Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis na Teachtaí eile a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht, do na tuarimí a nochtadh anseo agus don fháilte ghinearálta a thug Teachtaí don Bhille.
I thank the Members who contributed to this debate and, in particular, for their suggestions as to how the Bill can be improved. I have made it clear to all interested parties that I welcome observations on the Bill and that I introduced it in a spirit of openness and readiness to listen to worthwhile suggestions for its improvement. The most appropriate place to examine the detailed provisions of the Bill is on Committee Stage and I look forward to doing so. The acquaculture industry and those communities that are home to the industry deserve the best possible Bill that the combined wisdom of this House and the Seanad can deliver. I am glad there is a broad welcome from all sides of the House for the development of acquaculture which, as has been proved, has the capacity to deliver jobs in our coastal communities. The Bill is ultimately designed to underpin these jobs and provide a platform for the further environmentally sustainable development of the industry.
A number of points were raised by Deputies to which I wish to reply. Deputy Smith, in a very thoughtful speech, raised the question of the delay in publishing the Bill. Although the Bill has been in gestation for some time, the critical importance of consultation in getting it right was a primary concern. Neither is the Bill exclusively modelled on planning law. For example, Part II is specific to acquaculture.
Deputy Smith asked about licence applications outstanding, and the figure of 800 that he quoted is substantially correct. However, experience has shown that many applications are not ultimately pursued by applicants. Great care is taken by the Department to ensure that licence applications are dealt with as expeditiously as possible, having regard to third party rights which, as many Deputies highlighted, are of vital importance. The Bill provides a statutory target of four months for determination of licence applications in an effort to bring more certainty to the licensing process. The outstanding applications include both fin fish and shelfish, the preponderance of applications being for shellfish.
I also assure Deputy Smith that Bord Iascaigh Mara and the Marine Institute are very much involved in research and development for the acquaculture industry. Other statutory bodies, such as the regional fishery boards and local authorities, are consulted on every single licence application before decisions are made, and this will remain the case following the enactment of this Bill.
Deputy Smith also raised the important question of added value. The fish processing industry, in tandem with acquaculture, is supported by the operational programme on fisheries. About 30 per cent of fish processed in our fish processing plants comes from acquaculture production, so we are mindful of the interdependency between fish farmers and processors.
A number of Deputies, particularly Deputies Molloy and McCormack, raised the ghost of the rod licence dispute. This Bill has nothing to do with rod licences, the ownership of lakes or anything of that sort. I am aware of the concerns expressed by angling groups in recent newspaper advertisements which, as Deputy Sargent acknowledged, go somewhat over the top. I took the opportunity of addressing these issues at the annual general meeting of the Trout Anglers' Federation of Ireland in Athlone on Sunday last. I also addressed these concerns in my introductory speech on the Bill to the House yesterday.
This Bill greatly enhances the rights of existing users of our water resources to have a say and to have their views taken into account before licensing decisions are made. The licensing Authority is specifically required by section 61 of the Bill to have regard to these matters.
It is worth recalling what this Bill specifically provides for. It provides, first, that one cannot engage in aquaculture without a licence. Second, if one does engage in aquaculture without a licence one will be prohibited from applying for a licence. Third, it provides, for the first time, for an appeals mechanism against licensing decisions. It is worth recalling that in addition to the aquaculture licence that is provided for in this legislation, it will also be necessary to obtain a foreshore licence in the case of aquaculture at sea and to obtain planning permission for any land based aquaculture activity.
Deputy Molloy referred to the sea trout issue, a matter which is of very considerable concern to me, as I have specific responsibility for inland fisheries as well as for aquaculture. The combined efforts of State agencies and private groups, particularly through the Whitaker Task Force on Sea Trout, the Scientific Working Group on Sea Trout and the Sea Trout Monitoring and Advisory Group, have led to the significant recovery of stocks of sea trout in many of our rivers and lakes. Fisheries such as Waterville in County Kerry and Casla and Ballinahinch in County Galway, now have good returns of these sporting fish. I accept that there is no room for complacency and that considerably more work must be done to ensure that our sea stocks are fully rehabilitated.
Deputy Molloy raised several other issues of details with which I wish to deal generally and which I will be happy to address more specifically on Committee Stage. The trial licence provisions in this Bill tighten up the existing temporary permit regime which is already provided under the Fisheries Act. This is not, therefore, a new proposal, but it circumscribes the use of trial permissions while recognising the role of trials for fallowing and for testing new sites. There is some misunderstanding about the purpose of the trial licence provision. There is already provision in existing fisheries legislation for granting licences for trials but, unfortunately, in some cases, the permit for the trial tends to extend for much longer than anybody intended. This Bill circumscribes the trial permit, puts a time limit on it, makes it clear that it is not renewable, and that if somebody carries out a trial on a particular site, it is found suitable for aquaculture purposes and they want to engage in aquaculture on that site, they will have to apply for a licence in the normal way.
Attention has been drawn to aquaculture licences of 20 years' duration. The industry has been drawing to our attention the need to have security of tenure in regard to licences. I have listened to the concerns expressed about the perpetuity provision in the Bill. Again, it is worth recalling that the existing legislation provides for licences to be issued in perpetuity. This is an issue that I am quite happy to consider and examine on Committee Stage, and I will certainly bear in mind the observations of Deputies McCormack and Molloy in that regard.
Deputy Molloy also spoke about the appointment of the appeals board. The proposed composition of the appeals board is even-handed and fair and is neither prejudicial against nor baised in favour of any interest. However, this is an issue, among others, that I am prepared to examine on Committee Stage and I will consider suggestions from Members about how it might be improved.
The question of existing licences has been raised. There is a need to ensure that existing licences are brought fully within the regulatory framework of this Bill. If existing licences were not addressed in this way, Deputies might well have good grounds for complaint that a two-tier system was being introduced with lower standards required of existing licensees. That would clearly be undesirable. Existing licences are, therefore, being brought within the terms of this Bill so that the enhanced controls which this Bill provides for can apply to existing licences as well as to new licences.
Deputy Deasy rightly referred to the deficiencies of the 1959 and 1980 Fisheries Acts under which aquaculture has been licensed to date. The Acts predated the major development of aquaculture and, with hindsight, it is clear that the more detailed provisions to govern licensing, regulation and appeals are needed if aquaculture is to be both developed and controlled.
Deputy Deasy also raised the question of identifying suitable areas for aquaculture. BIM is heavily involved in assisting potential fish farmers with this task and with considerable success. The Deputy also asked about how the foreshore is allocated. The initiative rests with the applicant. Applications for use of the foreshore are dealt with under the Foreshore Act and will continue to be following the enactment of this legislation
A number of Deputies, including Deputy Browne and Deputy Coughlan, referred to the important question of cheap Norwegian salmon products. The Department and the industry have been active in addressing this issue. I travelled to Norway last year to meet the Norwegian Minister on this matter. I emphasised the need for control of production by the Norwegian salmon industry. I also raised the matter at EU level and the Commission is at present examining whether anti-dumping measures are required. The Irish industry has been engaged in trilateral discussions with the Norwegian and Scottish industries under the auspices of the three Governments.
I am glad to say prices for farmed salmon stabilised and, indeed, increased on the EU markets in 1996. Irish farmed salmon, in particular, has enjoyed a premium price — a clear indication of its superior quality. Credit is due to BIM for recently introducing a quality code of practice for farmed salmon and to Irish salmon farmers whose good husbandry has produced dividends in the marketplace.
Deputies McCormack, Molloy and Ó Cuív were particularly concerned about the great western lakes. I share their appreciation of the magnificent part of our heritage which the great lakes of Lough Corrib, Mask, Carra and Conn represent. Let me say unequivocally that these lakes will continue to be maintained and developed as premier world wild sport fisheries lakes. Indeed, considerable investment under the tourism angling measure has been approved for the development of the wild brown trout stocks in the lakes. There will be no commercial fish farming on those lakes.
As regards fresh water aquaculture in general, planning permission is required from the local authority and a fish culture licence from the Department of the Marine. Decisions on planning permission are appealable and, when this Bill is enacted, decisions on fish culture licences will also be appealable. In practice, most new fresh water aquaculture takes place on land based units and an effluent discharge licence from the local authority is required. Deputy McCormack can be reassured, therefore, that the Bill does not diminish the local authorities' role as regards planning permission and effluent discharge permits.
Deputy Kirk referred to Carlingford Lough where there are two operations, one involving a local co-operative and the other a private operator. As he will know, a case is being taken in relation to the licence which prohibits me from speaking in detail about it other than to say that, following the enactment of this legislation, it will be open to a third party which has a concern or a complaint about a licensing decision to pursue it through the aquaculture licence appeals boards rather than the courts.
Deputy Jim O'Keeffe raised the question of applications lodged before the Act comes into effect. Applications made prior to the Act, if not determined before the commencement date, will be determined in accordance with the Act under section 74. The particular application to which he referred is at an early stage. Deputy Hughes raised the issue of the revocation of licences. As I stated yesterday, a number of penalties are provided for in the legislation, including penalties of up to £1,000 per day for breaches of conditions of licences. In addition, there is a provision whereby the Minister may revoke a licence which is not being complied with by the operator. I agree with the Deputy that aquaculture and inland fisheries need to be fostered. Under section 61, the licensing authority is required to take into account wild fishery interests before making a decision on a licence application. He also raised the issue of the salmon task force report. I referred the report to the appropriate committee last October and I am available to consider the matter with it, when invited.
Deputy Sargent made a reasoned contribution. I agree that the approach we must take to the development of the aquaculture industry should ensure it is developed in a way that is sustainable and in keeping with the environment. That is the approach and thinking behind this Bill. I am willing to consider strengthening or tidying up aspects of the Bill on Committee Stage to achieve that object. Deputy Keaveney referred to research into environmentally friendly techniques for salmon farming. I agree research is important and the establishment of the Marine Institute facilitated the research and development needed to underpin the aquaculture industry as a sustainable one. She referred to the need to strike a balance between the development of aquaculture and the protection of the environment and wild fisheries. Deputy Coughlan referred to the appointment of the appeals board which, as I mentioned earlier, I am happy to examine on Committee Stage.
It would be regrettable if polarised positions were taken on this legislation and it is not my intention to do so. I was disappointed that persons and organisations who have had considerable access to me and my Department should adopt a particular approach to voicing concerns about the Bill which has been published for three months. As I said, I responded in general to those concerns. I accept, however, that there are genuine concerns and fears and I hope that, as the Bill progresses through the House, I will be able to allay many of them as they are groundless. If a case is made for strengthening or improving the Bill, I will be open to considering it on Committee Stage.
I have received some submissions from interested bodies on certain aspects of the Bill which I am considering. I undertook to consider some observations made in the Seanad before the Bill was fully considered in the Dáil. I am happy to address the concerns raised by Members during the course of the Second Stage debate. The most appropriate way of doing that is when we examine the Bill section by section on Committee Stage. One or two Deputies feared the Bill is being rushed. It is not being rushed, it was published in November. I have no intention of rushing it. I believe in the full use of the parliamentary process to examine legislation. I am happy to have the Bill thoroughly examined by the committee and to address amendments tabled by Members and specific concerns raised in the course of that debate.