Adjournment Debate. - Foyle Fisheries.

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.

The regulation of the commercial fisheries of the Foyle area is the responsibility of the Foyle Fisheries Commission, subject to the general requirement that the regulations are approved by the Minister for the Marine and the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland.

As the House is aware, the Foyle Fisheries Commission was established in 1952 under parallel primary legislation enacted by the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland parliament. The commission's current core functions are the management, conservation, protection and improvement of the salmon and inland fisheries of the Foyle area generally.

The commission consists of four members, two each appointed by the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland and the Minister for the Marine. The chairmanship rotates on an annual basis between the senior commissioners from each side. As has been the norm for many years, the commissioners are drawn from the two sponsoring Departments. In addition, the statutory consultative forum of the Foyle Fisheries Advisory Council represents local commercial fishermen and anglers.

I am advised the specific concerns raised by the Foyle Area Driftnet Association have been put to the commission and are being examined. These concerns relate to licence fees, the length of the fishing season and daily opening hours for fishing. All of these matters are primarily the responsibility of the commission. I have agreed to meet a deputation of the Foyle fishermen to give them an opportunity to express their concerns to me directly.

Existing driftnet licence fees for sea only and lough only licences are £276 and £302 for lough and sea licences. The licence fees in the Foyle area have remained static in real terms since the early 1980s, apart from increases in line with inflation. The commission advises that the fees charged for commercial licences have not had an unfavourable impact on demand for licences, which continues to exceed supply. I understand the Commission has already informed the advisory council that licence fees will not be increased for 1997.

The commission's revenues, which constitute about 37 per cent of total annual income, have been traditionally insufficient to meet its costs and the income deficit, amounting to approximately 63 per cent of total annual income, is funded jointly by the Irish and United Kingdom authorities. Licence fees account for almost 90 per cent of total revenues and given the stated objective to reduce progressively the deficit, a reduction in licence fees is not a feasible proposition.

The Foyle Area (Close Season) Regulations, 1993 provide for a driftnet open season from 15 June to 31 July, inclusive. I understand, following representations the commission made proposals last September to the advisory council which would allow, among other matters, for a review of target escapement figures following completion of habitat surveys and scientific assessment of the catchment.

The commission's scientific advisers expect to be in a position in the coming weeks to give an assessment of the salmon escapement targets. The commission may then propose an extension of the commercial netting season to 6 August on the condition that the revised target escapement figures are met. I understand the commission has advised the Foyle Area Driftnet Association of this approach.

The existing daily opening hours are between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. I understand that the Foyle Area Driftnet Association has sought an extension to allow fishing between 4 a.m. and 9 p.m. The commission considers that an increase in fishing effort through extending the fishing day cannot, on the basis of all the scientific evidence, be justified.

While these specific issues are primarily a matter for the commission, it would be useful to put the concerns of the Foyle fishermen in the wider context of the challenge facing those involved in salmon management. We have the common task of delivering on the conservation policy objective while having due regard to all legitimate interests in the salmon fishery.

Deputies will be aware that I recently introduced a new package of salmon conservation measures designed to secure and augment salmon stocks and which have brought in major restrictions on the interceptory drift net fishery in terms of season, area, and permitted fishing effort.

May we have the same restrictions, please?

New conservation and management strategies are essential if we are to reverse the decline in salmon stocks over the past three decades. We are now taking steps to put a comprehensive new regime in place beginning with the conservation measures. It would be inconsistent and inappropriate to seek to have a relaxation of the management and conservation regulations operating in the Foyle area unless the commission and its scientific advisers considered these to be justified by reference to the state of stocks.

Stocks of salmon in the Foyle area declined dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s. The real time fishery management system introduced by the commission in the mid-1970s in response to the decline relates fishery management activity to actual levels of escapement. The commission has, since 1975, expressed the objectives of its conservation work in terms of the maximum sustainable yield of salmon from the Foyle. Generally, its conservation operations have been effective in recent years. I am aware that last year was a difficult one in the Foyle fishery because target escapement figures were not met and thus netting was suspended on two occasions during the season. The effect of conservation measures, including the reduced season introduced in 1993, and the reassessment of target figures will inform future management decisions by the commission.

Deputies will be aware that following a comprehensive review of the operation funding structure and staffing of the commission, a number of proposals are being brought forward which will enable the Foyle Fisheries commission to realise new opportunities for development and strategic planning on an efficient and effective basis. It is proposed to expand the statutory role of the Commission to include, for the first time, the development of the fisheries resource and the promotion and development of angling facilities.

It is also proposed to restructure and enhance the role of the advisory council to enable it to play a more strategic, executive role in setting future directions for the commission. This will enable all the users of the resource, including commercial fishermen, to play a more substantial role in decision making and will allow for a greater degree of consultation and input on management and conservation strategies in the Foyle area and for better understanding by all the sectoral interest of the rationale behind those strategies.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.20 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 13 February 1997.