Norway is the world’s No. 2 fisheries product exporter after China and other European world champions are Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark. While Ireland’s fish exports have increased in recent times, in 2016 Norway’s were 18 times our value.


The fisheries industry is not overall economically significant in rich countries but it is important for coastal communities. There is also a rising demand from consumers for fish as a healthy option.

In 2016 Norway’s exports were valued at €10bn (NOK91.6bn) according to Statistics Norway, and imports were valued at €0.5bn (NOK4.7bn) giving a surplus of €9.5bn. Irish exports were valued at €557m (less than 5% of the value of Food & Beverage exports) according to BIM, the state fisheries agency, while imports were at €276m, resulting in a surplus of €283m.

The value of Norwegian exports rose by 23% in 2016 and Irish exports gained 1%.

Price, demand and a weaker currency boosted Norway’s exports − for example the value of salmon and trout exports rose by 31.4% despite a volume fall of 3.5%.

“The world is crying out for Norwegian fish,” Per Sandberg, the fisheries minister, said this year. “Demand for seafood from Norway is rising more rapidly than the industry can deliver.” 

In 2016, Norwegian vessels landed 2.0m tonnes of fish, crustaceans and molluscs, which was 12% down on 2015 and the lowest quantity in 25 years. The landed value of the catch came to €2.0bn (NOK18.2bn), up 8% from 2015, and the highest value ever recorded.

BIM reports total Irish and foreign landings at Irish ports were at 281,000 tonnes in 2016 with a value of €376m compared with 269,000 tonnes and €344m in 2015 – a value rise of 8.5%, split between volume and price.

The Marine Institute says that the overall 2016 fishing opportunities [i.e. Total Allowable Catches (TACs) species] as agreed in according with the EU’s Common Fishery Policy (CFP) to which the Irish fleet has access to in the Irish Exclusive Economic Zone, were 1.1m tonnes of fish, with an estimated landed value of €1.26bn. “Ireland’s total share of these TAC’s in 2016 amounted to 216,261 tonnes (20%) with a value of €201m. The main fish species  included  mackerel, horse mackerel, boarfish, blue whiting, herring, cod, whiting, haddock, saithe, pollack, hake, megrim, anglerfish, plaice, sole and Nephrops.”

Salmon, cod, mackerel, coalfish, haddock and trout are the most common fish exported by Norway.

According to the European Commission, the total Irish employment in the seafood sector is around 6,400 full-time equivalents (FTEs), where the catching sector represents about 2 800 FTEs, aquaculture almost 1,000 and the processing sector around 2,600.

The Irish fleet comprises over 2,000 vessels with most less than 12 metres long.

In contrast, the sector in Northern Ireland is very small.

Less than 1,000 are employed and “In terms of ports, the boats which constitute the sea fishing industry in Northern Ireland are mainly located in the three County Down fishing villages of Portavogie, Kilkeel and Ardglass,” where landings amounted to 13,000 tonnes in 2015.

In 2016, UK vessels landed 701,000 tonnes of sea fish (including shellfish) into the UK and elsewhere with a value of £936m – a 1% fall in quantity but an increase of 21% in value compared with the previous year.

Goodbody Stockbrokers said in 2014 that only 2 Irish processing companies had sales in excess of €50m and 80% of Irish exports are commodity-traded.

European market

EU fish consumption, Ireland The Netherlands and Denmark are the only EU countries that achieve significant export surpluses (exports minus imports) from their fisheries industry trade but unlike Norway, they rely on imports.

In 2016 the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) of 34 mainly rich country members, had 28 member countries with sea coasts. For exporting Norway was followed by the US, Chile, Canada, Sweden, Spain, Netherlands and Denmark. Irish exports had a ranking of 24.

In 2016 Dutch exports were valued at €3.4bn and imports cost €2.5bn; the data for Denmark was €3.2bn and €2.5bn while at €4bn, Sweden had also a high level of exports but it had a trade deficit of €0.7bn.

UK exports in 2016 were valued at £1.6bn (€2.2bn) and imports were valued at £3bn.

Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, and France – source more than half of their fish from non-EU waters.

Norway, China and Iceland are the biggest ex-EU-28 suppliers.

The European Commission says that the EU is the largest market for fishery and aquaculture products in the world in terms of value. In 2015, the trade flow amounted to €49.3bn and 13.8m tonnes. Fish alone represents almost 20% of the overall €120bn worth of food products imported into the EU. The trade balance deficit of 2015 was the biggest ever at €18bn, confirming the EU as a net importer of fisheries and aquaculture products. The value of imported fish grew 6% from 2014 and reached €22.3bn.

The New Economics Foundation said in a 2017 report “For the EU as a whole, fish dependence day is now 6 July, indicating that almost one-half of fish consumed in the EU is sourced from non-EU waters.”

Rising consumer demand for fish as a healthy option coupled with persistent overfishing has created an unsustainable situation in Europe and elsewhere.

The EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) was updated in 2013 and it set the legal foundations to bring about the sustainable management of all fish stocks in Europe by 2020 with the target to bring fish stocks to their maximum sustainable yield (MSY) by 2020. The CFP includes a ban on discarding fish that are outside a fisher’s quota or are not worth including in the catch.

The New Economics Foundation says in its report:

“Results from the Bio-Economic Model of European Fisheries (BEMEF) show that rebuilding most commercial EU fish stocks in North Atlantic waters to their MSY would deliver 2m tonnes of additional fish per year, enough to meet the annual demand of 89.2m EU citizens; €1.6bn additional gross revenues per year; and €824m additional net profits per year which could support up to 64,092 new jobs. Additional benefits could be made by re-distributing quota under different criteria than ‘historic share’. Our recent report 'Who gets to fish?' provides an extensive review of quota allocation systems across twelve EU countries and makes specific recommendations on how these systems could be improved to ensure fishing opportunities are managed in the public interest.”

Fish have no nationality

Fish do not respect political boundaries and with the warming of the seas fishers in Iceland in the past two decades have spotted more than 30 new species as some old ones disappear.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation says mackerel was a rarity in Icelandic waters up to 2000 but today “they are one of the country's most commercially important fish, both in terms of value and volume.”

Michael Gove, Brexiter and UK environment secretary, announced in July that the UK will leave the 1964 London Fisheries Convention. This allows vessels from 6 EU nations to fish within six and 12 nautical miles of the UK coastline. Gove also said the UK will also “take back control” of its territorial waters up to the 200 nautical miles currently allowed by the EU’s CFP. 

While the landings by UK vessels account for about 30% of the catch in its waters, Andy Lebrecht, a former director-general for food and farming at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, says like other areas of trade, fisheries are also complicated.

The House of Lords said in a 2016 report: “UK exports up-to 80% of its catches to other countries, and imports the vast majority of the fish that are processed or consumed within the UK, either from the EU or from countries with whom the EU has agreed preferential trade relations.”

Andy Lebrecht said here: “First, whilst the Scottish fishing fleet depends relatively little on non-UK waters, the English fleet traditionally catches its fish in Irish, French and Norwegian, as well as UK waters. Retaining access to those waters will be an essential demand for the UK.

Second, the basis of each country’s quotas is historical catch records dating back to 1973 that the UK has accepted and defended since the quotas were introduced in 1983. The EU can be expected to resist strongly any attempt to reset such a well-established basis for allocating quotas. The UK will have difficulty making a persuasive case for a different allocation principle.

Third, the UK industry depends heavily on fish exports to the EU and so is vulnerable to tariffs. The UK exported £921m of fish (including £224m salmon) to the EU in 2015 whereas total landings in 2015 (which exclude salmon) were worth £775m. Its primary supplier of fish is Iceland, followed well behind by China, Germany and Norway. Countries such as France and Spain would have every incentive to demand high tariffs on fish imports from the UK. ‘Access to markets’ and ‘access to waters’ will be linked.

Fourth, UK vessels benefit from rights to fish large quantities of cod in North Norwegian waters that are 'paid for' by transfers to Norway of other stocks which are mainly of value to other EU countries. Maintaining this arrangement will be another UK demand.”

Evolution of Irish fisheries industry

Two years ago we reported on The Myth of the EU stealing our fish.

The European Commission’s office in Dublin says: “The Sea Around Us Project, based at the University of British Columbia, collected data for Irish waters from 1950 to 2004 that dispels the myth that Ireland lost out on Irish fish catches to the rest of the EU after we became a Member State.

Calculated in US dollars at year 2000 prices, the value of all fish extracted from Irish waters from 1950 to 2004 is $16.8bn. Before we joined the EU the catch value from 1950 to 1973 was $4.8bn and after we became a Member State it was $11.9bn between 1973 and 2004.

Up to 1973, Ireland took just 12% of the catch from Irish waters. After becoming an EU state the share rose to as much as 40%, and averaged out at 30%.

The French catch from Irish waters, on the other hand, halved from 42% before we joined the EU to 21% in 2004 – and it continues to decline.

The Russians, who used to hoover up another 20% of Irish fish, are now virtually excluded from our waters. Since we joined the EU, they have managed a paltry 3.7%, most of which was in the years 1973-1977, before the Irish Marine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) was formally defined.

Part of the reason for the low Irish catches prior to EU membership was our inability to patrol Irish waters, and the lack of legal recognition for the exclusivity of those waters beyond the 12 mile limit.

That changed in 1976, when the Irish Marine EEZ was extended from 12 to 200 miles, and the EU paid for four new fisheries protection vessels - the LÉ Deirdre, the Emer, the Aoife and the Aisling – so we could patrol our own waters.

The US data shows that the Irish fish catch has never been more than 1.25% of GDP. In fact, since the late 1970s, the whole value of fish taken from Irish waters has never exceeded 2% of Irish GDP in any year, and was only worth a quarter of a percentage point of our 2004 GDP.

The figures indicate that at no point before becoming an EU Member State were we ever a viable fishing nation, even if we had succeeded in taking absolutely every fish caught in Irish waters for ourselves.”

Top global fish exporters, importers

Eurostat fishery statistics

Netherlands top agri-food exporter in Europe; Ireland in 10th ranking

Consumption chart above: The New Economics Foundation

Top Exporters/importers chart above: FAO