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Wednesday, 13 Dec 2006

Statutory Instruments: Motions.

The joint committee meets to discuss the motions in respect of the Regional Fisheries Boards (Postponement of Elections) Order 2006 and the Fisheries (Miscellaneous Commercial Licences)(Alteration of Duties) Order 2006 which have been referred by order of the Dáil and Seanad to the committee for consideration. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources with special responsibility for the marine, Deputy Browne. Before I ask him to begin, I advise members that the committee will hear a short presentation, which will be followed by a question and answer session. I also remind them that, in accordance with the orders of the Dáil and Seanad, the committee may only discuss the motions. While they may discuss issues relevant to them, they may not propose changes and there will be no votes. I call on the Minister of State to begin.

I welcome this opportunity to appear before the joint committee to outline the rationale for the motion in respect of the Regional Fisheries Boards (Postponement of Elections) Order 2006. Responsibility for the management and development of the inland fisheries sector resides with the Central Fisheries Board and the seven regional fisheries boards. Members will be aware that elections to the regional fisheries boards are due to be held on 19 December, following a one year extension agreed by the Oireachtas last year. However, I propose, subject to the approval of the Dáil and Seanad, to make an order postponing elections for a further year.

In November 2005 the FGS report on the review of the inland fisheries sector in Ireland was published and details were announced of Government policy on restructuring the sector. Under this policy, the sector is to be reorganised by subsuming the existing central and regional fisheries boards into a single national inland fisheries authority, NIFA. The executive functions of the new body will be aligned on a regional basis with the river basin districts, as set out in the European Communities (Water Policy) Regulations 2003 which implement the EU water framework directive.

It was originally envisaged that the legislation required to facilitate the establishment of the NIFA would be in place by the end of this year. However, owing to the complexity of the legislation required and competing priorities, both within the Department and across Departments generally, for time in the Oireachtas legislative calendar, it has not proved possible to introduce the legislation this year. Consequently, I have instructed departmental officials to use the additional time available to examine how the existing legislation governing the inland fisheries sector, which dates from 1959, can be modernised and, possibly, consolidated into a single statute. As members will appreciate, such an exercise involves considerable work. Officials have commenced work with a subgroup of the national fisheries management executive established to ensure those who deal with such legislation at operational level will have an input into proposals for the new legislation that will govern the sector. It is expected the new legislation to establish the NIFA will be ready for publication in the latter half of 2007.

As part of the proposals adopted by the Government, it was decided that the consultants should be re-engaged this year to identify in greater detail the structures, resources, funding and policy approaches required to provide for the restructuring of the sector. In this regard, FGS Consulting has recently commenced preparatory work on the second stage of the review of the inland fisheries sector. This process will involve full, transparent and comprehensive consultations with all the stakeholders involved, during which the principles and structures to deliver the new model will be fleshed out. The second stage findings will also inform the drafting of the legislation required to establish the new authority and it is expected that the second stage, including the consultation process, will take several months to complete.

Given the significant changes which will be experienced by the sector and in view of their valuable contribution, I am anxious that the existing members of the regional fisheries boards should be given an opportunity to play a key role, both in their continued input to the work of the boards and in advancing the proposals to restructure the sector. Accordingly, I propose to postpone the elections to the boards for a further year, in accordance with section 15 of the Fisheries Act 1980. This will ensure continuity among those individuals directly involved in the operation of the sector who will have a key role to play in advancing its restructuring. The making of this order will also result in the postponement of elections to co-operative societies, the position of which will be addressed in the context of the new legislation to be introduced.

The restructuring proposals, as agreed by the Government, will allow the sector to reach its full potential through more coherent and consistent policy-making and resource allocation, better decision-making and better value for money. While the Government is committed to this new model, it recognises there will be significant challenges associated with bringing it about. I stress again the changes to the inland fisheries sector will be furthered on an open and transparent basis to ensure as much involvement by as wide a range of stakeholders as possible. I trust the committee will recommend that the Oireachtas should pass a motion approving the order to defer the elections.

I ask the Minister of State to make his presentation on the second order. We will then take questions on both. Is that agreed? Agreed. Deputy Perry should begin the round of questions. We will have only one set of questions, because I am conscious of the time spent in this regard.

I welcome the opportunity to appear before the joint committee to outline the rationale behind the motion seeking the committee's approval of the Fisheries (Miscellaneous Commercial Licences)(Alteration of Duties) Order 2006 which prescribes the licence fees payable in respect of salmon, eel and oyster commercial fishing, as well as dealers' licences, on and from 1 January 2007. Members will recall that the committee gave its approval to a similar motion on 6 December 2005 for increases applying to all these licence fees in 2006. In previous years increases were in line with the consumer price index and proposed in accordance with a commitment first given when presenting the motion to the committee in 2003, namely, that in future all increases would be applied in line with the consumer price index on an annual basis. In keeping with this commitment, the licence fee increases now proposed for 2006 are set at a rate of 3.9% to allow for inflation since their last increase on 1 January this year. This increase will apply to eel and oyster fishing and dealer licences. The proceeds from the sale of licences contribute to the revenues of the central and regional fisheries boards which are statutorily responsible for the conservation, management and development of inland fisheries in the State, including the fisheries to which the licences apply.

In respect of wild salmon fishing licences, members will be aware that the management of the wild salmon fisheries in 2007 will be aligned with scientific advice. In this regard, I recently announced details of fundamental changes regarding the conservation and protection of the national wild salmon resource. As part of a suite of measures agreed by the Government in line with the recommendations of the independent group on salmon, it has been decided that from 2007, a salmon conservation levy will be applied to salmon rod licences and commercial salmon fishing licences. The salmon conservation levy applied is equivalent and additional to the 2006 commercial licence fees in each category. It will represent 50% of the licence fee.

The concept of the salmon conservation levy arose from considerations by the independent group on salmon as to the extent to which contributions might be achieved from the main economic beneficiaries of more salmon being returned to rivers. The revenue generated from the levy is to be reinvested in salmon stock rehabilitation and habitat improvement, as recommended by the independent group on salmon. The proceeds of the levy will be ring-fenced and designated for the purposes of prioritised investment in salmon conservation initiatives. To this end, I have recently exercised my powers in accordance with section 18(2)(a) of the Fisheries Act 1980 and issued a ministerial direction to the central and regional fisheries boards. The instruction requires the Central Fisheries Board to co-ordinate the preparation and implementation of the programme for rehabilitation of salmon stocks which is to be funded from the proceeds of the levy. This programme will give priority to rivers below their conservation limit in special areas of conservation and which have the greatest prospect of recovery.

In this regard, I have instructed that the salmon conservation levy component of the licence fee be transferred to the Central Fisheries Board, which will allocate funds to the regional boards in which rehabilitation projects have been prioritised. In accordance with sections 19 and 20(3) of the Fisheries Act 1980, I have directed the central and regional fisheries boards to identify the part of the licence fee income generated by the levy in their annual accounts. In their annual reports, the boards will identify rehabilitation programmes funded from the salmon conservation component of the salmon licence.

I thank the Chairman and the committee for their attention. I trust the committee will recommend that the Oireachtas should pass the motion approving the licence fees for 2007.

I welcome the Minister of State. Regarding the regional boards and the Grant Farrell Sparks review of inland fisheries, it is disappointing that this document has not been debated since being published almost a year ago. The greatest concern is the considerable uncertainty in the industry, particularly the fisheries boards, regarding the lack of direction. The word on the ground is that the report has been deferred until after the next general election.

Fisheries boards are uncertain as to whether the Marine Institute will handle marine research, but the lack of funding is of equal concern. The Estimate of €26 million for inland fisheries agreed last week is minimal when the amount to fund administration is removed. In light of the debate on the compulsory ban on drift-netting, there is a high degree of urgency, which is linked to the necessary examination of how single stock management will be policed on our rivers. It has not been explained how draft-net licences will operate in the context of people harvesting salmon in estuaries by other means than rods. It is a contentious issue. The draft-net licence fee is €380.

Elections were deferred previously. While I respect the members of the fisheries boards and the excellent job they do, it is disappointing that, despite spending the better part of €250,000 on the Grant Farrell Sparks report, there was little consultation with the people involved. This document was kept a closely guarded secret until it was published and no one knew what it contained.

While there was some urgency in publishing the document, I am not sure whether phase 2 has since been commissioned. Some €250,000 of taxpayers' money was spent, but we are proposing a further postponement without consulting even the vested interests. The document has not been debated with everyone concerned.

While I accept the scientific recommendations on wild salmon fishing licences, the Government has ignored them and is in breach of the EU habitats directive. The Government was remiss regarding the level of compensation on offer. What are the tax implications for the recipients of the €25 million? It has not been explained how the €5 million ring-fenced for coastal communities will be used to develop alternatives.

One accepts the rule of law and that the directive will come into effect. It is good that after nine years, the Government is taking on board scientists' recommendations, but there could have been a different outcome if more work had been done in recent years. What of drift-net fishermen's unhappiness with the implementation of the directive?

This matter is a fait accompli and it is difficult to disagree with the Minister of State regarding inflationary increases in licence fees, as mentioned at a previous meeting. It makes good sense not to provide a large increase. I am concerned by the inability of the Department to deal effectively with the review of the inland fisheries, a major document that has not been debated. Nothing is happening on this issue. The Government is kicking for touch until after next June, but that is not good enough.

As we have agreed to conclude the meeting at 4 p.m. to meet other fishing groups, I ask members to be brief.

I welcome the Minister of State and his colleagues in the Civil Service and I thank them for the presentation. I also thank our Civil Service colleagues for sending us presentations via e-mails and so on. It is helpful to view the 2006 and 2007 rates side by side.

One finds that there are many stings in the tail of a budget. This is another piece of bad news for a small group of citizens in the budget's aftermath. How much money will the doubling of commercial and rod licence fees raise for conservation measures? The Labour Party supported the concept of single stock management, an important initiative in which the Chairman and the committee played a considerable role. What will the money allow us to do in 2007? The three wise men attended the committee and we were told of the rivers where fishing has become unsustainable due to declining stocks. How will those rivers be made sustainable again? On the same point referred to by my colleague, Deputy Perry, the budget set aside €10 million for the buy-out. We did not understand how it worked, but we all made statements on it because of the minimum of €25 million. If the Government is serious about this issue and we want to bring multi-stock finishing to an end and to conserve and rebuild salmon stocks, how will the gap be filled?

With regard to the difference between the rod licences and commercial licences, originally, there was a significant difference but the committee received strong presentations from anglers and so on regarding their contribution. I know the Government has doubled very low licence fees, but are they making a big enough contribution?

I have grave reservations about the postponement. I do not see why we could not have had the consultation on inland fisheries and why we could not have had the legislation. It will be for the next Government, whatever its hue, to implement the inland fisheries authority Bill. In the Minister's note, he referred to 70 legislative measures and a great deal of work that must be done. Tomorrow, we will all have to go into the House to debate the Foyle and Carlingford Fisheries Bill 2006. Given that there were previously no controls on aquaculture, that Bill is a positive step. However, is the matter resolved from the point of view of the Government? It is critical that consultations are held because inland fisheries groups feel they are in a limbo. The Central Fisheries Board was highly respected but its infrastructure has been neglected. For that reason, I have reservations about the motion.

I support the proposed licence duty increases, although €128 is a significant expense for the average angler and may result in people deciding to hang up their rods. Draft licence operators also face a significant increase to €520. However, I support the proposal on the basis that the money will be spent on improving conservation and providing a long-term future for fishing.

The inability of the Government to enact legislation which would properly manage our inland fisheries is unbelievable. We have not debated the Farrell Grant Sparks report this year, even though it has been sitting on the Minister's desk since last year. That he came here at the last minute to inform us the situation will remain in limbo for yet another year is a shocking indictment of the Government's inability to prioritise the environment and wild fish stocks. Regardless of one's opinion about whether we should abolish the fisheries boards, it is disgraceful that the Government is washing its hands of any responsibility until after the election. I do not intend any criticism of the civil servants involved because I think this cowardly decision was made at a political level.

Given that next week is Christmas week, I ask members to be more charitable in their comments.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Browne. The angling clubs in my constituency send him their best wishes and congratulate him on the recent decisions he made in the interests of fish stocks and the majority of the population.

I ask that the rod angling fee be waived for old age pensioners. I do not need to explain why we need to look after old age pensioners or the benefits they get from fishing in terms of physical and mental health. The Minister of State and his officials have a reputation for being generous, kind and understanding people, so I am sure my plea will not fall on deaf ears.

I ask the Minister of State to indicate to the committee when the licence fee for salmon rod fishermen will be increased. According to the consultants, a number of fishermen are inclined towards giving up fishing. Is consideration being given to the potential for an increase in illegal fishing by people who have not purchased licences? Will a new bailiff regime be introduced on rivers and, if so, how will that be managed?

When I took office in March, phase 1 of the review of inland fisheries had already been reported by Farrell Grant Sparks. I met representatives of several fisheries boards in recent months, many of whom, as Deputy Broughan noted, are unhappy with some of the proposals in the first phase report. It was always intended to conduct a phase 2 review and, in that regard, I have instructed Farrell Grant Sparks to examine the structures, funding and policies needed to implement reform of the sector.

I have also asked that serious consideration be given to stakeholders because I believe there was insufficient consultation on phase 1, although my officials would disagree. I hope that full and frank discussions will be held with stakeholders over the coming months so that we can build the best possible structure for the future. While the overall principle of NIFA is part of the Government's agenda, it is also important that we build a structure based on the river basin strategy. When the phase 2 review is completed, which I hope will be by the first half of 2007, we should be in a position to progress the operations of the inland fisheries sectors with a package that stands the test of time.

Deputy Perry raised the issue of transfer of research functions from the Central Fisheries Board to the Marine Institute. The ministerial order necessary to effect that transfer is currently being drafted and it is intended that it will take place early in the new year. The transfer will not be delayed by the review. Fisheries boards have concerns about their future roles. The report of the first review stated that advisory boards would be established but I am of the view that the boards should have teeth in terms of having a say in their operations, so I have asked the consultants to consider how that can be managed.

With regard to the Chairman's question on salmon rod licences, the increases will take effect from 1 January and I will sign the relevant orders next week. It is expected that the second environmental charge will raise approximately €1 million in its first year, although that will depend on the number of licences purchased. There will be a fee for a licence and a second equivalent fee for an environmental stamp. An additional €1.5 million per year over three years will be provided for protection and enforcement of the new regime, and the fisheries boards, in consultation with the Central Fisheries Board, will deal with that. We hope the boards will address the requirement for additional staff and better structures as quickly as possible.

The Estimates provide €10 million for the hardship fund. The decision on the fund was made at Government level and there will be no problems with regard to providing the balance of the €25 million according to requirements. The fund, which is intended for hardship cases rather than as compensation, will be operated by Bord Iascaigh Mhara based on the applications made to it. As Deputy Perry has pointed out, some driftnet and snapnet fishermen may decide not to avail of the hardship fund because they prefer to wait until their respective fishing areas meet their conservation limits. Others, as Deputy Perry pointed out, believe the compensation to be paid is not adequate, although when I met some senior officials in Brussels a couple of weeks ago they felt we were being too generous with our compensation package. They were of the view that conservation measures should be implemented at no cost. However, the Government has made the decision to put €25 million into the fund and it is right to do so.

We are in consultation with the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, whom we will encourage to at least match the sum of €5 million we are making available for alternative enterprises in coastal communities, from which a number of fishermen have contacted the Department with proposals as to how the fund should be allocated and suggestions as to how people could avail of it. The Leader, RAPID and CLÁR programmes within the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and various other agencies could administer the fund in conjunction with my Department.

I am involved in matters relating to the social economy. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, imposes strict requirements on companies operating within it, certainly on those operating on the north side of Dublin. Will the sum of €10 million be used to support purely commercial developments, or will it always be required in meeting certain requirements within the social economy remit?

We will hold further consultations with the Minister and draw up guidelines on how the fund will be spent. I would like it to be spent in communities which will be affected. We will work with that aim in conjunction with the Minister, whom I know is very interested in the project.

I do not know how many rivers are covered by the sum of €1.5 million in increased expenditure on protection measures but, given the concern the Chairman rightly expressed about a possible increase in the level of poaching, that amount, spent nationally, is very disappointing.

The boards will have an allocation of €28 million, to which the sum of €1.5 million will be added. It is an initial allocation for what is a new regime and if the boards make a case for more money, the Department will not be found wanting.

The Government will not bring an inland fisheries authority Bill before this Dáil. Was it its intention that such an authority would act as regulator for inland fisheries, in the way the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources refers to the new authority in Clonakilty as the regulator for sea fisheries?

There has been no decision on a regulator. The initial report recommended the appointment of a regulator but I am not sure it is the best option. It will be considered during the second phase of the review. We have received a number of suggestions from the boards. We hope the second phase of the review being carried out by Farrell Grant Sparks will produce a definite proposal, whereby we can chart a way forward for the inland fisheries sector. Deputy Perry suggested yesterday his party was considering recommending the appointment of a regulator but no decision has been made yet.

I thank the Minister of State for attending and assisting the committee in its consideration of the motions. I wish him and all the officials in the Department the very best for Christmas and the new year.

I thank the Chairman, members of the committee and officials for their courtesy and kindness during the past year. I wish everyone a happy Christmas and a prosperous new year. I apologise to Deputy Kelly for not responding to his question on old age pensioners, about which I will speak to him later.