First, I would like to say a few words about the Title of the Bill and the reasons we have been debating it for so long. I thank the Leader of this House for giving us the time and the flexibility to give this Bill the sort of treatment it deserves. I do not think it is unrelated to the fact that there is not a great deal of legislation coming to this House. Despite the fact that this is an important Bill, symbolically, the fact that we are being given so much time to debate it is a reflection on this House, that there is no legislation coming to it and that the main action in both the other House and this House is all going on offstage. Unfortunately the legislative programme which has been promised between now and Christmas is extremely flimsy and we are not expected to get any major Bills as far as I can see before then. That is a great pity and is something I hope will be sorted out in the context of the internal problems of another party between now and next week.
The Sea Pollution Bill, 1990 is being given some sort of prominence really because we have nothing else to discuss. One of the problems about the Sea Pollution Bill is that whereas it has a very grandiose title it is not at all what it pretends to be. It is misnamed. While everybody in this House has welcomed the introduction of this Bill its contents are minimal. It is not a Sea Pollution Bill in any comprehensive sense at all. We have a habit in this House of giving Bills titles which are highly misleading because sooner or later the Government of the day are going to say: "On the environment we introduce the following Bills..." and this is one of those Bills they will claim to have introduced and the title, which is misleading, will suggest a concern for the environment which is not conveyed by the details of the Bill.
We had the Environmental Protection Agency Bill, a very good Bill, before the House last year which was really a Bill about controlling pollution. We now have this Bill which really is a Bill which ratifies a few treaties. This Bill does not prevent pollution of our seas in any meaningful way; it does so only in a very minor way. This Bill is notable not for what is in it but, like so many other Bills, for what is not in it. It is the omissions rather than the inclusions which are so noticeable about this Bill because it really only ratifies conventions and protocols that were introduced and agreed by various countries as far back as 1973. There are no new initiatives in this Bill. There is no particular national Irish agenda in this Bill. There is nothing in it that does anything specifically for the Irish Sea or the Atlantic coast. I find it extraordinary — and there was no answer in the Minister's introductory speech — that it has taken so long for us to ratify the MARPOL agreement because it was as far back as 1973 that the first of these measures was introduced.
For some extraordinary reason we are apparently, and the Minister can correct me, the last nation in Europe to ratify the MARPOL agreement and the protocols. I would like to know the reason. What has delayed the introduction of this Bill and was no pressure put on us by other nations in the EC to ratify these conventions? It is extraordinary the lack of priority which the Government have given to this Bill, the lack of concern and urgency. It is now 18 years since the protocols were agreed. It is also very odd that this Bill was introduced in the Dáil in July 1990 and we get it over a year later in this House. There was apparently no urgency about this Bill in the first place and there was absolutely no urgency about it after it was introduced in the Dáil itself.
What is noticeable about the Bill is that it deals almost exclusively with pollution of the sea from ships at sea. What it does not deal with is other pollution of the sea which is far more harmful. The amount of pollution of the sea that can come from ships is obviously very limited, although damaging, but the Government missed an opportunity to tackle the main problem, the pollution of the sea which is far more damaging, which is mentioned in the Minister's speech but not in the Bill. The Bill is simply a standard type Bill which has passed through many EC countries but it is a missed opportunity. We did not take the opportunity to look at the pollution of the sea by nuclear waste, by plastics, or by sewage and we did not consider the damage caused by river pollution. We considered the problem of the pollution of the sea by sewage discharged by ships at sea but not the main problem of sewage discharged from the land. It is all very well for the Minister to say in his opening speech that we must also remember our relatively unpolluted waters attract foreign tourists to this country. There is a major and a very regrettable concession in those two words "relatively unpolluted". Some years ago we could have said with pride that our seas and waters were unpolluted, but we now have to content ourselves with "relatively unpolluted" because some of our waters have become disgracefully polluted due to neglect.
Some areas are much worse than others; the Atlantic coast is not as badly polluted as the Irish Sea. We cannot hold our head up in Europe any longer and say we have clean waters when the Irish Sea is heavily polluted by radiation and sewage, and our rivers are polluted by effluent and plastic.
I would like to deal specifically with pollution of the sea by plastic because it is a notable and regrettable omission from this Bill. The Minister said in his opening speech that he intends to introduce regulations to deal with plastic pollution. He does not say what those regulations will be. He said that in framing regulations under the Sea Pollution Bill to cover Annex 5 the disposal of plastics at sea would be prohibited. I would like to know what those regulations will be.
Many Members of this House have continually made pleas on successive legislation that assurances not be accepted as inbuilt parts of legislation. We should not accept that regulations which would not be debated by the House should slip into our legislation and be accepted by this House. With the best will in the world, and I do not question the Minister's integrity or intentions, it means that important legislation becomes enacted by regulations which have not been examined by the House. This is what is going to happen on the plastics issue and on other issues where the Minister is permitted to make regulations.
It is an established fact of marine life that plastic is one of the most damaging substances present in sea water. According to the most recent figures issued by, I think, the United Nations, 5.5 million containers of plastic are thrown or find their way into the sea each day. In an experiment carried out in Iceland, whales were taken in to see how badly they had been affected by sea pollution. It was found that 8 per cent of those whales had plastic in their guts. The sea is being polluted by plastic thrown from ships and coming from other sources in an increasingly horrendous way.
Much of the sewage discharged into the sea is disposed of first in plastic containers. As the Minister knows plastic is a particularly dangerous pollutant as it is virtually indestructable. Many other pollutants are eroded by the chemicals and contents of sea water but plastic is durable, resistant and virtually immune to decay. It is one of the most damaging elements that can be ejected into the sea and I hope the Minister will completely and utterly probihit it in his regulations.
The Minister should also be thinking of making regulations not just about plastic from ships which seems to be his intention in this particular Bill but regarding plastic emitted from land into the sea. That is a very serious problem and is being overlooked by this Bill which makes a minor attack on one aspect of sea pollution only.
I want to deal also with the sensitive area of pollution by fishermen. We must acknowledge that many fishermen are guilty of pollution however unpopular the finding. Plastic dumped in the sea by fishing boats finds its way not only into the sea but into fish and onto beaches. Regulations must be drawn up to control the discharge of pollutants by fishermen, who must be allowed to make a good livelihood but who must be discouraged from abandoning their equipment and dumping plastic in the sea with adverse effect on marine life. Miles and miles of abandoned fishing nets lie off the Irish and European coasts and these are extraordinarily damaging to sea life and their disposal should be regulated.
I would also like to ask the Minister what attitude the Government took in Europe last month, on 28 October, when there was a move in the European Commission to ban large drift nets of more than 2.5 kilometres in length. The result of this move was that, unexpectedly, large drift nets of over 2.5 kilometres in length were banned by the European Community but many environmental groups indicated that Ireland was opposed to this particular banning. I could not discover and the Minister may be able to tell me Ireland's position in this matter because it was anticipated that Ireland and perhaps the UK and France, would oppose the banning of drift nets of over 2.5 kilometres. It seems to me that 2.5 kilometres is an awfully long drift net and the permitted size should be reduced even further if we are seriously concerned about the environment and about sea pollution. The damage these nets could do is quite mind boggling.
Every year, worldwide, hundreds of thousands of dolphins, sea birds, turtles, swordfish and even whales fall victim to these vast strong finemesh nets. Greenpeace organised a very effective campaign to have drift nets over a certain length banned, and I have here a document from Greenpeace urging this Government and other European Governments to support such a banning and citing an incident which took place on the m.v. Sirius. This year Greenpeace produced a report on the destructive impact of French driftnet fisheries in the North Atlantic recording the contents of the catch in just 12 nets. Together with 2,089 tuna, the deadly drift nets had trapped five dolphins, 130 sharks, four swordfish, 82 pomfret, 34 jellyfish, 11 squid and 23 unidentified fish. Animals and fish unintentionally caught accounted for nearly a fifth of the entire catch. These driftnets are not only causing physical damage to the marine environment but are killing significant amounts of marine life unjustifiably.
The sea is being polluted to an indefensible extent and fishermen are acting in a very cavalier manner as they take in their own catches.
It is important to know whether Ireland supported Greenpeace on this or whether we voted against a progressive environmental measure to preserve marine life and prevent pollution of the sea. It would be appropriate to consider smaller permitted length for drift nets in the Atlantic and to implement it. That would be a test of our commitment to the environment because, regrettably, we frequently depend on the international community, whether on the United Nations where the MARPOL Treaty originated or on the EC, to take environmental initiatives and we support them because we have very little option and then claim credit for environmental concern. We take little initiative ourselves on these matters and we have neglected to protect the seas under our control.
I have here a glossy and very beautiful book produced by who else but the Department of the Environment. This book is basically a propaganda organ saying what a wonderful job the Department of the Environment have done, featuring some beautiful photographs and claiming credit for the Sea Pollution Bill, 1990, for which they have no right to claim credit because it is a ratification of an international treaty and not an initiative taken by the Government. It says in claiming credit for that: "the Sea Pollution Bill, 1990, now before the Dáil will enable Ireland to accede to the MARPOL Convention"— big deal — and "empower the Minister for the Marine to make regulations governing the provision of reception facilities at ports and harbours for the discharge of oily residues and other substances." That is one point. "Harbour authorities have been advised by the Department of the Marine that facilities must be installed for receiving ships' waste in all ports in advance of enactment of the proposed legislation." That is all it says or can say because there is not a great deal in this Bill for which the Department of the Environment can claim any credit. As it says, it is simply acceding to the MARPOL Convention and piggy backing on that Convention to claim credit for the Sea Pollution Bill here. They can claim credit for the name of the Bill which is named in such a way as to reflect well on the Government and award credit where it is not due.
I would like to look in particular at the sewage situation. As a new member of a local authority I am finding out a lot, about sewage, mainly. As it may not be a particularly attractive proposition to find out about sewage, I am glad to see three Government Senators here when the action is off stage.