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Brexit offers hope for Irish oyster farmers [The Nation] 01 May, 2017

GREENCASTLE -  For many on the oyster-rich shores of the River Foyle estuary on the northern tip of Ireland, Britain's departure from the European Union cannot come soon enough.

The hope is that Brexit will solve a decades-old sovereignty dispute over the waterway between British-ruled Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The stand-off has led to a boom in the unauthorized cultivation of oysters on Lough Foyle, which licensed Irish oyster farmers say threatens their lucrative export industry.

"After almost 100 years of failing to deal with the issue, Brexit will now force the two sides to settle the issue once and for all," said Seamus Bovaird, a former manager of the Lough Foyle Fishermen's Co-Op. When Ireland was partitioned in 1921 the main focus was on establishing peace after a bruising war of independence that led to the creation of two states on the island.

Whether by accident or wilful neglect, the British government and the newly-created Irish Free State left the ownership of Lough Foyle out of the terms of the negotiated settlement.

Elsewhere along the open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, residents and businesses are concerned that new customs checks will be imposed once Britain is out of the EU.

But on Lough Foyle, Brexit spells greater legal certainty, according to Enda Craig, a member of the Loughs Agency, a cross-border body that supervises the waters but has no powers over aquaculture.

"When Brexit comes in it will force the hand of the Irish government because...the EU will have to ask it where its borders lie and then regulation can be enforced," Craig told AFP.

Four years ago there were 2,000 oyster beds, now the Loughs Agency estimates there are around 30,000.

With few employment prospects in the area, many have seized the opportunity created by the territorial spat.

These oyster farmers consider themselves unlicensed rather than illegal but they still shy away from publicity and have consistently refused interviews.

Craig compared the proliferation to the Klondike gold boom in Canada at the end of the 19th century.

"This is the Irish equivalent of the Klondike -- a marine gold rush with no enforcement, no guaranteed health and safety supervision or environmental controls," he said.

Lough Foyle has strategic status too, providing access for the busy port of Derry in Northern Ireland. Once Britain leaves the bloc, this could mean British shipping having to use EU waters.

The majority of the oysters are believed to be exported to France -- by far the biggest market for the lucrative shellfish.

This is a grey area as oysters farmed by unlicensed operators risk being mixed with legitimate ones once they are in the hands of intermediaries.

In December last year, then Northern Ireland Fisheries Minister Michelle McIlveen warned that authorities were powerless to act.

The increase in unregulated oyster trestles "is causing a navigation issue... and a general health and safety hazard," she said.

Bovaird said squabbling over jurisdiction could have serious consequences for Ireland's 58-million euro ($61.5-million) licensed oyster export market.

"This is a no-man's land and it has the potential to destroy the Irish oyster industry," he said.

"As sure as night follows day someone on the continent will be hospitalised from food poisoning and it will blacken the reputation of Irish oysters in general," he said.

Richie Flynn, aquaculture executive at the Irish Shellfish Association, worries the lack of traceability "could cause untold reputational damage to our members."

"You are dealing with a sensitive product that looks and tastes perfect but you don't feel very perfect if you consume something that's not been looked after properly."

Traditionally, Irish oysters have been sold for the quality end of the French market, or to Asia.

The Lough Foyle oysters are 'B' category, meaning they must be purified or cooked prior to consumption.

Flynn said he was "very nervous" about the uncertainty and called for an immediate resolution.

"If it all unravels it would be a disaster for the guys who are doing things right," he said.


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