Adjournment Debate. - Oyster Industry Disease.

Deputy Cullen has been given permission to raise on the Adjournment the subject matter of disease affecting the oyster industry. The Deputy has eight minutes and the Minister has four.

I thank the Chair for allowing me to raise this extremely important matter. I refer to the bonamia disease which is having a serious effect on the oyster industry at present. I am sure the House is aware by now that this disease has broken out in Cork harbour and the potential devastation to the remainder of our oyster stocks is quite serious. The nature of the disease is that, in the main, it affects the flat oyster which is the main oyster produced in this country. Because of that we obviously have to take great care to ensure that this disease does not spread to the rest of our oyster beds.

The disease has had a major and very serious effect throughout mainland Europe, particularly in France and Holland and, to a lesser extent, in England. The disease has caused devastation in France and it has been proved after quite a long study and research that the main cause of the spread of the disease is in the transportation of the oysters, which is the kernel of the problem. We have a very important aquaculture industry. It is a growth industry which offers a lot of employment potential and because of that, urgent steps must be taken to ensure that the bonamia disease does not spread to the rest of our coast, particularly in the west.

I should like to draw the attention of the Minister to the fact that this disease was discovered the day before the Colorado beetle surfaced here. It was remarkable to note the effect that had and the way the Department acted in that connection. However, things have been somewhat slower in dealing with a disease of equal importance to the oyster industry. Is the Minister satisfied that all the resources and personnel necessary to deal with this disease are available? Is he also satisfied that the disease has not spread? We know that the disease was first found in Cork harbour. Has it been established if it has spread to other areas and, if so, what areas are affected? Will the Minister introduce suitable legislation to deal with this area because, as I said, the effects on the industry would be quite devastating in terms of the growth of oysters? Diseased oysters have no effect on humans but it is most important that such legislation should be brought forward urgently to rigorously control the standards of the industry.

Although the disease is in evidence in the UK, because of urgent and quick reaction in bringing in legislation they have been able to control the areas affected and are in the process of eradicating the disease. Because of the growth of the industry here, we must take all the necessary measures to ensure its future, not just for the image of our country but because of tourism. Has the Minister confirmed that the personnel in the laboratory in Abbotstown are able to deal with the problem? Can they define the areas where the disease has broken out and are they able to cope with a large flow of stock coming in from various parts of the country? Can they speedily establish what areas are affected?

The eradication of this disease is very important to the oyster industry. I hope the Minister is taking all steps in this regard and issuing guidelines to ensure that all steps are and will be taken in the immediate future to eradicate the disease.

The incidence of bonamia was diagnosed in samples of oysters from a bed in Cork harbour by scientific officers of my Department on 23 March 1987. It is not a disease in the real sense. It is a microscopic parasite which infects the blood of the European or flat oyster, seriously weakening it and ultimately causing it to die. However, humans who consume the affected oysters are not affected.

As the Deputy said, the disease broke out in France in 1979, in the Netherlands in 1980 and in England in 1982. We realised it caused extensive losses there, in France and in Holland. However, I assure the Deputy that a stringent import control system has operated in this country for the past 25 years involving import licences tied in with disease-free certification. This has been tightened since the first outbreak of bonamia in France in 1979. Immediately the presence of the disease was confirmed here, the Minister, Deputy Daly, made an order prohibiting the movement of all oysters so that the infection would not spread to any new areas. The Minister and the Department acted as quickly as possible in this regard.

The organism does not spread in the water column and apparently it spreads only when oysters are deposited on infected beds. In any event, movement controls have been effective in restricting the spread of the infection within the UK. Officials of my Department met members of the trade and the statutory instrument and order were signed by the Minister on 25 March, two days after the outbreak was brought to our attention. This provided for the movement of oysters intended for human consumption either at home or abroad. Since the outbreak of the disease on 23 March, senior officials of my Department instituted systematic sampling and testing of oysters, not alone from Cork but from all the beds in the country, to establish the extent to which the problem has spread. I am glad to be able to tell the House that to date no further infection has shown up in any area.

On 26 March senior officials of my Department met virtually all the oyster producing interests in the country and they had a very constructive exchange of views and opinions on how to deal further with the problem. The industry fully support the steps taken by my Department. Various suggestions were put forward by the trade as to how the movement control might be tightened for greater security and also relaxed to allow movement of the gigas oyster, a Portuguese oyster, which is not affected by the disease. These suggestions are currently being examined by my Department and, if necessary, will be implemented.

I am satisfied that the sampling and testing carried out by the Fisheries Research Centre at Abbotstown is adequate and that there are sufficient personnel able to cope with the various samples coming in from different beds throughout the country. We are treating this very seriously and if extra personnel are required we will avail of additional assistance. Having spoken to the officials in Abbotstown, I am extremely happy there is no difficulty as far as sampling and testing are concerned. It is clear from what I have said that the problem caused by the appearance of bonamia has been dealt with as expeditiously and effectively as possible despite what the Deputy may say.

I assure the House that, if necessary, the Minister will have no hesitation in taking whatever further measures are called for. I am satisfied that all the resources are in operation and that the disease has not spread outside Cork. We have no reports from any other areas and, from the samples we have tested, there does not appear to be difficulties anywhere else. I hope this satisfies the Deputy. My Department are extremely worried about this as we fully realise the importance of aquaculture. We want to ensure that this disease does not spread and we will give every assistance to the industry to ensure this.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 7 April 1987.