That Dáil Éireann:
— seaweed, as a natural resource, has been used in Ireland for hundreds of years and is closely linked with Gaeltacht areas, particularly in counties Galway, Mayo and Donegal;
— seaweed harvesting is a traditional occupation in many coastal areas and is a primary source of income for these communities;
— the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht’s Report of the Committee on Developing the Seaweed Industry in Ireland from May 2015, recommends the adoption of a national strategy to promote the development of the seaweed industry, focusing particularly on the Gaeltacht and the counties of the western seaboard;
— approximately 40,000 tonnes of seaweed is harvested in Ireland each year with over 95 per cent naturally grown;
— the harvesting of seaweed continues to be mainly carried out manually and remains a sustainable use of the natural resource; and
— seaweed is used for predominantly high volume, low-value products such as animal feeds, plant supplements, specialist fertilisers and agricultural products, while approximately one per cent goes into higher value products such as foods, cosmetics and therapies, with that one per cent generating 30 per cent of the industry’s overall value;
— the role that traditional harvesting methods have in the protection of this valuable resource;
— the current lack of regulation and monitoring in the seaweed sector and the dangers resulting therefrom to the livelihoods of traditional harvesters;
— the threats posed to the sustainability of this natural resource through the lack of regulation;
— the important role of sustainable harvesting in maintaining our ecosystem and in mitigating the effects of climate change;
— the inadequacies of existing foreshore legislation and the need to update the current legislative framework with regard to protecting traditional seaweed harvesting;
— the significant potential economic return for rural, coastal and island communities from sustainable development of the seaweed sector, noting that the sector provides full-time employment to 185 equivalents with some reports suggesting it provides part-time employment to approximately 400 people;
— the potential for sustainable job creation in seaweed harvesting and the impact of this employment for maintaining rural communities;
— that an analysis carried out by National University of Ireland Galway in 2014 estimated the value of the sector to be approximately €18 million per annum, €6 million of which goes on exports; and
— the potential for seaweed, as a highly valuable natural resource ingredient in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and organic food, which currently accounts for one per cent of production but 30 per cent of the industry’s overall value; and
calls on the Government to:
— develop and publish a national strategy to promote the development of the seaweed sector in Ireland with particular focus on the following:
— the interests of traditional seaweed harvesters and their livelihoods;
— the potential for sustainable job creation in the seaweed sector for rural, coastal and island communities and, in particular, to carry out an updated economic analysis of the seaweed sector in Ireland;
— the State’s obligation to regulate this natural resource for the primary benefit of local communities; and
— the State’s climate change commitments;
— suspend the grant of all licences pending the publication of the national strategy;
— move the responsibility for the licensing of seaweed to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine as recommended in the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht’s Report of the Committee on Developing the Seaweed Industry in Ireland from May 2015; and
— ensure that any new streamlined regulatory licence regime include:
— prioritisation of traditional harvesters;
— exemptions for traditional harvesters harvesting under a certain amount; and
— the protection of traditional harvesting rights from commercial interests in the future.
It is with pride that I move this motion. It is something on which I made a promise the day I was elected further to representations from many people throughout Ireland but in particular Galway and the western counties. I refer to the protection of seaweed as a natural resource. I will come back to the Minister's amendment, which is short, later in my contribution. This moment must be the most wonderful opportunity to deal with our natural resources, specifically seaweed, and to learn from the debacle that happened regarding our fishing rights and our gas and oil. If we do not learn now in this Dáil with new politics, we will never learn. Even though the Minister has tabled an amendment, I ask the Minister of State to reflect when he hears the debate on this matter because my colleagues and I worked hard on this motion and tabled it in such a way as to include all the Dáil in order that it would have unanimous support across all parties.
The motion first and foremost simply recognises the work that has been done by the traditional harvesters all over the west coast of Ireland to harvest seaweed in a sustainable manner and protect this natural resource for us all. My colleagues and I have looked at all the reports, a selection of which we have here before us. Each and every single report points to the role of traditional harvesters first and to the importance of protecting ár n-acmhainn nádúrtha, our natural resource, for the good of most of the people. Údarás na Gaeltachta, when it was before An Comhchoiste um Chomhshaol, Cultúr agus Gaeltacht, made this very point, that this sector must be developed for the common good and for the maximum number of people. The last report I have looked at is the report of the committee on developing the seaweed industry in Ireland from May 2015. Prior to this we had a report in January 2014 from the joint subcommittee on fisheries. Prior to that we had other reports and going back to 2000 we had a national forum on the seaweed industry. All these reports identified what I have said: first, the role of traditional harvesters and, second, the key issues of the importance of sustainability and the lack of research on the detrimental effects. We know there are detrimental effects, but the extent of those detrimental effects on seaweed of mechanical harvesting and so on is key.
According to the replies to the parliamentary questions tabled by various Deputies, 17 applications are pending before the Department, most from companies looking for licences. In his replies, the Minister of State told us the Government is working on resolving the difficulties, presumably with a view to granting licences. My difficulty with this is that all of the reports to which I have referred, and others besides, have all mentioned the urgent need for a national policy on developing the seaweed sector in a sustainable manner. There is no policy and no plan. It is quite incredible the Government will operate in a vacuum and, when it has sorted out the difficulties of who wants what, it intends to give out harvesting licences to companies.
I have tabled the motion in order to have an open discussion on this matter and I hope we will have general support for its passing. My colleague will go into the detail of the motion, but it calls on the Government not to issue any licences and to put on a hold doing so until we have a plan and policy in place. I am open to any name the Minister of State would like to put on it, but it should be a guiding document as to how we develop a sustainable seaweed sector for the benefit of all, particularly for the counties on the west coast that traditionally, leis na cianta cairbreacha, tá siad ag sábháil na feamainne. We must recognise this and move forward.
The amendment tabled by the Minister of State indicates that the Government is working on looking at the difficulties. The amendment recognises the work of the Minister of State in bringing legal clarity to issues regarding the interface between applications by companies to harvest the seaweed and the right of traditional harvesters. A benign interpretation of this is that it is extremely weak. By my interpretation, it is disingenuous because there is no clarity whatsoever in respect of the companies. The Government learned by accident that traditional harvesters had rights because they have exercised those rights for hundreds of years, because the right was on their folio because it was part of an estate which came from a landlord and which gave rights with regard to seaweed that were ultimately divided up among the tenants. The Government was surprised by this. These licences would have been given out were it not for the fact that traditional harvesters organised and made the Government aware of the position. They stated that they have rights because they have been doing this historically, that they had rights on their folios or that they had gained rights. The Government was then in a quandary as to what to do.
The Minister of State might clarify whether the 17 applications are all from companies. My understanding is that they are but I do not know. We have 17 applicants waiting for licences. The Government's intention is to give out those licences, once it decides who has rights and who does not, without any policy whatsoever being in place. That is frightening.
In addition, the Government amendment refers to significant quantities of high-volume low-value and low-volume high-value products and a figure of 30% is mentioned. I understand that the low-volume high-value product stands at 1%, not 30%. Again, I am quoting from the cross-party reports and I thank the Oireachtas Library and Research Service for its very comprehensive briefing document. We know that the figure is 1%. We know there is huge potential in this industry if it is done properly and sustainably.
Coincidentally, today we have a delegation from Bantry, whom I welcome, and we also have visitors from Connemara who are here for the debate on this matter. The protest that took place earlier was extremely informative. I went to the Central Hotel to listen to what they had to say regarding their concerns about the application being granted. Notwithstanding that there is no legal clarity yet or the fact that we have no policy or plan, the Government issued a ten-year licence for the mechanical harvesting of kelp. The Deputies from the area will go into this in detail. When I read about this and when I read the answers to the parliamentary questions to which I referred earlier, I was horrified that a ten-year licence was granted - in a vacuum - in respect of the mechanical harvesting of kelp, with a self-monitoring regime. It is an extraordinary concept that the company would self-monitor and give the Government a report following a two-week monitoring campaign between March and April, a time picked by the company and not reflective of what is needed in any essential assessment regime. On top of this, the application was published in a very small section of a local newspaper. The fact there was going to be mechanical harvesting was not mentioned and neither was the extent of the areas involved. This is just one example of what happens in a vacuum when an industry - I would prefer to call it the seaweed sector - is developer-led. We have seen the debacle and I have mentioned fishing and oil and gas.
I also want to mention the company operating in the west of Ireland at present. Local harvesters are supplying the company. The background to the company has been outlined in the report and lessons should be learned from it. The company was sold off. It was an Údarás na Gaeltachta company, it was doing very well and it was sold off. The report highlights the serious concerns about the manner in which it was sold off and the absence of an open tender. I am restricted by time and I will not go into detail but I mention it by way of asking at what point will we learn. At what point will we grasp the opportunity that this sector presents? It is an absolutely wonderful opportunity for development and the creation of jobs that would tie in with the Government's policy and with Chapter 4 of A Programme for a Partnership Government, which deals with jobs and rural development. It would also tie in with the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, CEDRA, which was set up to carry out a consultation progress regarding development in the western region. Why can the Government not grasp this opportunity and go forward in a positive manner so that we can all work together?