We will now proceed to the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2021. The Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Peter Burke, is here to deal with this. You are our expert on wildlife.
Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
And basking sharks.
Is this area in the portfolio of the Minister of State? Does he have responsibility for it?
I do, indeed, in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Heritage forms part of the direction on this.
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am delighted to be able to take part in the Second Stage debate of my colleague Deputy Whitmore's Wildlife Bill 2021, a day before National Biodiversity Week commences. She could not be here today due to a family bereavement. All our thoughts are with her on the loss of her sister, Lilian. I am standing in for her today and, in doing so, I acknowledge the work of her parliamentary assistant, Councillor Jodie Neary, in bringing this Bill together.
National Biodiversity Week is starting tomorrow. It is a timely reminder of the importance of our role as politicians to respond to the urgency of biodiversity loss in Ireland and to use the mechanisms available to us to push this agenda further. Almost exactly one year ago today, Deputy Whitmore did just that by tabling a Bill seeking to give basking sharks additional protection by placing them as a protected species under the Fifth Schedule to the 1976 Wildlife Act. The basking shark, known as Gaeilge as liamhán mór gréine, the great fish of the sun, is the world's second largest fish. They are regular visitors to our shore. We all remember amazing footage from the west as they meandered up the coast, providing us with a nice respite at the start of lockdown. Now, once again, we get to enjoy the fish of the sun gracing our coast during their migratory season. Recent studies have indicated that Ireland could become home to 10% or 20% of the global population of this species. Of the eight known coastal surface hotspots in the north-east Atlantic, five are located off the coast of Cork, Kerry, Clare, Mayo and Donegal. We are truly blessed to have this amazing creature come to our shores every year to call Ireland home. However, basking sharks are endangered and they are at very high risk of extinction in the wild. They were first classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species in 2018. They had previously been classified as vulnerable but they are now endangered.
In recent years Deputy Whitmore has engaged extensively with many wildlife groups, scientists and experts on the basking shark, including the Irish Basking Shark Group, IBSG, Fair Seas and the Irish Wildlife Trust. We know there is a huge public appetite for the protection of the basking sharks in Irish waters. The IBSG's save our shark campaign received more than 12,500 public signatures and scientific support from around the world. Thanks to its hard-working campaign, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, responded to the call to engage with Deputy Whitmore on a Bill after she first introduced it last year. I understand they have since met on a number of occasions and that the Minister of State agreed to put in place a statutory instrument on adding the basking shark to the protected species list in Ireland. We are very grateful for his collaborative approach to Deputy Whitmore's Bill and the efforts taken to protect the species. I understand a statutory instrument is in the pipeline. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, to use the opportunity today to go into more detail about this, including providing a status update and a timeline for its implementation and further actions that will be required if we are serious about protecting this iconic species.
We are here exactly 12 months from the time Deputy Whitmore first introduced this Bill and we still do not have the regulation in hand. This shows how slowly the political system responds to urgent situations, including matters of biodiversity loss. Even with regulations, however, we will still need to go further. Just putting the basking shark on the protected list is simply not enough. Once the regulations come into force, how can we ensure the basking shark will survive in the coming years? Protection, as defined in current legislation, does not include disturbance or harassment, but it does include wilful injury and interference with or destruction of breeding place. The proposed Bill will strengthen and broaden section 23 to include an additional or wider set of activities such as disturbance or harassment that can affect protected species. A legal definition of disturbance and harassment would need to accompany this change. The practicalities of this change would provide the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, or other authorised persons such as fisheries enforcement officers with the legal backing to enforce the cessation of disturbance or harassment behaviour when exhibited by public or commercial operators. It would also give authorised officers the power to pursue cases if sufficient evidence was supplied, such as video or witnesses, that an offence had been committed under the section. This would be a powerful deterrent, as it currently is for other activities such as badger baiting, the trapping of songbirds, robbing eggs from raptor nests and other criminal activities against nature.
The regulations propose to protect basking sharks from the wilful interference of their breeding and resting places, but not their feeding grounds. If this is the case, there is room for improvement to ensure the feeding grounds of basking sharks are not interfered with. I urge the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, to indicate in his contribution if he will include this in the statutory instrument.
There also needs to be a legally backed code of conduct on the regulation of wildlife tourism and recreation activities. I have heard that the regulations, based on Deputy Whitmore's Bill, will include a voluntary code instead of a legally backed code, which would provide authorised officers with the tools to pursue rogue operators in the courts and to enforce best practice. It would be great if the Minister of State could clarify this, the reasons for only including a voluntary code, and how this will be monitored and enforced if necessary. There are arguments on both sides as to the efficacy of either voluntary or legally backed codes, but having a legal instrument to support a code gives fallback to officials even if it is rarely used or an alternative voluntary code sits on top of it. There is no reason both cannot be used as incremental tools.
This is why we believe action plans should be initiated for every species that is added to the protected list. This should be an automatic process to escalate the response to protect the species that is clearly in danger. An action plan would include monitoring, implementation and enforcement procedures that include the expertise and resources of those groups working to protect species, in this case, the Irish Basking Shark Group and the Irish Wildlife Trust. An action plan could implement a task force specific to the species which could carry out analysis to help enhance population. This is currently taking place with the curlew, for example. The curlew has experienced a 96% decline in the breeding population in the past 30 years. In early 2017, the National Parks and Wildlife Service established a curlew task force. The task force adopted a collaborative approach to identify the policies and supports necessary to support breeding curlews in Ireland. A wide range of stakeholder groups contributed and a series of 26 agreed recommendations was published in 2019.
Good progress has been made in terms of some of the recommendations, but as is the case with challenging conservation issues, further progress could be made in other areas. To establish how many pairs of curlew remain breeding in Ireland and where they are, the NPWS has completed two national surveys in recent years. Approximately €10 million in funding has been dedicated to on-the-ground measures for curlews in the past five years alone. The curlew conservation programme that was established in 2017 by the NPWS operates across nine geographical areas. These combined efforts have supported overall productivity levels that should sustain a stable population of curlew. However, in some of the nine areas, productivity levels are still below the critical threshold. Work by the NPWS and UCD is progressing to support the analysis of satellite tracking data for breeding curlew in Ireland under a masters research project to better understand the landscapes the curlew uses. It is evident that extensive work is needed even just to stabilise a population already at risk.
Conservation of a species like the basking shark will require huge amounts of collaboration between the State agencies, stakeholder engagement groups, funding and scientific know-how. Furthermore, when it comes to the enforcement of existing laws, we are underperforming. It is welcome that the wildlife crime unit has been established. However, this is taking time to get off the ground and there are issues relating to capacity. The dedicated unit within the National Parks and Wildlife Service was first announced in October 2020 and established in 2021. Almost a year later, it is still not yet fully operational.
Recent replies to parliamentary questions from Deputy Whitmore state that, currently, 110 staff are working across all regions of the country to address wildlife crime. These include district conservation officers and conservation rangers, supported by regional managers and divisional managers. Eight-six conservation rangers are stationed throughout the country, with the intention to increase ranger numbers further up to 120. The work being carried out by the NPWS resulted in 21 successful prosecutions being closed in 2021, with 15 more being successfully closed to date this year and a further 48 cases on hand at present. However, it has been brought to our attention that some areas in the country are still waiting for the recruitment of rangers.
I also want to discuss the importance of marine protected areas, MPAs. Ireland has a substantive role to play in the long-term recovery of the basking shark species. This is best achieved via a combination of conservation measures such as domestic legal protection and MPAs. Recently, the summary of responses to Ireland's MPA consultation showed basking sharks were mentioned more than any other animal as being in need of protection. Furthermore, in the summary of responses to the MPA consultation, an incredible 99% of respondents supported MPAs and there was also strong support for 30% coverage of the marine protected areas by a 2030 target. Deputy Whitmore has been working very closely with Fair Seas Ireland on basking sharks. It supports the call to work towards affording legal protection to basking sharks in Irish waters, as well as the need for a marine protected area designed to protect these animals. Ireland could provide a broad-scale basking shark awareness marine protection area.
It would encompass the entire Irish western and northern seaboard nearshore area, which is less than six nautical miles, with more discreet seasonally activated marine protection areas for the species in sensitive coastal and offshore hotspots.
Given Ireland’s strategic location in the north Atlantic for this species, this combination of soft and hard marine protection area is necessary to protect and support a population level that is in recovery. The Irish Basking Shark Group has reiterated this vision for effective basking shark marine protective areas in Irish waters based on three key targets. The first of these is a broad coastal marine protection area encompassing the entire western seaboard, six nautical miles, off Ireland, from Cork to Donegal. This marine protection area would principally promote awareness of the species and aim to protect public and commercial behaviours that may intentionally harm or disrupt the species.
Second is a network of several discrete surface hotspots where elevated levels of protection will be implemented via dedicated legal regulation and existing environmental legislation.
Third, there may be a requirement for further complementary designations at the shelf edge and inshore exclusive economic zone, EEZ, waters if sharks are found to aggregate in large numbers in these environments. A dynamic and ecosystem-based approach to protect these amazing animals is needed. The Irish Government must act now and use a variety of different conservation tools that it has at its disposal to ensure success, first by amending the Wildlife Act 1976 to include basking shark on the list of protected species and second through the development of a task force and an action plan to designate appropriate marine protection areas.
I thank the Minister of State for joining us.
I acknowledge all the work that Deputy Whitmore has done in this area. The Government will not oppose this Bill. The Deputy’s passion and concern for protecting basking sharks is very clear and indeed is shared by the Government. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, shares the Deputy’s desire for greater protections. He and the Department are supportive of measures to support and enhance that.
The basking shark is the largest fish species in the north Atlantic with some exceptional specimens reaching over 12 m in length having been recorded. This species has a long historical and cultural connection with Irish coastal communities. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN, has classified the basking shark as endangered on their red list of globally threatened species. The species has also been assessed as endangered on Ireland's own red list of sharks and rays. The species faces a risk of extinction in the wild and monitoring and management is needed to mitigate against this.
Records suggest that the coast of Ireland is an important habitat for key stages in the basking shark's life cycle, with sharks typically appearing on the surface along the western Irish seaboard during April. While typically the sharks disperse from Irish coastal waters during late summer, many individuals also winter in Irish offshore waters.
Research into the population, distribution and life cycle of the basking sharks is ongoing. The Irish and EU-funded INTERREG VA SeaMonitor project is currently investigating connectivity within and between populations in the north east Atlantic. This, in conjunction with several other Irish-based studies, will help Ireland to make informed decisions on the conservation of the species into the future.
While target fishing and the landing of by-caught basking sharks for sale is subject to a memorandum ban under the Common Fisheries Policy and in wider EEA areas, it is recognised that a number of threats in Irish waters do remain. These include by-catch threats and entanglement in, for example, crab pot ropes. Basking sharks can be observed around coastal waters, giving a wonderful natural spectacle to those nearby. While the increase in interest in wildlife tourism is broadly welcomed, this does bring with it some negative behaviours. Disturbance and harassment by marine ecotours and other recreational boat users, jet skis and divers also appear to be a growing issue. These are some of the behaviours that the Bill proposed by the Deputy is seeking to address.
My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and officials from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage have met with Deputy Whitmore, as referenced, on a number of occasions to discuss the Bill and the proposed development of regulations. Work is underway to make a regulation under section 23(2)(a) of the Wildlife Act 1976 to confer protected wild animal status on the basking shark.
Once protected wild animal status is conferred and it would be an offence under section 23(5) to hunt these species, unless under permission or licence granted by the Minister under the Act; to injure these species, unless done while hunting in accordance with a licence or exemption cited above; or wilfully to interfere with or destroy their breeding or resting places. I am glad to say that work to confer section 23 protections on the basking shark are now at an advanced stage.
In addition, a code of conduct for sustainable marine eco-tourism will be developed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. A review of international best practice is currently underway. Key stakeholders to assist in drafting the code of conduct are being identified. The code of conduct will also be subject to public consultation in due course. A wider review of the Wildlife Act is planned and the applicability and degree of protection afforded to the species listed on the fifth schedule will be included in that review process. These actions will serve as the first step in providing protection for the species in Irish territorial waters. The code of conduct will help Ireland to further meet its commitments under international treaties.
I would like to join with Deputy Gannon in offering my sympathies to Deputy Whitmore and to her family.
We all wish to be associated with that message of sympathy to Deputy Whitmore. It is a very difficult time for her.
There is unfortunately nobody else listed to speak on this matter. Deputy Gannon as the proposer may respond to the Minister of State's comments. The Minister of State then may give a further response, if he wishes to do so.
I thank the Minister of State for his contribution. I intend to be quite brief. I listened to the Minister of State's comments and I drafted some notes. I welcome the Minister’s contribution, but it has taken 12 months to get to this point. The fact that it is still being said that work is underway does not instil a huge amount of confidence in me.
I note that the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, has on a multitude of occasions highlighted the work that Deputy Whitmore has done. If you are going to celebrate the work, we need to see the action coming from it. We are being told today that work is still underway and that is not really good enough.
Simply having the species on the list will not do anything without an action plan or a mandatory code of conduct, where appropriate. This is because the very definition of that would ensure greater protection to this species.
I finish by thanking, on behalf of Deputy Whitmore, the various different NGOs that have helped contribute to the Bill that she has designed. It is very welcome the Minister of State and the Government will not be opposing the Bill, but it needs action to follow up on it. This cannot be a Bill that simply sits on a shelf. The International Day for Biological Diversity will be on 22 May. We need to be able to show the action behind our will.
As I stated, the work is at an advanced stage. I know that the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, is recruiting an additional 120 rangers, which is double what was there in 2020. Therefore, there is a lot of good work ongoing in this space.