Posted on Thursday 19 December 2013 by Ulster Business

Kilkeel

David Hill (left) and Alan McCulla represent a new spirit of confidence in Kilkeel

The sound one normally associates with Northern Ireland's fishing ports is a whistling wind blowing through the derelict rigging of long abandoned fishing boats.

Yet new life is breathing along the County Down coastline and in particular in Kilkeel Harbour.

It may be thanks to the foresight of the commercial fishing community through the Anglo North Irish Fish Producers' Organisation that the remaining fleets have adapted so successfully from white fish to shell fish that they can now legitimately claim the be the langoustine capital of Britain and Ireland. But the fishing port's new opportunities will not be easy to exploit.

"Half the entire UK catch of langoustines comes into Kilkeel," says David Hill, a Director of ANIFPO and a successful fleet owner. "The rebirth of Kilkeel's fishing industry is something we treat with great sensitivity and care. It requires investment, a lot of knowledge and expertise and a shared respect for sustainability."

Mr Hill's long term view of the fishing sector is based on the need for an environmental commitment.

"We need to sustain these fisheries if we are to survive the next few generations and it is our collective belief in Kilkeel that sustainability is the key to reversing the town's fortunes and re-introducing a job-creating industry," he says.

And while the fishing sector dusts itself down and gets back on its feet again Mr Hill, ANIFPO members and the organisation's chief executive Alan McCulla, are now embarking on an even more turbulent journey. The relatively new phenomenon of offshore energy has now appeared off the Irish Sea coast. From Rathlin Island the whole way down to Arklow, the east coast of Ireland is within a few miles' range of numerous development zones for offshore wind farms and tidal generation power plants.

These development zones have been determined by their proximity to coastline, reliability of wind speeds, depth, and distance from shipping lanes, areas of conservation, etc. And before any of these factors can be determined, someone who has boats and knowledge of the sea and seabed in these areas must be appointed and contracted to undertake the survey work. Step forward Davey Hill and his fishermen.

"We have to tender for the work and compete with boat fleets from around the Irish Sea basin and beyond," says Mr Hill. "And I'm pleased to say that we compete very successfully thanks to the quality of our boats and the expertise of the people who sail and work them.

"But we are also competitive because of the strategic position of Kilkeel itself," he explains.

Alan McCulla says the co-operative approach taken by the businesses based in Kilkeel Harbour and the harbour managers, Northern Ireland Fishery Harbour Authority, part of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, has meant that the tension between the two key economic activities now at the heart of Kilkeel – fishing and offshore energy – is being managed effectively.

"Our primary concern is fishing, an activity which has been the lifeblood of Kilkeel for the last 150 years," says Mr McCulla.

"But we would be bad business people if we ignored the opportunities provided by the emerging offshore energy sector. And this is where the challenge lies: ensuring both work in tandem, even if some of the development zones are in the middle of our fishing areas."

To make the most of these opportunities, to generate interest and investment, and to ensure an acceptable outcome to the conflicting interests of fishing and offshore energy, twelve business leaders led by David Hill who established the first collaborative network in Kilkeel have just published a blueprint outlining the development and expansion of the harbour.

He believes the document will help focus the business and policy communities on the existing and potential commercial opportunities being presented.

"The re-emergence of Kilkeel as an important economic hub has been helped by the strong performance of the fishing sector and development of offshore renewable energy projects all around the Irish Sea and indeed beyond," says Mr Hill.

"Thanks to both sectors, shipping traffic, marine business and demand for local expertise have created an upsurge in boat use and the knock-on effect has been to create a very busy harbour," he adds.

"Kilkeel Collaborative Network represents all the businesses in the harbour and that includes fishermen, electricians, boat builders, plumbers, engineers and others who stand to gain from the new business opportunities presented by offshore energy developments as well as a strong fishing industry."

The network says it now aims to build on its successes and to explore how best to use the resources, skills and knowledge provided by generations of fishing.

ANIFPO chief executive Alan McCulla says the network has taken shape quickly thanks to support from Invest NI.

"Kilkeel faces stiff competition within the Irish Sea basin. Other ports along the Irish, Scottish, English and Welsh coasts are gearing up and investing in their infrastructures so as to position themselves as marine business grows," he says.

"Our fishing industry continues to face challenges and we need to be competitive in order to survive and succeed and the network is the first step in achieving this success. I am delighted to see the recognition by many that the future of Kilkeel's success lies within the fishing sector and the other industries around the harbour."

The blueprint which outlines Kilkeel's inward investment offer to potential investors and the policy community has been backed by former economy minister Sir Richard Needham, whose family connections with Kilkeel remain strong.

"Kilkeel is re-inventing itself as a successful fishing port and as a facilities base for all offshore services whether these be in renewable energy, cable laying or other marine-based work," says Sir Richard.

"I am tremendously excited by the network's ambitions which parallel those of the Northern Ireland Fishery Harbour Authority and Invest NI and chime with the Kilkeel Development Association, as well as the local Chamber of Commerce."

Mr Hill says the next steps will be to develop a working group representative of all the interests in Kilkeel.

"The long term strategy will be to develop the business, expand the harbour and regenerate the town so that we can stop the migration of young people out of this wonderful place and into the cities and beyond."

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