Other Questions. - Fishing Industry Development.

Joan Burton

Question:

59 Ms Burton asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources the matters discussed and conclusions reached at his meeting with Commissioner Fischler in Strasbourg on 12 March 2003; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10824/03]

I arranged to meet Commissioner Fischler on 12 March to discuss with him, at first hand, a number of marine issues of particular interest to Ireland. The primary focus of our discussion was in relation to the Irish box. However, we also ranged over other issues such as current progress on the development of long-term recovery plans for cod and hake stocks and also the new fishing effort limitation scheme in operation off the north-west coast since the beginning of February.

In so far as the Irish box is concerned, I again emphasised to Commissioner Fischler the biological sensitivity of fishing grounds within the box on which Irish fishermen are highly dependent. I also reiterated to the Commissioner the importance of preventing an increase of fishing effort within the Irish box. A migration of fishing effort into the Irish box would be inconsistent with the overriding need to conserve stocks and in that regard I stressed the particular need to maintain an equilibrium between fleets and stocks.

The Commissioner accepted my view that this is a vital issue that needs to be resolved as a matter of urgency. He also accepted that a Union approach must be followed in this case and that a bilateral approach would not result in a resolution of the current situation. As I have previously advised the House, the existing Commission proposal is completely unacceptable and must be radically amended. In that regard, I advise the Deputy that the Commissioner undertook at our meeting to reflect further on how this matter can be resolved.

On the basis of recent soundings, it is clear that Ireland's position and concerns are not being satisfactorily addressed in current Commission thinking on a possible compromise. Accordingly, I again spoke at length with Commissioner Fischler last week to reiterate my concerns and press Ireland's case. I have agreed a further meeting with Commissioner Fischler in light of the lack of progress on this critical issue.

I welcome the fact that the Commissioner accepts that a bilateral approach will not solve this and that it must be solved at European level. Will the Minister give us information as to the impact the new situation in relation to the box has made since 1 January? Is the 40-boat rule being adhered to by our Naval Service and Coastguard? The Minister said that clearly this situation must be resolved. Is there a timeframe for resolving it? The Minister threatened previously to go to the European Court. Is this something he is still thinking about or is that much further down the line?

The Government has had significant discussions on this matter and we are looking at every option. There is one thing which, to a certain extent, has weakened my position. Going into the new year, Armageddon was being forecast not only by the Opposition but by people outside this House. However, the number of boats within the Irish box has been surprisingly small. On the day of my recent meeting with Commissioner Fischler there were only five in the box. Today, before I came into the House, there were 18 in the box, and most of those are in the north-west, not in the south-west. We are keeping a close eye on this issue, on which we hold very strong views. We were successful in getting the Commission to move away from a position where it treated this as a bilateral issue between ourselves and Spain to a position where it is dealing with it on a Union basis, which is necessary because other countries such as the UK, France and Portugal are also affected.

The Minister said he holds strong views on the issue of the Irish box. Will he reassure fishermen around the country that if more than the 40 Spanish vessels that are allowed into the Irish box come into it, we will arrest the 41st vessel that comes in? Will the Minister provide clarity on that?

It is not for me to police the Irish box. That is up to the Naval Service, and I have no direct responsibility in relation to the Naval Service. I assure the Deputy that there have been discussions between my Department and the Department of Defence on the implementation of the regulations that arein situ.

Written answers follow Adjournment Debate.