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Aquaculture Licences Applications

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 25 September 2012

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Questions (50)

Tom Fleming


50. Deputy Tom Fleming asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the position regarding licensing of bays for aquaculture around our coast; the number of bays that have already been licensed and the names of these bays; when he expects the remaining bays to be licensed; the number of aquaculture licenses that are pending in his Department; the number that have been granted; and his plan to develop the potential of aquaculture around our coastline. [40624/12]

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Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

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.

I welcome the Minister's reply and his confidence in and vision for this industry. As an island nation the waters around our coastline are a goldmine, so to speak. The development of our aquaculture industry is a major initiative that must be tackled immediately to realise the maximum potential of our high quality produce. In 2011 in County Kerry alone, 1,115 tonnes of produce such as mussels, oysters, clams, scallops etc. were cultivated before processing. The actual product was worth €2.4 million and if it goes through the full processing procedure one can imagine the number of jobs that could be added to the 112 working on the raw state of our produce.

Will the Deputy frame a question?

That could be replicated throughout the country. I am sure the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, will give full co-operation but in terms of the European Union, what can be done to remove the impediments? Can the Minister expedite that matter?

We are doing many things to answer the issues raised in the Deputy's questions. The Minister, Deputy Deenihan, has been very helpful on this issue and the Minister and myself have put extra resources into trying to get the assessments done in the Natura bays so we can make determinations on licence applications in those areas but we are required to do that by law. There are no shortcuts in that regard. One of the reasons we are in this difficult position is because we took shortcuts in the past. We must ensure that when we put cages in the water or mussel lines on beaches that we are doing it in a way that is consistent with the ecosystems in which they are operating and in a sustainable way that is lawfully as well as environmentally acceptable. Otherwise, we will be taken to court again and forced to shut down these industries. That is the reality.

We are trying to be as comprehensive as we can to put more resources into this area to get the job done properly and we have taken strategic actions, for example, in south Connemara, as Deputy Ó Cuív will know.

We approved the assignment of aquaculture licences from five separate operators into one operating company under the management of Údarás na Gaeltachta. This move made a great deal of sense to me.

We are also creating new opportunities in the context of salmon farming. I asked BIM and the Marine Institute to consider locating new sites for salmon farms in much deeper waters that are further offshore and outside Natura areas and special areas of conservation, SACs. Since I made this request, BIM has lodged an application for a 15,000 tonne salmon farm to be located 5 km off Galway in the vicinity of the Aran Islands. If this facility is licensed and goes into operation, it will have a turnover of approximately €104 million per year, at current salmon prices, and will employ in the region of 350 people. The facility will be developed in an absolutely sustainable way, particularly in view of the fact that the site was hand-picked by Marine Institute scientists. We are also examining the possibility of doing something similar at sites off the coast of Mayo.

We are moving into new territory in the context of the scale of this industry. We are also trying to resolve existing difficulties in respect of Natura sites by ensuring that the relevant assessments are carried out as quickly as possible. The combination of the two will provide exciting results.

There are also plans to expand existing salmon farming activities at Duínis Island, Waterville, County Kerry. This development will be worth €11 million to the local economy. There are approximately 90 bays around the coast of Ireland and I am sure a huge number of these remain to be licensed. I welcome the fact that 100 commercial licences have been granted, particularly as approximately 450,000 people are unemployed at present. If one takes it that 20 jobs can be created per licence, then 2,000 jobs can be brought on stream quite soon. In addition, if the 600 licence applications that are pending are all granted, then a further 12,000 jobs could be created. Our marine resource is one of the greatest assets we have and we should ensure that it is developed as speedily as possible.

I agree with the Deputy's final comment but it must be remembered that not every licence application will be successful. Some of them will be inappropriate and others will relate to areas which are too sensitive in the context of the ecosystems and marine resources which exist there. However, I hope that many of these licences will be granted. It is my job to provide the necessary and rigorous scrutiny of licence applications. This must be done in the context of the legal framework within which we are obliged to operate under EU law. That is what we are trying to do. I am trying to proceed as quickly as possible - without undermining the integrity of the system - in order that the relevant decisions can be made.

I agree with the Deputy that many more people could be employed in this sector. Scotland produces approximately 150,000 tonnes of salmon per year, while Norway produces in the region of 1.2 million tonnes. Ireland, however, produces only 12,000 tonnes of salmon per year. We have a fantastic resource on which to base the development of an industry but we must do this properly rather doing everything in a rush. There are many coastal communities that are happy to facilitate the type of development to which I refer but they want it to be carried out in a proper and vigorous manner. In addition, they want us to deal with all of the questions relating to the environment and the sustainability of the industry.

I thank the Minister. We must move on to Other Questions.

We are determined to do both.