo Systems (Erriff; Delphi; Owenmore; Owenduff); Drowse & Melvin System; various Donegal systems, (Foyle and Finn).

Could these names one day be marketed the same way as champagne districts ― not only as producers of premium ‘wild’ salmon but to bolster Ireland’s standing as a world-class angling destination as well?

According to the European Anglers Association (EAA) there are 25m anglers in Europe (5m registered members); 44m anglers in the USA generating $44.5bn in retail sales, $7.3bn in Federal and State taxes and over 1 million jobs! Catching a wild Atlantic salmon on our side of the pond is a prize and valued experience for any angler and one that anglers are prepared to travel and pay for and often return with their angling friends.

What is the actual value of a rod-caught salmon to the Irish economy when you consider travel and hospitality? Is there scope for additional retail business opportunities?

It is a concern to see the public scrap between BIM and the IFI on this issue. Surely there is scope for common ground here? Just imagine: the IFI regulating hatcheries; harvesting and managing the salmon stock and being responsible for lawful recreational fishing, with BIM and Bord Bia working with the private sector to market Ireland’s unique wild and smoked wild salmon products that would command a premium price internationally, and Bord Fáilte continuing to promote Ireland’s unique angling tourism product.

Surely, there must be scope for a meeting of minds, setting common objectives, and collaboration between State functions to devise a common vision with the public interest at heart to grow an enduring sustainable economic activity in harmony with nature for the benefit of all.

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