Fisheries (Amendment) Bill 2002: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome this Bill. It was promised legislation under the programme for Govern ment published prior to the election and it will be beneficial for Irish fishermen. There are two main aspects to the Bill. In the first instance, it establishes a statutory office of appeals officer. The appeals officer has beenin situ in an interim capacity since November 2002. Under the Bill it will be a statutory office for five years and will be independent of the Minister, which I warmly welcome.

The appeals officer's function will be to examine current legislation and to review any appeals of sea fishing licences brought by applicants who believe they have not been treated fairly. I have received a number of representations from people in my constituency who were unhappy with the licences they received and, in one instance, with not getting a licence. This office will lead to openness and transparency, which must be good for all sea fishermen. I also welcome the fact that in the case of third party appeals, they will no longer be allowed to sit on the fence. In other words, they must make their appeal when the original licence is granted. They cannot come along after having sat on the fence and make a contribution to the appeals officer. If there is a point with which the applicant is unhappy, he or she can appeal within three months of the appeals officer's decision to the High Court. These provisions are most welcome and long overdue.

The second part of the Bill deals at length with the conservation of certain species of fish. Fish is a worthwhile and beneficial food. It is also a cheap food with many health giving properties. Unfortunately, in the recent past, due to technology and bigger boats, the stocks of certain species of fish have diminished rapidly. This is caused by over-fishing and there is a danger that some of the fish species will shortly become extinct. The United Nations established an agreement among member states to conserve certain fish species, particularly those that travel through different seas during their life spans The 14 other EU member states have signed this agreement. It has also been signed by the European Union. Ireland is the only member state that has not signed it. That is another reason to welcome the Bill. It is vital, from the point of view of preserving fish species, that the Government be allowed sign the agreement as quickly as possible.

This will help protect the interests of Irish fishermen, particularly sea fishermen. Many of our sea fishermen use relatively small boats and in recent times they have had to go further and further out to sea to reach the fish stocks. The other aspect of the Bill which I welcome are the increased powers given to the fisheries protection officers. Members of the Garda Síochána, the Naval Service and the Air Corps can act as fisheries protection officers. They will be able to stop, board, inspect and, perhaps, confiscate not only Irish sea fishing vessels on the high seas but also those of any state that has signed the agreement. Everybody is aware that the boats of certain states have over-fished stocks in the past but our officers could not board or inspect them outside our territorial waters. That aspect of the Bill is most welcome.

I urge the Minister to ensure that the procedure for granting licences and under which appeals will be made is as open and transparent as possible. The sea fishermen, particularly in Raughley Harbour, Mullaghmore, Rosses Point and towards Enniscrone in my constituency, want this process to be transparent and open and I ask the Minister to ensure that this will be the case. How many licences have been granted to sea fishing boats in the last two years?

I thank Deputy Devins for sharing his time. I welcome the Bill. I live three miles from Greencastle so I am familiar with the difficult lives fishermen have working out of the Foyle and the Swilly and around the coast. It is also difficult for their spouses who often have to sit at home wondering when the fishermen will return and worrying about the difficult seas they will encounter. Any measure therefore that seeks to ease the process and incorporates supports for fishermen where they believe things are not right with an appeals mechanism is most welcome. The fishing industry is happy with this Bill.

The Bill is designed to extend and strengthen the sea fisheries legislation. While its primary purpose is to provide for the establishment of the independent statutory appeals process for licensing of sea fishing boats, I am glad it goes beyond that. The Minister pointed out that this process has been in operation in a non-statutory form since 25 November last year. An independent lawyer, Niall Beirne of the Law Library, has filled this position and it is important that people have recourse to such a person. It is important that somebody is available who is independent and is seen by the organisation to be independent when dealing with members' queries.

My query is whether it will be necessary to license our boats. I urge the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, and his colleague, the Minister, Deputy Ahern, with the rest of the Cabinet to work hard to ensure that the marine remains a focus not only of the Irish Government but at European level. A time might come when we will not need an appeals or licensing system. The way things are going at present there might not be any boats going out to fish. The fight must continue in Brussels to ensure we will have boats to license.

We worked hard to get a white fish fleet renewal scheme. Of the 32 boats in the scheme, 16 were in Donegal and of that 16, six were in Greencastle. This was an important health and safety issue. In my first year as an Opposition Deputy I regularly tried to impress on the then Minister, former Deputy Barrett, the fact that the age of the fleet was between 35 and 50 years. Progress was made under the last Administration and not only were new boats provided in the fleet but support mechanisms were provided for second-hand boats to be made more modern, better equipped and safer.

Now that we have addressed the safety issue and have safer, more efficient and better boats for fishing, many boats in the fleet are not being allowed to fish. That issue is particularly strong in my constituency and it will become more important in other coastal areas. People will begin to take notice of it next year in other parts of the country. I ask the Minister of State to work with the Minister and to look at what was agreed in Johannesburg. Deputy Ryan spoke earlier about conservation. Most fishermen do not disagree with the thrust towards conservation so long as the measures proposed are in the interests of conservation. I say that in the context of this Bill enabling Ireland to give effect to the 1995 United Nations agreement concerning conservation and management of straddling and highly migratory fish stocks and those vulnerable to over-fishing. There should be a concerted international effort to protect such stocks.

In regard to cod stocks, we face a serious situation which needs to be addressed, but it should be called what it is. I do not believe that the most recent decision to close a section of area six is true conservation. We need to invest money in research to examine this carefully because there are parts of area six in which there never was and never will be cod, as well as areas with spawning grounds and juvenile areas. I appeal to the Minister of State to dispatch a research vessel to area six to look at where the spawning grounds and juvenile areas are, put the statistical information together and go back to Europe armed with the results. We must deal with the situation realistically.

Fishermen are going out not to catch cod because they cannot put a notice on their nets asking cod not to apply. They know from experience that cod will not be caught in certain areas but they are being penalised with days at sea and smaller mesh sizes when the responsible fishermen know where they should and should not be fishing. This cannot be done by Ireland alone – we cannot expect our fishermen to keep out of closed areas when the rest of the European fleet can fish there. This must be an EU-wide measure which is respected around the coastline. Our fishermen are interested in conservation so we should produce the research and proof to tell fishermen that certain spawning areas or juvenile areas are being closed, thereby putting the onus back on them not to enter them. As fishermen in Greencastle have been saying for years, enough protection is provided by the various detection equipment on vessels so it should be easy to enforce closed-off areas.

A wind farm has been proposed in the mouth of the River Foyle where there is a strong wild salmon fishery. This is supposedly protected by the EU and under-exploited by ourselves, yet the wind farm developers extol the virtues of the sanctuary effect that will be created by the wind farms. This means that when the smolts arrive at the wind farm, they will not go any further but swim around only to be eaten by bigger fish. Salmon are tagged in the river in my area and it has been proven that they come back to within 100 yards of where they were born. If they go past an electro-magnetic field like the wind farm, is there proof it will not distort their ability to find their way back and will the salmon fishery survive? I ask the Minister of State, the Minister for Communication, Marine and Natural Resources, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach to rally together to ensure it is clearly made known that we find this unacceptable, that we need more information and that we need to know what the effect will be on our salmon stocks. We have done research and we have plans to develop our salmon fisheries. The locks agency is working hard to ensure we have a fishery.

Just before Christmas I stood in the Reelin River with water up to my knees at the salmon spawning location. This should not be allowed to disappear because of 85 30-storey wind turbines that could have been located somewhere else. Furthermore, these are of no ecological or other advantage to the Republic.

I do not mind sea-fishery enforcement being strengthened if we have done our best to give the fishermen a level playing field. I ask the Minister of State to look at the situation on Lough Swilly – there is a great deal of activity, including commercial and leisure, but there is no overall plan. There is also some activity on the River Foyle and, in that context, I ask the Minister of State to progress the updating of the Foyle fishery legislation so the activity can take place in a planned and progressive manner. I ask that the Swilly be examined in the same context. There are oyster beds and mussel beds, commercial fishermen and anglers, people involved in the RNLI and the whitefish fleet, yachting, jet-skiing and swimming. These cannot co-exist in a safe manner unless we develop a coherent plan. We should look at what is happening in the likes of Lough Swilly, decide whether it is acceptable and develop an overall plan of how we can work as best we can.

The Foyle supports the car ferry, has potential for cruise liners and features various forms of aquaculture. Aquaculture is currently unlicensed because we waited for two Governments to progress the legislation, then because of the Good Friday Agreement it was left to the Northern Executive to bring this forward. The Executive is not operational at present. I have asked the Secretary of State, Mr. Paul Murphy, to advance the legislation in the absence of the Executive but that is not the best way to advance legislation – the best way is through people working locally. At least when the Executive was working, one could have a discussion with the Minister – in this case, Bríd Rogers – about the solutions. This cannot continue indefinitely. If the legislation can be expedited by the Secretary of State it should be.

Fishermen have a difficult life. I would like to see our fishing industry expand but we have problems because of decisions taken before Christmas on the sea and land. I ask that the Minister of State works with his senior colleague, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Couglan, and the Taoiseach to examine the on-shore effects of these decisions. The Minister has been good in facilitating interested parties to put their case and they have had meetings with numerous other Ministers. However, their issues are only an example of what the rest of the country might face in years to come unless these problems are addressed now. We must believe we can provide solutions to many of the problems we will have in the future. That will come down to research and to being able to progress on the basis of facts and statistics.

Fishermen, statisticians and legislators should work together and the European Union should work with us. It is not in the best interests of anyone that some people would try to conserve stocks while others would do what is best politically for themselves, which is what I consider is the current position.

Many good points were made in Johannesburg about conservation and sustainable development up to 2015 and beyond. However, when it comes to working together in Brussels to a deadline, which is usually around Christmas, people consider what they need themselves and real conservation is not taken into account. It is a case of every one for himself or herself, and that is wrong. People should consider the bigger picture. The Common Fisheries Policy needs to be properly reviewed to take account of conservation because we want fishing for life, not only for the next five to ten years.

Tá lúcháir orm an deis seo a bheith agam cupla focal a rá faoin mBille tábhachtach seo. Tá sé tábhachtach chomh fada agus a bhaineann sé le iarthar na hÉireann agus chomh fada agus a bhaineann sé leis an gcondae arb as mé féin agus Deputy Keaveney.

I am delighted to speak on this Bill, which provides for the introduction of two major measures. It provides for the establishment of an independent appeals process for sea fishing boat licensing and a conservation measure or giving effect to the 1982 UN agreement concerning the preservation of fish populations. Both measures are long overdue. It is a great disservice to our fishing industry, a great natural resource we have had for many generations, that these measures were not introduced before now.

I am particularly delighted that at long last transparency, fairness and a sense of matters being above board has been introduced in approving and granting licences for fishing boats. I have been a member of this House for 20 years and I am aware of a scandal that has been going on for that period and for 20 years before that. When honest members of coastal communities applied for licences for small fishing boats, it is scandalous that their securing a licence was pot luck in that sometimes their applications were approved and sometimes they were not, in which case they were not given an adequate explanation as to why they were unsuccessful.

I know of many people who had to emigrate from coastal communities, such as the one in which I live, simply because they did not have the connections to get the required fishing licence that would allow them to earn a livelihood. I am sure the Minister of State and Deputy O'Donovan are aware that fishing licences are a valuable commodity on the open market. The way fishing licences were granted in the past was scandalous. I welcome the establishment of the appeals process, which will result in procedures being above board.

I am old enough to remember a time when if one was unsuccessful in securing planning permission from the local authority, one contacted the Minister who had the power, the authority and the gall to grant or refuse such planning permission. When one observes the planning permissions that were granted in some parts of the country, it makes one wonder. An Bord Pleanála was then established. I do not agree 100% with all its decisions, but at least I do not believe that all its decisions are politically motivated, which is good.

Prior to the establishment of the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, I recall the Minister for Justice of the day had a major say in prosecutions, in which, as Deputy O'Donovan who is a legal person would know, solicitors, barristers and senior counsel got the briefs. We have departed from that, thank God. This is the last bastion of political patronage. It is about time it was ended and for that reason I welcome this measure.

In the negotiations last December, with which I will deal later, when a great deal was sold out and many restrictions introduced, a concession was given to the Minister in Brussels that all fishing craft under 12 metres would be given a licence and a quota. I understand that is the position and that application forms in this respect are being issued to members of fishing communities. When the owners of these small craft were obliged to register their craft, we thought it was ridiculous that small boats – 20 to 30 foot boats – had to be registered. It was all right to register them, but the cost of doing so was astronomical. There is sometimes no point in registering in that one will not get a licence unless one has tonnage, and the cost is €4,000 to €5,000 per tonne. Since this regulation was implemented, people in my constituency and other coastal communities last year and the year before thought they had better comply with the law and abide by the regulations, and they borrowed £30,000 to £50,000 to register a small craft. I could name those involved.

I contacted the Department only last week on behalf of a poor fisherman in my constituency. He has a small boat and it cost him €50,000 to get the required tonnage in order that he could earn a livelihood. If that man had decided to hold out until after the negotiations in Brussels last December, he would be entitled to get that tonnage free gratis today. Being the law abiding man he is – there are many more like him – he decided to make the investment. Will that man be refunded his €50,000 investment, given that those who did not invest in the required tonnage will now get it free gratis? It will be unfair if my constituent and others who bought tonnage do not get a refund on their investment. I welcome the establishment of the independent appeals process.

The other measure introduced in the Bill relates to conservation. We all know that fish is a renewal asset and is one of our most valuable natural resources. Coming from a fishing community, I believe that fishermen are more concerned and aware of the needs of conservation and preservation than many others, including some of those who write the rules and regulations in Brussels. They know that their livelihoods and those of their children and future generations depend on adequate fish stocks. We must allow fish species to spawn. Fishermen are adherents to, supporters of and firm believers in conservation.

The conclusions of the EU fisheries meeting at the end of last year were a major disappointment. They have been potentially devastating for small fishing communities along our western seaboard, from Donegal to Kerry. This measure is being introduced in the interests of conservation but as Deputy Keaveney said, it is a blunt instrument to address this necessary requirement. Fishermen in the north-west who have been fishing for generations will now be restricted to nine days fishing per month in the interests of conservation. In what other profession or walk of life could one survive on the equivalent of nine days fishing per month? This measure is crazy. I do not know how the Minister accepted this terrible restriction. I agree with Deputy Keaveney that our scientists and fishermen should be allowed to carry out their own measures of conservation. This conservation measure is a blunt instrument. There is consternation about this throughout Donegal. For the first time ever the entire fishing organisation in the county went to the Council last week and put its case on record.

Debate adjourned.