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Tuesday, 25 Sep 2012

Priority Questions

Agri-Environment Options Scheme Applications

Questions (47)

Éamon Ó Cuív


47. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine when he intends re-opening the agri environment options scheme to new applicants; the conditions that will apply to the scheme; the maximum payment that will be provided for in the scheme; if there will be any changes to the measures under the scheme compared to the last AEO scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40490/12]

View answer

Oral answers (14 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

I thank the Deputy for raising this question. I am very conscious that I have been talking about putting an AEOS III in place for some time. Therefore, I am pleased, in the week that is in it and given the focus on farming this week, to be able to announce an AEOS III today. It will be modelled on last year's AEOS II. I understand and appreciate the value of environmental schemes to farmers, not just as an income support but, more importantly, as a way of ensuring we remain committed to sustainable farming and the sustainable production of food. That is the reason I have been working for the past four months to find a way to put a scheme in place, while at the same time remaining under the ceiling of expenditure allocated to my Department for next year.

We have been working with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in recent weeks to try to finalise an AEOS III model. I am allocating €20 million for AEOS III next year. I expect to be able to accommodate approximately 6,000 applicants. A maximum payment of €4,000 will be available to farmers. Essentially, they will sign up to get a recognition payment for specific actions they will take with regard to sustainability. They will be asked to support the maintenance of traditional hay meadows, wild bird cover, hedgerows, stone walls and species-rich grassland, for example. I think farmers understand such measures because of the first two agri-environment options schemes. In my view, they will sign up for such measures again in return for a funding model that is essentially based on last year's AEOS II. I wanted to stick with last year's model so farmers who studied that model will understand what we are doing on this occasion and be able to make applications. I will explain how we will deal with applications from excess numbers of farmers if questions are asked on that topic. If we have to prioritise who should be in and who should be out, we will try to do that in a very fair way.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The scheme will be largely similar to previous years. I intend to introduce a small number of minor changes which are designed to target increased benefits to participating farmers and to the environment. As in earlier years, farmers with commonage land, designated special areas of conservation or special protection areas will be required to follow a sustainable management plan prepared by a planner. Those applicants will be given priority in determining access to the scheme. Applicants other than those requiring a sustainable management plan will not be required to engage a planner to complete their application forms. In addition to the priority given to designated land, applicants will be assessed on the basis of selection criteria reflecting previous participation in REPS, farm size and location in disadvantaged areas. Full details of the scheme will be announced by my Department in the next day or so.

I want to reiterate my commitment to agri-environment schemes that put environmentally friendly farming to the fore and recognise the vital role farmers play in delivering public goods for the benefit of all of society. This commitment is matched by the enthusiasm of Irish farmers who have shown a keen willingness to engage with environmental issues since the introduction of the first agri-environment scheme and have done so in huge numbers. There are approximately 30,000 participants in REPS. The agri-environment options scheme, which is the successor to REPS, is a more targeted agri-environment scheme. It is part-funded from modulation funds under the CAP health check. The scheme specifically targets the three challenges - halting biodiversity loss, contributing to the improvement of water quality and combating climate change - that have been assigned the highest priority at European level as they are in need of urgent action. There are currently approximately 14,500 participants in AEOS I and II.

I welcome the Minister's belated announcement in relation to AEOS III. It is an important scheme for many farmers. Can the Minister outline the estimated expenditure on REPS in 2012 and in 2013? Will there be constraints in the new agri-environment options scheme? Will it be open to all farmers or will it be confined to farmers in designated areas? Can the Minister confirm whether the maximum grant will be €5,000? Will any changes be made to measures like that relating to stone walls? I think he indicated that such changes will not be made.

I will give an exact figure for the estimated expenditure on REPS in response to a later question. I do not want to give a figure off the top of my head. We are ahead of schedule in terms of getting payments out across all schemes this year. I am conscious that farmers have had a difficult summer. We want to get the money that is due to them out as quickly as possible. That is why €150 million is going out to farmers in disadvantaged areas this week. That is why we have applied to the Commission for a 50% advance payment to be made under the single payment scheme. That is why we will make as many REPS payments as we can this year. We will certainly be well ahead of last year in terms of payments. I can give the Deputy the exact figures at a later stage. He also asked about designated areas. On budget day last year, I gave a commitment to introduce at a minimum an agri-environment options scheme that would solely target Natura areas or special areas of conservation. We have worked hard to broaden the scheme to allow farmers who are not in those designated areas to apply for AEOS payments. As the new scheme is very similar to last year's scheme, farmers outside the designated areas will be able to make applications. I can confirm that the measure relating to stone walls will be retained.

What will the maximum payment be? Will it be €5,000?

I have already said it will be €4,000.

The Minister did not say that. He said it will be similar to last year's maximum payment.

The Minister said it will be €4,000.

I have no doubt that when we stack up the REPS payments for this year and next year, a significant drop in the payment will be noted. Even allowing for the €20 million that is being made available under AEOS, we are seeing a further reduction in addition to the substantial cut the Minister has already implemented under AEOS and REPS.

In government we provided €329 million and €337 million in 2010 and 2011, respectively, between the REPS and the AEOS. The Minister has cut the figure to €243 million, yet he cannot tell me what further cuts will be made to the two schemes next year, although he promised to get that information for me.

With respect, the Deputy did not table that question.

I would have thought the Minister would have that figure on the tip of his tongue today because it is central to the negotiations taking place. Given that only €86 million out of €243 million has been paid out to date this year, the Minister has only paid out approximately one third of the amount allocated. Allowing for the fact that there was a €61 million underspend under the REPS and the AEOS last year, can the Minister assure me that the full amount of €243 million will be paid out this year?

If the Deputy knew how the schemes were structured, he would know that REPS payments are always made in the last three months of year.

I am well aware of that. The problem is that the Minister did not do this last year, when he left €61 million behind him.

Order, please. The Minister has the floor.

It is also normal in multi-year schemes such as the REPS that payments are carried over from year to year. We will be trying to ensure we make significantly more REPS payments this year, including in overall value terms, than we did last year. If the Deputy is going to start quoting figures to me, I would make the point that the budget I was handed when we took over in government needed to be significantly adjusted before last year's budget because of the ceilings to which Fianna Fáil had signed up both when the Deputy was a Minister and a Fianna Fáil Member. If we had to operate under these ceilings, there would be no REPS and no AEOS.

Severe Weather Events

Questions (48, 49)

John Halligan


48. Deputy John Halligan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his views on the recent announcement by the Irish Farmers Association that inclement weather may cause yields to be reduced by up to 25% or the loss of 500,00 tons in potential grain production which could potentially leave the sector down an estimated €100 million compared to 2011; his further views on the impact this will have on the agricultural sector as a whole; if he will also confirm if any plans are being considered by him to bridge the gap and mitigate the losses which will undoubtedly adversely affect the agricultural community; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40618/12]

View answer

Éamon Ó Cuív


49. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the actions taken to date and the proposed actions to assist farmers affected by the bad weather this summer, in view of the effect also of the drought in the USA; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40491/12]

View answer

Oral answers (24 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 48 and 49 together.

I thank the Deputies for raising this very significant issue. We have had the worst summer rainfall on record since 1962. Rainfall for most of the country was twice the average for the months of June, July and August. This has caused significant problems and pressures for farmers, even on the most fertile of farms. We have tried to respond as best we can. What I said to farmers was that I would not put a short-term compensation scheme in place and then have to take the money back off them at budget time, as it would not be sensible to do that on any grounds. Instead, we have tried to do what we can do within budget, including, for example, pushing back and giving early notice to farmers of the pushing back of the slurry spreading and chemical fertiliser deadlines in order to extend the grazing season by at least two weeks and allow farmers to take advantage of what was a period of dry weather. This is to try to ease pressures on indoor feeding which will clearly be a problem this winter.

In addition, I met on a bilateral basis the Commissioner to discuss the consequences of the wet summer and made a request to him for an advance payment of 50% of the single farm payment. It is true this has almost become the norm in recent years, but it still needs to be applied for, and Ireland was the first country to apply for it. I am trying to improve cash flow for farmers in the autumn as livestock farmers, in particular, will have to spend more money on feed. We are also ahead of schedule in getting out disadvantaged area payments. As I said, approximately €150 million will go out to farmers this week in disadvantaged area payments. Some of these payments will be made to farmers who are being given a derogation from the new criteria announced last year.

Again, I am conscious that farmers need money in their hands because of the poor summer and because of cash flow problems that some are experiencing at the moment. We are doing what we can and today, on top of that, we are announcing a new AEOS scheme which I hope will be welcomed by farmers across the board.

The Minister is aware that some farmers are now at crisis point. The three issues here are Government cuts, soaring input costs and, of course, the weather, which is profoundly affecting profitability and output at farm level. Not only has the bad weather resulted in a need for farmers to buy more feed for cattle here, but the US drought has resulted in an increase in the price of grain and animal feed internationally. If the current bad weather continues, the IFA estimates that farming incomes could drop by 30%. Some farmers in my constituency in Waterford are fearful that should the disproportionate cuts already imposed on farm schemes continue in the upcoming budget, their livelihood is in real danger of being wiped out completely. I have been told that some farmers are achieving average winter wheat yields of five to seven and a half tonnes per hectare less than last year, while quality issues such as low hectolitre weights have forced merchants to introduce price reductions.

Will the Deputy frame a question please?

Many farmers have told me they will struggle to meet the required quality parameters demanded by the industry. The Government is significantly contributing to their worries. The 17% cuts in farm schemes in 2012 were almost three times the 6% cut applied across the entire agricultural budget and far in excess of the 3.5% taken out across other Departments. An IFA survey conducted at the recent Tullamore Show suggests the weather has negatively impacted on the production of more than 90% of all farmers, with more than 60% estimating a production loss of greater than 10%. Furthermore, 60% of those surveyed have purchased extra feed concentrate at an average additional cost of €3,700.

The Minister spoke about short-term compensation. Farmers, particularly small farmers, have their backs to the wall now. An immediate input of relatively small moneys - maybe a couple of million euro - might stop small farmers from going to the wall and going out of business. They are out of time and do not want to hear the Minister say that if he gives them money now, he might have to take it back later. They need money immediately that cannot be taken back.

They are getting it this week.

The Minister to reply.

Many of those farmers are getting their disadvantaged area payments this week.

I wish to give the House some figures on the schemes, because Deputy Ó Cuív raised the issue earlier and sought such data. Payments worth some €154 million under the disadvantaged areas scheme will begin tomorrow, 26 September. This funding will provide a boost to the rural economy and will benefit all areas of the country. It is too early to estimate, at this stage, the level of total payments which will be made under the scheme in 2012 because of the qualification criteria issue, which is working through the system. REPS payments for 2011 are currently up to date. A total of €64 million has been paid out to date and I envisage that by the end of 2012 a further €121 million will be spent. AEOS payments are well advanced and continue to issue as quickly as possible. To date, €23 million has been paid and a further €34 million will be paid out before the end of 2012.

We are prioritising getting payments out to farmers ahead of schedule and we are currently well ahead of schedule in comparison to last year. I am more than conscious of the pressures that farmers are under. This affects farmers not only in disadvantaged areas but also in places such as east Cork and east Waterford. Farmers who were harvesting spring crops of three tonnes or more per acre last year will be lucky to reach two tonnes per acre this year. There are similar losses for winter crops. There was a significant increase in the amount of land that was put into arable crops this year because last year prices were strong, yields were very strong and it was profitable.

Unfortunately, there has been a significant reduction in yield and quality this year and although approximately 2 million tonnes of grain will be harvested we could do with more than that. As the Deputy is probably aware, this country only produces approximately 50% of its requirements in terms of grain usage so we rely on importing the rest at a high cost at the moment. That is a big problem. In order to try to address the problem we are trying to ease cashflow problems for farmers by supporting schemes at an early stage.

Does the Minister agree that for most farmers this will be an incredibly difficult year but for some farmers it is an utter disaster? Some farmers lost all their silage while others could not make it. Does the Minister not agree that some form of assistance should have been given on an emergency basis for extreme cases? The total cost of emergency assistance would be literally a margin of error within the total Department's budget.

The Minister is making a virtue out of something that happens every year, namely, the 50% first payment of the single farm payment.

I did not make a virtue out of it.

As the Minister said himself, that is more or less a standard approach. The disadvantaged area scheme, DAS, is always paid out around the time of the ploughing championship week. There is nothing new there. Other than what the Minister's colleague did in terms of extending the dates for the spreading of fertiliser and slurry-----

I had nothing to do with it.

I presume the Minister made representations to his colleague. He could confirm that. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, did virtually nothing.

As a result of the significant delay involved in farmers getting their payments, does the Minister intend withdrawing the DAS stocking density requirement on farmers? Will the Minister announce the continuation of the beef suckler cow welfare scheme and the sheep grassland scheme, which are vitally important now because they give money to farmers to buy feed? Has the Minister had discussions with the banks to ensure that low-interest loans are easily available to farmers who need money for stocking and who have a good track record?

Deputy Ó Cuív asked a lot of questions. I totally reject that we have done nothing. It is quite the opposite. I have met all the banks in this country and I met a number of them on more than one occasion. Extra funding has been made available. Ulster Bank, for example, launched a specific food harvest fund. In the past fortnight Bank of Ireland launched with me a €250 million fund specifically targeting agriculture and farmers. That is on top of another €250 million fund that was launched a number of months ago. We have been active in pursuing and pushing banks to specifically tailor funding for the agrifood sector and for farmers, many of whom need to invest at the moment in anticipation of potential growth in the future. We have been very active on the banking front.

Having said that, I would like to see more from the banks, in particular for sectors that are currently in crisis. The pig sector, and to a certain extent the poultry sector, are under severe pressures because of the price of feed. In many cases they need bridging finance to get them through a difficult period. I hope and expect that banks would provide them with the necessary support. I have been speaking to farmers' organisations about that.

No, we are not making any changes to the stocking density requirements. We made changes last year on eligibility in an effort to try to avoid cutting the scheme for everybody. We wanted to try to differentiate between farmers who get the majority of their income from farming and those who are essentially farming for schemes, many of whom do not live in disadvantaged areas but are renting and taking out land in order to draw down schemes. That is not the kind of farmer we have the luxury of supporting at the moment-----

That is a different issue altogether.

-----when we need to support real farmers in disadvantaged areas.

That is why we also have a fair derogation system, which is being applied at present, and will have a fair appeals system with an independent chair, who is currently the chair of Connacht Gold. I say that in case anybody is concerned that the west of Ireland is not being represented - it is.

This has been a very difficult year and for many farmers continues to be so. It is true that farmers will not get the kind of bumper year's harvest they got last year. Farming has peaks and troughs in terms of weather, pressure, pricing and so on. It is my job to get farmers through the tough years and ensure they can benefit to the maximum in the good years. That is what we are trying to do with all the measures we are taking.

Deputies Halligan and Ó Cuív both have questions. I ask them to be brief because they have had a good innings.

Will the Minister rule out, for the record, any further cuts in farm schemes in 2013? Many farmers have asked that question.

Many small farmers I speak to are not getting the service they should be getting from the State-controlled banks; they are not getting money. The Minister might comment further on that. What have the banks said to him regarding farmers who have approached them for medium-term loans to help them out in the crisis?

I understand there are considerable delays in getting stocking loans from the banks so that by the time one gets such a loan one probably will have been forced to sell the stock. What steps are being taken to ensure the banks make decisions speedily? Second, can the Minister confirm the continuation of the beef suckler cow welfare and the sheep grassland schemes? Third, what steps has the Minister taken to ensure competition in the market by increasing live exports to break the power of the factories to doctor prices when there is a glut on the market? For example, hill sheep under a certain weight are not saleable in factories at present because the factories pick and choose as it suits them. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure there will not be a collapse in the market, such as we have seen in recent weeks?

A final reply from the Minister.

I will not start to give assurances one way or the other in regard to schemes for next year because that is a budget debate and I will not make early budget promises. However, I am very conscious of the importance of schemes for farmers' incomes and will try to protect them as best I can. I will not make absolute claims at this stage, however, three months away from the budget.

In regard to what the Deputy termed State-controlled banks, we may own them but we do not entirely control them. Banks make decisions on the basis of business plans and proposals around loans. I am no apologist for banks but I can tell the Deputy I am pushing them as hard as I can to try to prioritise agriculture-----

Across the sector, banks appear to pay no attention to the Minister.

-----and farmers, and the amount of money being spent in terms of the percentage of loans being made. The amount being spent on agriculture, agrifood and farming is considerably above what it would have been in previous years.

In answer to Deputy Ó Cuív's question, we are doing a great deal on live exports. We have opened up an entire series of new markets, the most recent example being Libya, which is now available for live cattle exports, as are other countries. Wherever there is a commercial opportunity to do this we should do so as the role of live cattle exports is very important in terms of keeping factories honest, as farmers would say. I will continue to facilitate that in Government policy.

Aquaculture Licences Applications

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]

View answer

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.