This is the second time I have had to raise the issue of the Foyle fisheries and the Foyle Fisheries Commission. I hope the Minister of State is not reluctant to give me a response on the matter.
On the first occasion I raised the matter I asked that we abandon the crazy suggestion that the commission should take over sea fishing within and outside the Foyle. I am glad this idea has been shelved. It was a sign of how out of touch are the hierarchy on all sides.
We now face the issue of licences, licence fees and fishing opportunities for driftnet fishermen. The Minister recently published regulations, recommended in the Salmon Management Task Force report, on other fishery areas. He set out details on licences, fishing hours and so forth and Foyle fishermen looked on in envy. There was no mention of increases in the cost of licences, the standard fee remained at £150 — it is £302 in the Foyle area. Why is there discrimination in that regard? The Minister stated that fishing times would begin at 4 a.m. and end at 9 p.m. Fishermen in the Foyle area work between a 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. deadline. Why is there discrimination in this area? The number of fishing days per week in regional areas is being reduced to four, but fishermen in the Foyle area have worked this reduced week for a number of years.
A reply to a parliamentary question, dated 4 February, stated "the fees charged have not, however, had an unfavourable impact on demand for licences, which continue to exceed supply". This gives the impression that people applying for licences have not expressed concern previously and I refute this. Members of the Foyle Area Driftnet Association have documentation which shows this matter was raised on at least ten occasions since 1987.
The reply to the parliamentary questions admits that licence fees have been historically higher than those in fishery board regions, but the aim, role and function of both are essentially the same. To say the commercial licence fee remained static for a number of years in the 1980s is simply not good enough when one considers the historical framework of the commission since it was set up in 1952. Surely with inflation this licence — which entitles the bearer to limited fishing only — should be less than £100 and not more than £300. Foyle fishermen want to pay £150 which is what everyone else is paying. Surely that is not too much to ask.
In Northern Ireland the Conservancy Board is able to issue approximately 12 licences, only five of which, to my knowledge, are used. The cost of those licences is approximately £240. There is no point in saying the licence fee will not increase for 1997. Fishermen have been fobbed off with that statement on previous occasions. If there was no increase in one year, there is a double rise in the subsequent year.
One hundred and twenty of the 130 applicants — 92 per cent — have informed the commission they are not prepared to operate a Foyle area driftnet licence under the current extortionate licence fees and the reduced access to fishing. The fishermen did not take this decision lightly and have tried to provide constructive options to show how the same finance could be generated by different and more acceptable means. This is a serious problem which I hope the Minister will consider urgently. He can correct me if I am wrong, but the entire argument is about approximately £18,000 which is generating huge emotions in the Foyle area.
The Foyle Area Driftnet Association suggested this could be addressed by the harmonisation of other licences. If this were done, the association claim it would generate much of the needed revenue. I would appreciate if the Minister would give his views in that regard. If there are objections to that proposal, there must be other equally valid book-keeping measures that could be used to create similar gains.
The reply to the parliamentary question stated that the commission had informed the advisory council on a number of issues, but driftnet fishermen withdrew from this council on the 31 July 1996 because of a lack of confidence in the commission and its consultation process. Is the hierarchy aware of this? If not, why?
The Department of the Marine is represented on the commission, it binds the decisions of the commission and the Foyle is under co-jurisdiction. Donegal fishermen on the Foyle want the Minister, who ultimately has responsibility for their welfare, to address their valid concerns. I understand the commission will meet in the near future. Will the Minister impress on this meeting the necessity for immediate action on licence fees, hours of fishing and length of season? The matter should not be allowed get out of hand.