I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Early enactment of the Bill is needed to fill two important gaps in the Fisheries (Amendment) Act, 1997, to enable the independent Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board to do its work in as effective, efficient and transparent a way as possible. The board is a key element of the comprehensive and transparent aquaculture licensing arrangements established under the 1997 Act. The Bill was passed by Seanad Éireann on 20 June 2000. Before dealing with the Bill, it is appropriate for me to comment on aquaculture licensing generally. My concluding remarks will point the way for accelerating the sustainable growth of aquaculture which is in the national interest.
A solid licensing framework is in place to facilitate the sustainable development of aquaculture to its full potential. Aquaculture provides more than 3,000 jobs, has an annual income of £67 million and has enormous potential for increases in both areas. I am determined to ensure that the licensing framework works as effectively and speedily as possible in the interests of both the industry and the public whose support is essential.
Since I spoke here in December 1998 on the Fisheries and Foreshore (Amendment) Bill, 1998, I have secured substantial progress in processing the huge arrears of licence applications which had built up over the years while the licensing law was being reformed and made operational. A total of 347 licences, comprising 319 aquaculture licences and 28 trial licences for aquaculture purposes, have been granted compared with an annual average of approximately 70 licences granted for aquaculture purposes in previous years. Licensing decisions have been made in a further 35 cases, of which 30 await the end of the one month appeal period before licences can issue in any event, and five await the determination of the independent Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board on appeals.
There are approximately 250 applications on hands, which my Department aims to progress and pass to me for decision as quickly as possible after completion of the necessary consultation and assessment procedures. The rigorous assessment of all licence applications is fair to all concerned and is designed to ensure that only sustainable projects proceed. Applications for major expansion of marine finfish farms must be accompanied by a comprehensive environmental impact statement for consideration by the public and specialist organisations. Inevitably, larger marine aquaculture developments will only be feasible further off-shore. The more complex or controversial the application, the longer it takes to process. In straightforward new cases, usually small in nature, a decision is made within three to four months, and sometimes earlier if no objections or concerns emerge during the necessary consultation process.
My Department and I, in consultation with the aquaculture industry, are keeping the licensing procedures under close review to ensure that good practices will continue to prevail both in the preparation and processing of licence applications and necessary supporting documentation. A suite of detailed monitoring and other protocols for matters such as water quality and benthic monitoring and amelioration, audit of farms, sea lice monitoring and control and fallowing of sites has already been devised for the marine finfish sector in consultation with the industry and other interested parties and made part-and-parcel of aquaculture licences.
Work is proceeding on devising further protocols for both the marine finfish and marine shellfish sectors, with priority for visual impact assessment and lighting and marking of structures.
The industry and my Department intend to address priority licensing issues concerning freshwater aquaculture later this year in consultation with other permitting authorities in order to streamline the permitting and monitoring procedures and to allow the sector to develop to its full potential in a sustainable way.
Enforcement of licence conditions and action against illegal operations will be intensified in order to ensure proper standards of aquaculture operations generally and close off potential sources of complaints for other operators or the public generally. Full industry co-operation and good practices will, of course, enhance the public acceptability of aquaculture operations and pave the way for the continued growth of the sector.
The provision of an independent statutory appeals mechanism, as well as a mechanism for public consultation and consultation with specialist organisations, is a key feature of the Fisheries (Amendment) Act, 1997. It is essential that the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board performs its duties efficiently and effectively and has the necessary powers to do so.
The board has dealt with a substantial caseload since it was established on 30 June 1998, with 62 cases already determined. In two cases, the board did not uphold the ministerial decision to license. Only two of the 13 ministerial decisions to refuse to grant a licence for shellfish operations were appealed to the board which upheld the refusal in one case and has yet to determine the appeal in the other case, as well as appeals against five ministerial decisions to license marine finfish operations. I commend the board for its vital work. In all, 68 out of 404 ministerial decisions have been appealed under the 1997 Act.
The board has pointed to the lack of any power or obligation in the 1997 Act for its refusal to explain determinations made, in contrast to the specific statutory obligation on An Bord Pleanála under the Local Government (Planning and Development) Acts. This has created obvious difficulty for licence applicants and for me as Minister with responsibility for national policy on aquaculture licensing and so calls for early remedy via the Bill. It is only proper, in the interests of transparency and fairness of procedures, that all future determinations of the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board shall be explained when made, and that the board shall, on request, give a summary of the main reasons and considerations for past determinations. That is the purpose of section 2 of the Bill which inserts a new subsection (8) in section 40 of the 1997 Act dealing with appeals to the board. Only minimal additional work for the board is expected from those necessary provisions.
The other priority matter concerns inspection powers. The Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board requested a clearer statutory statement of its own power, and the power of any consultant or adviser engaged by it, to visit any land or foreshore or area or water to which an appeal relates, whether or not an oral hearing of the appeal is to be held. There is doubt that the current inspection power may be limited to appeal cases where an oral hearing is held, which was not the intention. I am delighted to be able to accede to the board's request in a timely way via section 4 of the Bill which provides comprehensive inspection powers for the board and for any consultant or adviser engaged to perform functions on behalf of the board. A number of consequential amendments to the 1997 Act are provided for in sections 3 and 5 of the Bill.
More importantly, since the Bill was passed by Seanad Éireann on 20 June 2000, the Attorney General has confirmed that the 1997 Act, as worded, precludes the board from recruiting its own staff directly. The volume of board business was not anticipated when the 1997 Act was being prepared and is such, and likely to be such, as to require flexible staff recruitment arrangements which my Department is unable to provide by the expedient of temporary assignment of staff. I will, therefore, be proposing amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage, modelled on the staffing provisions for An Bord Pleanála in sections 120, 121, 122 and 123 of the Planning and Development Act, 2000. I will be taking the opportunity to propose additional amendments so as to copperfasten long-standing arrangements for the renewal, consolidation and assignment of licences for aquaculture purposes.
Section 6 of the Bill requires amendment to take account of the enactment of the Fisheries (Amendment) Act, 2000, and delay in enactment of the present Bill until this year. The text of the proposed amendments will be circulated as soon as possible after the Second Stage is completed.
In relation to sustainable aquaculture development, the aquaculture licensing framework in place and the important provisions of the Bill before this House are an essential element of our strategy to develop aquaculture as a high quality and high value contributor to local and national development as soon as possible. My vision is of Ireland being the premier producer of top quality aquaculture products for the European and global markets.
The Government is committed to the further sustainable development of aquaculture and has earmarked £25 million in the National Development Plan, 2000 to 2006, for aquaculture, which is more than double the funding made available under the last round of Structural Funds. Details of the investment scheme for aquaculture were deposited in the Oireachtas Library last month. More than a doubling of annual aquaculture production is projected in that period, that is, to over 95,000 tonnes, as compared with 44,000 tonnes currently.
A strong partnership between my Department, Bord Iascaigh Mhara, the Marine Institute and Udarás na Gaeltachta, the industry and myself will ensure that we achieve our objectives for the aquaculture sector and position the industry to compete successfully in growing international markets. Even more innovation and sustained efforts will be required also in the longer term so that aquaculture can reach its potential as a provider of significant income and jobs in remote rural areas such as coastal areas.
The CIRCA report, which we commissioned in 1999 and published in June last year, provides a major strategic analysis of the future directions and opportunities for aquaculture. The report concludes that sustainable development of our aquaculture industry is in the national interest and vital for the well-being and future of our coastal communities, as Deputies like me representing those communities will verify. The report recommends that the industry must achieve critical mass in production terms, diversification into new species, best practice in line with stringent environmental guidelines and high standards of quality assurance. These are the key challenges to address in order to position the industry internationally over the next decade, and allow it to develop and prosper thereafter.
The report recommends the achievement of an annual production of at least 150,000 tonnes by 2015 in order to underpin at least some 9,000 jobs and annual income of at least £450 million by adopting the following four strategies: quickly build critical mass in salmon, sea reared trout and mussels and increase the level of value added in the production chain; create additional peripheral coastal income and high quality jobs in species with lower capital costs and less potential value added; the State must enhance its services underpinning quality, sustainable development, regu lation and other technical and policy areas, and there must be greater support for innovation-led development, which ensures that research and development, technology transfer and technical services will better meet the needs of the industry. The CIRCA report clearly puts a tough ambitious agenda before us all. The potential rewards in terms of significant jobs and income provision have been highlighted and are achievable.
In relation to jobs, most people will know that I live on the Hook peninsula in County Wexford, which is between Bannow Bay and Waterford estuary. Both areas have extensive aquaculture, which provides full-time employment for many people living close to me. Without aquaculture, those people would have had to leave their home parish of Templetown or many of the other parishes around the country to go to the cities, or maybe to emigrate. People now live at home and work in good well-paid jobs in their own area. They are part of the community and are able to play for local hurling and football teams. I assure this House of my total commitment to work with all concerned to secure the prospects that are available as quickly as possible.