This Bill proposes to amend the Sea Fisheries Acts, 1952 to 1956, which form a separate body of legislation and are not included in the Fisheries (Consolidation) Act recently passed. The Act of 1952 is entitled an Act to provide for the improvement and regulation of the sea-fishing industry; it established An Bord Iascaigh Mhara to perform a wide variety of functions.
The main object of the Bill is to authorise the making of advances from the Central Fund to An Bord Iascaigh Mhara up to a limit of £3,000,000. A similar proposal came before the House just three years ago when the original limit of £500,000 was raised to £1,000,000. The present limit will soon be reached: a balance of only £14,867 remains and, when that amount is drawn, the Board would be unable to carry on their normal activities without additional funds. The advances are used in the main to finance the purchase of boats and gear. They are also applied to meet part of the cost of fish processing stations, ice making plants and other premises and equipment. Each advance is repayable by the Board with interest in equal half-yearly instalments over a period of twenty years.
The urgently required provision for advances is in Section 2 of the Bill. The opportunity is also taken—in Sections 3, 4 and 5—to amend the 1952 Act in some other respects.
An Bord Iascaigh Mhara consists of six members and their period of office is two years—a rather short time in which to become familiar with the complex business involved. Section 3 of the Bill extends the normal term of office to three years and introduces a system of retirement by rotation. When appointments are being made next year, two members are to be appointed for one year, two for two years and two for the full term of three years; thereafter two of the six members will complete their term each year. This provision should help to secure stability and continuity in the Board's policy—which is an important factor in the development of the sea-fishing industry.
Section 9 of the 1952 Act, although on the statute book, is not actually in operation. It provides machinery for the licensing of vessels for sea-fishing; this should not be confused with registration under the Merchant Shipping Acts which is necessary in any event. If Section 9 were in operation, no vessel exceeding thirty-five feet over all in length could be used for sea-fishing except under and in accordance with a licence under the section. There are almost 300 fishing boats above that size and the owners would be obliged to apply in the prescribed form for licences. In practice it might be quite unnecessary, initially at any rate, to go to the trouble and expense of licensing all vessels exceeding 35 feet; those desired to be brought under control might be only the larger vessels which are few in number. It would therefore make for the convenience both of the general body of fishermen and of the Department to introduce a flexible limit. This is the aim of Section 4 (1) of the Bill which makes it possible to-prescribe whatever length is considered appropriate in the prevailing circumstances; only vessels exceeding the prescribed length would then require licences.
As Section 9 of the 1952 Act stands, a vessel does not qualify for a licence unless it is owned by an Irish citizen or a company the whole of the share capital of which is held by Irish citizens. This reference to share capital could prove unduly restrictive in present circumstances because cases could arise in which an Irish vessel would not be eligible for a licence even though owned by an Irish company with its assets in this country, duly registered here and legally entitled to fish within our exclusive fishery limits. That position could be quite untenable—particularly if the company in question had been encouraged to put its capital into the canning or processing of fish or the production of fish meal and had found it necessary to acquire the vessel to provide raw material for its factory owing to lack of supplies from other sources. The investment of foreign capital in Irish industries is something that has found support on all sides and it is generally recognised that foreign connections are most useful in establishing export markets. Under the Mercantile Marine Act, 1955, a body corporate established under and subject to the law of the State and having its principal place of business in the State is qualified to own a ship registered here. Section 4 (2) of the Bill therefore substitutes that phrase for the reference to a company and its share capital.
Another restriction in Section 9 of the 1952 Act relates to vessels operated by persons directly engaged in either the wholesale or retail sale of fresh fish. If the section were in operation, the catches of such a vessel would have to be delivered for sale to An Bord Iascaigh Mhara or disposed of according to the directions of the Board. It has been represented that this is a deterrent to private interests who could appropriately be expected to invest in fishing vessels. Such a deterrent is out of place in present circumstances: there is urgent need for expansion of the fishing fleet to provide supplies for processing stations, etc., and it is desired to attract private capital for that purpose. The restriction is therefore being repealed by Section 5 of the Bill.
Perhaps it should here be made clear that extensive powers remain in Section 9 of the 1952 Act and can be brought into operation when needed: subsection (5) is not affected by the Bill and reads as follows:—
A licence may be granted subject to such conditions as the Minister thinks fit, including restrictions on sea-fishing either generally or in regard to methods of sea-fishing in particular places and as to disposal of the catches and the Minister may from time to time vary any conditions or impose new conditions.
Senators will appreciate that this Bill is in no sense inimical to the interests of our inshore fishermen. On the contrary, the fishermen stand to benefit from it under all heads—from the expenditure of the additional funds being made available for An Bord Iascaigh Mhara, from greater continuity in the Board's policy—as a result of less frequent and less extensive changes in membership of the Board—and from the modifications which will make the system more workable should it become necessary to introduce the licensing of fishing vessels.
In the past eight or nine months sea fisheries policy has received a good deal of publicity in the White Paper on theProgramme for Economic Expansion and supplementary statements. Only the week before last I circulated to Senators a memorandum clarifying various points in regard to the markets for fish and the scope for increased landings. Accordingly, I do not think that any detailed exposition is called for on this occasion. I look forward to constructive criticism from the House and, when replying, I shall be glad to deal as far as I can with the points raised.