Political discussions about the overall merits of Ireland’s membership of the EU invariably make reference to our participation in the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), and the value to the rest of the EU of the fish stocks extracted the Irish Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ), which is a 200m limit around the Irish coast in which Ireland claims exclusive fishing rights.
Calculating the value of this catch, and the value foregone by the Irish fleet and industry in sharing fishing rights in the EEZ with the rest of the EU is obviously a mammoth statistical task, but this hasn’t deterred various commentators from presenting their own “back of an envelope” calculations as hard and cold fact.
Foremost of these is a claim by journalist Tom Prendiville, who published an article in Daily Ireland (and later Magil) in 2006 entitled “STATISTICS BLOW MYTH OF IRELAND AS EU BENEFICIARY”. This derived a figure of €200bn for the “contribution” made by Ireland to the EU in permitting accessing to the EEZ. The article doesn’t reference any particular year for the value of the €200bn, so we can only presume it refers to 2006.
Prendiville’s “work” has been referenced numerous times since. Various candidates contesting election to the European Parliament has used it to support their position that Ireland is being hard done by by EU membership. In 2014, Luke Flanagan used the claim as a central plank of his campaign. He was elected to the European Parliament with a massive share of the first preference vote.
The claim has also surfaced in academia. In 2012, a lecturer in Lecturer in International Relations at Dublin City University, Dr. Karen Devine, re-surfaced the claim in a presentation to a joint Oireachtas committee re. the ratification of the Fiscal Treaty. She presented her analysis to the committee, which comprised an extrapolation of the value of the entire catch from 1975 to 2010 from on a single reference year (2008). From this, she arrived at a total value for the catch of €67bn (again, without reference to point in time value), and then added another €134bn on to this to account for added value in processing and marketing (67bn + 134bn ~= €200bn). Her analysis runs to a total of 4 pages, the bulk of which comprises screen shots of MS Excel spreadsheets from her computer. You can download it here. Dr. Devine is repeating the claim in her current campaign to be elected to Seanad Eireann.
To anyone with even the most basic knowledge of economic statistics, extrapolating information in this fashion is obviously flawed. In fact, its remarkable that a professional academic would add their name to what is such obvious chicanery.
In attempting to derive a more accurate value, most serious research refers to the Sea Around Us Project which is based in the University of British Columbia. The project is an international research initiative that assesses the impact of fisheries on the marine ecosystems of the world based on fisheries related data at spatial scales. The project has collected data on fisheries throughout the world going back as far as 1950. Data in relation to the Irish EEZ is available on their website.
This link shows the values of all stock landed from the Irish EEZ at 2005 US Dollar prices. There is a link in the top right of the screen to download a CSV file of the data used to compile the chart. This CSV file includes approx. 22k rows of data, one each for each type of fish landed by each country in each year. If this data is opened in an Excel spreadsheet, it shows that the total value of the catch from the Irish EEZ between 1950 and 2010 is approx. $26bn in 2005 prices. The value of the stock extracted between 1950 and 1973, when Ireland was not a member of the EU or the CFP, is approx. €7bn, which means the value of the catch between 1973 and 2010 is approx $19bn (approx. €15bn), a fraction of the value claimed by the “back of the envelope” commentators mentioned above.
Moreover, as the chart in the link above shows, the Irish fleet extracted a large part of that value, ranging from approx. 10% in previous decades to up to 60% at peak levels (1995).
There are other considerations which must also be included in this analysis. To claim that Ireland has made a “contribution” to the EU by providing access to the EEZ presumes that prior to joining the EU and CFP, Ireland had exclusive access to the EEZ. This was not the case.
Up to 1976, Ireland laid claim to fishing rights in only 12m of territorial waters, not the 200m that currently defines the EEZ. The wider EEZ was heavily fished by French, Spanish and Russian fleets. The Irish fishing fleet did not have the capability to exploit fishing stocks in the wider area (it barely had the capability to exploit the 12m area), nor the naval resources to patrol and exclude other fishing fleets from it. In fact, the decision to create EEZ was only taken on foot of membership of the CFP, which provided funding for both the expansion of the fishing fleet and landing facilities, and the naval patrol vessels required to police the EEZ (the EU paid for all 4 naval patrol vessels which have been deployed in the EEZ in the intervening period, the LÉ Deirdre, the Emer, the Aoife and the Aisling).
Crucially, since the creation of the EEZ in 1976, the Irish fleet extracts significantly more stock from this area that was the case prior to 1973, while the fleets who previously fished this area with impunity extract significantly less. Based on this, its credible to argue that the Irish fishing fleet has actually benefited from membership of the CFP rather than having foregone benefit, as argued by others.
Claims in relation to added value from processing and marketing also require scrutiny. To include this figure in deriving overall value involves a number of extremely tenuous assumptions. Firstly, it presumes that the “rule of thumb” in adding €2 in processing value to every €1 in landed catch value is accurate both across 28 countries and 35 years, an assumption that would fail even the most rudimentary statistical test. Secondly, in presumes that capital invested in fishing assets and infrastructure by other EU states would not have produced similar value if invested elsewhere. Thirdly, it presumes that if Ireland had not joined the CFP, that we would have expanded our fishing and naval capacity in the period post 1973 to exclusively fish the EEZ to the same extent as the combined fishing fleets of all other EU fishing nations. These assumptions are obviously ridiculous.
As noted earlier, deriving an overall value for the value to the EU of Ireland’s participation in the CFP is extremely difficult. Generally speaking, when all factors are considered, serious research agrees we have made some contribution, but that contribution isn’t anywhere near the value of €200bn frequently touted by people who are skeptical about our involvement in the EU.
The people who have the most interest in our involvement in the CFP, our fisherman, are quite clear that the value foregone is fishing stocks marginal and that Ireland has benefited significantly from CFP investment in our indigenous industry, access to British fishing zones and the extension of the EEZ.
In the article referenced below from 2009, Sean O’Donoghue of the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation, which is the largest representation organsiation for fishermen in the country, said in reference to the €200bn claim:
“I have researched it, and those figures should have been challenged long ago.”