I agree with some of the Senators that it is regrettable that we did not have this discussion before the legislation but I am not in charge of how this House orders its business. I am glad we had the chance to have the debate on the one day as it brings a lot of clarity to the concerns raised during discussion of the planning area earlier.
This process started in December 2017 with the launch of the roadmap by the Minister, Deputy Murphy, and me. It involved a lot of stakeholders and consultations for the years ahead. In my speech earlier, I set out how that consultation will go. I would be delighted to have Senators' involvement in that as well and thank all parties for facilitating tonight's debate. I thank Members for their interest in the marine spatial planning process. I note their comments and look forward to engaging with them in more detail as the plan proceeds. I urge Members to remain involved and to channel their obvious commitment to our seas in their engagements with party colleagues and others. We want to engage with all the different groups, some of which have been mentioned today.
The involvement of the Marine Institute was mentioned. It is very much involved, including in the departmental working group in an advisory capacity, in an advisory group and also in providing scientific and technical support for the MSP process to my Department through a service level agreement. We avail of its expertise in this process and in many other decisions made in the Department. It is central to everything we do here and I thank it for its role in all the work we do and in this area.
Likewise, the local authorities are rightly very much involved. Some have expressed a desire for even greater involvement in the development of the marine strategy and coastal areas. Some want to lead in these areas and I am very interested in having a discussion with them. Local authorities have representatives on the interdepartmental working group and the advisory group that I chair. Part of their role is to bring updates back to the local authority planning sections on a regular basis. We have asked all stakeholders involved in the advisory group and the interdepartmental working group to make sure to bring the message back out as part of their work. Some of them are national bodies with a lot of local members. I wish to put Senators' minds at rest that it is not just our Department. We are not controlling everything but are involving everybody as much as we possibly can.
The development of Ireland's first marine plan offers a unique opportunity. Just as the national planning framework will stand as a spatial expression of national policy for Ireland's terrestrial area, the MSP will set out the spatial expression of national policy for Ireland's marine area. We all value that here. The marine plan will cover Ireland's maritime area of approximately 490,000 sq. km., the second largest in the EU next to Portugal, including internal waters, the sea area, territorial seas, the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf. The maritime area extends from mean high water mark at the coast seaward to an axis of 200 nautical miles in parts. It is proposed that a single plan will be prepared for the entire area with the possibility of more detailed regional plans being made at a later date. The MSP will be a strategic document that will deal with, inter alia, the following environmental, social and economic issues: key marine activities such as fisheries, tourism, transport and offshore renewable energy; the generation of oil and gas exploration and production; aquaculture and how it interacts with both communities and other forms of life in the marine; climate change and related impacts; communities and health; cultural heritage; marine environment and biodiversity; and transboundary interactions with other jurisdictions as was raised in the debate today. My colleagues in the Department do engage with their colleagues in other jurisdictions to make sure we are all thinking and planning in the same way and making marine strategies that will blend together and work at European level. We recognise Ireland's role in a European context and on the world stage when it comes to marine activity. We have a lot to contribute to this area and our input is valued. That comes at a cost to the taxpayer but I believe the taxpayers are happy that it is money well committed.
Ireland's marine areas are rich and, historically, have often been an under-appreciated asset. Their proper management affects everyone from fishermen to those in the adventure sector, new energy providers and recreational workers on our coastal paths. We need to hear from them all and I cannot stress enough that we do want that consultation. We are happy to extend the times as we have done in the past. There should not be any need to do so this time as we are setting out well in advance the process over the next two years from the organic, small scale awareness-raising being carried out at the moment to the more heavily-publicised public consultation periods and regional events that will follow, to the publication of the baseline report and the draft plan. There are mechanisms for stakeholder engagement with this plan that are fresh, innovative and truly direct. Sometimes they have involved role play also. I am conscious that it was only after we published the national planning framework that we got a lot more interest.
There was a big discussion here on timelines because people did not get involved at an earlier stage. I hope that, this time, people will get involved at an early stage. We will do all we can to advertise it but we cannot drag people to the debate.
It is incumbent on us all to think of the sort of marine legacy we want to bequeath to the next generation. We need to create a framework for decision making that is consistent and evidence-based, to secure a sustainable future for the marine area. The scientific and technical support from the Marine Institute is very important in this regard for data and we will have various discussions around how we can fit everything in. It is possible to accommodate all needs but it must be based on evidence.
Concerns were raised relating to Cork Harbour but a decision-making process is in place, which is also based on evidence. We might not always like to believe the evidence but we have to use it as we develop our strategy. It is important we do this to secure a sustainable future for the marine area for all of us to enjoy long into the future and to create places and spaces in which people can live, work and enjoy themselves. Those who have an interest in this must now take this opportunity to have their say in the marine planning process. It is their plan and it will use the people's money.
Questions were raised about our work in Bantry Bay, about which I will not say too much as it is going through a legal and judicial process. This has spanned many Governments, though I will not go into who did what, where and when. There has been a lot of consultation over many years and I agree that if people have made the wrong decision it should be changed. I have no problem with that as Minister of State. The conditions of the licence are clear that if errors have been made, or if monitoring requirements are not met, the Minister can step in and make changes.
Bantry Bay is either 20,000 acres or 20,000 hectares but the licence covers some 800 acres so it is a small portion of the total area. There are controlled parts within that so we can monitor the baseline and the report deals with that. It is not a case of giving out a licence and forgetting about it; we are very conscious that any form of seaweed harvesting can be abused, whether it is mechanical or not. If it is not done correctly it can be unsustainable. I want to make sure this does not happen, whatever the method and wherever in the country it takes place. The Department will monitor and control this. The residents have to take forward their process and I am happy for them to do so. We tried to engage with them at different stages and we will continue to do that but for now it is going through a legal process.
I assure the House that the decisions that were made were made in good faith and involved all the key experts. The decision is not made by one person in the Department or me as Minister of State. We look at the evidence, take advice on board and make informed decisions, which happened in this case.