Deputy Fleming's question relates to a real frustration I have, namely, to try to issue aquaculture licences as quickly as possible. I have a long answer here to his question which he will receive but I do not wish to read all of it out, thereby taking up the time allocated and perhaps not answering some of the specific questions he might have.
Essentially, what has happened in this situation is that the Commission has taken Ireland to court for not having a proper, functional and sustainable system in place for the licensing of aquaculture and fin fish farming in special areas of conservation and, in particular, in Natura sites which make up the vast majority of bays in our country.
In response to that, having lost the court case we are in the process of putting in place what is essentially a gold plated system of licensing for aquaculture and fin fish farming, and that is taking time. Our Department is not the only body involved. The National Parks and Wildlife Service is very much part of that process in terms of the assessment of Natura bays one after the other but we are making progress.
When I came into office there was a huge amount of frustration that aquaculture licences had not been granted for years. That process is now changing. By the end of this year we hope to have a decision on 100 or more licence applications. I am conscious there are 620 licence applications pending and since 2003 we have renewed or issued 176 licences but it is the last three or four years that have been the problem. We are assessing bays one after the other in terms of the appropriate assessment procedure that we are required by law to implement. We have completed Roaring Water Bay, Castlemaine and Dundalk and we are continuing to complete the assessment process for other bays. That process will continue into next year and the year after.
This is a priority area for me. Seafood generally but also aquaculture and fish farming have extraordinary potential in Ireland but we must do it in an environmentally sustainable way. If we do that we can have a profitable and substantial industry over the next ten years.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
Applications for aquaculture operations are subject to the provisions of the Fisheries (Amendment) Act 1997.
In 2007 the European Court of Justice issued a negative judgment against Ireland for breaches of EU birds and habitats directives. At that point the systems and data were not in place to enable the consenting of aquaculture in compliance with the relevant directives. As most aquaculture activity takes place in areas designated as special areas of conservation and-or special protection areas for birds, known as Natura 2000 sites, it is necessary to gather a substantial amount of scientific data in the bays. This data must be obtained in respect of the benthos and the birdlife of the bay under examination. Once the data collection is complete, habitats maps are produced and conservation objectives are set by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. It is then necessary to undertake an appropriate assessment of the effects of aquaculture activity on these areas in the context of the set conservation objectives before any new licence can be issued or any existing licence can be renewed. This process represents a major investment by the State to ensure the continued sustainable development of the aquaculture industry while maintaining the maximum protection for our coastal environment in accordance with the set requirements of European law.
In order to implement the necessary procedures required, my Department, in conjunction with the Marine Institute and the NPWS, has been engaged in a major programme to gather the necessary baseline data appropriate to the conservation objectives of aquaculture sites located within designated Natura areas. This data collection programme which is substantially complete, together with the setting of conservation objectives, will enable all new and renewal applications to be assessed for the purpose of ensuring compliance with the EU birds and habitats directives. This work is ongoing but a great deal of progress has been made to date.
The appropriate assessment process has been completed in respect of three bays – Roaring Water, Castlemaine and Dundalk. While the appropriate assessments are carried out on a bay by bay basis, each licence application within the bay must be assessed individually. Factors to be considered include location within the bay, species, scale etc. In addition to the Natura requirements, under the environmental impact assessment directive all licence applications must undergo environmental impact pre-screening assessment. This requires significant input from the Department’s scientific and technical advisers. All applications, in compliance with the requirements of the Aarhus directive are advertised in order to facilitate public consultation and submissions or observations received must be considered as part of the licence application determination process.
In the period 2003 to date my Department has issued 176 licences, including 75 renewal applications. A total of 626 licence applications are pending. The majority of these are located in Natura 2000 areas and are accordingly subject to the appropriate assessment process.
The sustainable development of the industry and the creation of long-term employment from aquaculture into the future can only take place if there is full compliance with the range of EU directives which impact on this area and national legislation on environmental protection. I am very conscious of the requirement both to ensure compliance with our obligations under EU law and to make progress on addressing the licensing backlog. In order to meet these objectives, my Department, in conjunction with the Marine Institute and the NPWS, is investing significant resources into completing the appropriate assessment process. I am confident that significant progress is being made which will facilitate determinations on a significant number of licence applications over the coming months. I also anticipate significant progress in relation to licence determinations in non-Natura areas.
At this stage it is expected that my Department will be in a position to finalise the processing of approximately 100 licence applications by the end of 2012. This will represent a significant breakthrough in tackling this problem.
In recent months there has been significant progress in relation to restructuring of salmon production licences in south Connemara. I have recently approved the assignment of aquaculture licences from five separate operators to Bradán Beo Teoranta, a company established by Údarás na Gaeltachta, to consolidate and revitalise the operation of sustainable salmon farming in the area. The assignment of the licences took place with the agreement of the former licence holders and follows a lengthy examination of all issues associated with salmon farming in south Connemara. This assignment of licences will consolidate operations in one licence holder and thereby greatly assist in the sustainable development of salmon farming in the area.
Apart from the focus on progressing licence determinations in the bays, it is also intended to expand radically the production of Irish organic farmed salmon by creating new fish farming production areas in deeper waters. The placement of farms in deep waters will ensure there is no impact on Natura 2000 sites. BIM estimates that just one of these production areas could generate over €100 million in exports per annum and create 350 direct jobs. A further 150 jobs will be created indirectly in the service sector supplying fish feed, netting, transportation and other services.
BIM, working with the Marine Institute, is currently investigating suitable sites. An application for an aquaculture licence in respect of one of these sites in Galway Bay has been submitted to the Department by BIM. This application is currently being assessed in accordance with the provisions of the Fisheries (Amendment) Act 1997.
My Department has also issued a site investigation licence to BIM for sites off Inishbofin and Inishturk islands off the coast of Mayo with a view to identifying a suitable site for a second deep sea production area.
I am firmly convinced of the great potential for all types of aquaculture around our coast as set out in Food Harvest 2020 – A vision for Irish Agri-food and fisheries, and I am confident that the steps I have outlined above together with the work being done by BIM and the Marine Institute will result in the sustainable development and significant expansion of this important industry.
In summary therefore, in relation to licensing, it is my expectation that by the end of this year licensing decisions will have been made in approximately 100 cases; a determination on the deep sea licence application for Galway Bay will be imminent; licence determinations will have commenced in Natura 2000 areas; and further progress will have been achieved on the appropriate assessment process affecting Natura 2000 areas.