Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 29 Mar 2001

Vol. 533 No. 5

Adjournment Debate Matters. - Fisheries (Amendment) Bill, 2000 [ Seanad ] : Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Tugaim faoi ndeara go bhfuil an tAire Talmhaíochta, Bia agus Forbartha Tuaithe anseo agus tá mé fíor bhuíoch de. Tá cuma ar an scéal áfach go mba cheart d'Aire na Mara agus Acmhainní Nádúrtha a bheith i láthair. An ceart dom fanacht? Should I wait for the Minister?

No. Ar aghaidh leat.

Tá go maith. Tá áthas orm seans a bheith agam labhairt anseo ar an mBille Iascaigh (Leasú), 2000, mar is Bille é a thugann cumhachtaí don bhord nach raibh acu cheana fein agus, le cúnamh Dé, a chuirfidh feabhas ar an obair a dhéanfaidh siad amach anseo.

The area of aquaculture has been generally the focus of this debate, more widely than what the Bill involves. I take this opportunity to set out what the Green Party will be proposing in that area, given that we are dealing with farming the sea and fresh water, known as culture fisheries as opposed to capture fisheries, and this will play an increasingly vital role in protein production in the world. For the most part, however, that should be done in an energy efficient way low down on the food chain.

Green Party policy would be to introduce incentives to encourage more research into small scale, self-contained, ecologically sound fish farms which utilise agricultural and other organic and processed waste and to phase out systems with excessive crowding based partly on fishmeal and open to the surrounding eco-system, with all the risk that implies in terms of escape of farmed fish and interbreeding with wild stocks, as well as pollution, disease and parasites as have been mentioned already.

The other type of fish farming which is fairly sound ecologically is ocean ranching which will have more chance of succeeding if, for example, the food supply of the released young salmon is saved from destruction by industrial fishing through international regulations and monitoring. Salmon fishermen should be given a fair role in the onshore recapture facilities for the ranched fish. These fish would not interfere with the normal restocking of salmon and sea trout which would return up the rivers.

Shellfish farming is basically ecologically sound and should be encouraged more, especially through interest free loans from a marine credit union, for example, which we would like to see promoted and subsidised by the State as a fiscal measure that would also be used to encourage more ecologically sound capture fisheries.

An action plan is needed both for market development and to address the serious problem arising from increasing red tides, as they are called, and toxic algae. Restocking projects for various crustacean and mollusc species should be fully encouraged on a co-operation basis. Shellfish and sea plant farming, if properly supported, could be an important part of regional policy.

More generally, a co-ordinated approach is urgently needed not only from the Departments of the Marine and Natural Resources, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Finance, the Environment and Local Government, Defence, etc., and various other agencies but also in terms of the coastal zone management concept which will reduce the conflicting pressures on the coastline and help to conserve vulnerable eco-systems.

An example would be for various bodies to work together to implement freshwater catchment plans linked into coastal management. Within this strategy, the regional fishery boards should be revamped and given greater powers and funding to deal with seriously deteriorating water quality and other threats to freshwater and coastal eco-systems. As an interim measure, the agreed recommendations in the Marine Institute's Towards a Marine Policy for Ireland 1996 report should be implemented. That applies across the board to all marine activities as it would be a vast improvement on the current position.

In relation to this legislation, there is a need to discriminate between desirable and undesirable practices in aquaculture and those practices which affect aquaculture. As I mentioned previously, there are well planned and organised small, self-contained aquaculture ventures and more damaging open, fishmeal based ventures which are bedevilled by fish escaping and mixing with native stock, for example. The Bill contains some improvements but the points I want to make will hopefully improve on those measures. The Bill is quite short but it has implications which are more broad ranging.

Section 2 refers to providing the main reasons and considerations on which a determination of an appeal is based. One has to wonder why somebody would be given the job of trying to summarise all the detail and come up with the main reasons. Who decides what are the main reasons as opposed to other reasons? Is it necessary to summarise the information? It would be more responsible and thorough to simply give the reasons without having to qualify them. The Minister of State mentioned a summary of the reasons. There is no reason an A to Z approach could not be adopted. The reasons given should be valid. There is a need to go further in giving the reasons an appeal is refused or the information is required. The board is not covered by the freedom of information legislation. As a State board, it should be covered by that legislation in the same way as other State bodies. That would eliminate any talk about the main reason because the information would be on the record.

Section 4 focuses on the consultant or adviser who may inspect the land, foreshore or area of water to which an appeal under the chapter relates. My understanding is that it is not sufficient to have the power to visit a water or land based area. There must be an obligation on whoever is visiting to be suitably qualified to carry out a proper inspection. I am talking about someone who would have a thorough scientific knowledge of the habitats in question and who would know how to deal with the impact which, for example, the development of shellfish or fin fish would have on a natural habitat. We need more expertise in shellfish development. This is important given that a number of these proposals are in special areas of conservation. It is grossly irresponsible and negligent not to have that type of expertise. I hope that can be dealt with on Committee Stage and that the Minister of State refers to it in his reply.

When a visit is being paid to an area by a consultant or adviser, it is important that they meet not only the developer or the proposer of the development but also the bodies in favour of it and those which are concerned about it because of its negative impact. It is not an objective operation to meet only the proposer of the develop ment who will talk up all the advantages and avoid mentioning any negative points. It is responsible to be objective about it and to either meet both sides or none. In the interests of acquiring as rounded a view as possible of the application for an aquaculture development, the inspector should meet both sides of the debate.

I mentioned earlier that many aquaculture developments are in SACs. It should be a basic requirement for an inspector to notify Dúchas before an inspection takes place so that there is a seamless approach by the State. It should not be the case that one Department is at loggerheads with another as this gives a bad impression to the public and leads it to believe that different policies are operating within the one Government. Advance notification to Dúchas of an inspection by an inspector would help in that regard.

The Minister of State mentioned growing aquaculture in a sustainable way. If it is to be sustainable, there is a need for operators who want to become involved in aquaculture to be trained. It is not adequate for an operator to submit a proposal without satisfying people that he or she is properly trained in what he or she is doing. It is a long standing complaint by the fishing community that there are not more training facilities run by FÁS or vocational education committees. It seems one must go to Greencastle to get any training in fishing. We are a long way behind in providing training in aquaculture. Perhaps the Minister of State might refer to that in his reply.

An impression is given in section 4 that oral hearings are discouraged. It seems that people have been asked to pay a fee of £60 for an oral hearing which subsequently is not granted. People have complained to me that they did not get their money back. If there is not an oral hearing, why is the money not returned to the person? That should be addressed because it is unfair. It sounds like the State is being mean-minded in taking £60 and then keeping it even if the oral hearing is refused. If an application for an oral hearing is turned down, the reasons for that decision should be indicated. This is a basic tenet of providing information. If the information is available, people should be told why the oral hearing was refused.

The appeals board must deal with many issues. Does the Minister of State regard unregulated coastal fishing as part of its remit? In my area of north County Dublin and in north Leinster generally the unregulated fishing of razor shellfish is an absolute scandal and a national disgrace. It is probably too late to regulate it at this stage. The Department of the Marine and Natural Resources and the Government have been aware for years of the unregulated fishing of razor shellfish by people who are not licensed and who are getting into fishing because it is unregulated and they do not have to follow the normal quota procedures. If the Minister of State walked along King Strand in Balbriggan and up to the Mosney area, he would see the decimation of young razor shellfish which are too small to be sold. Their remains litter the coast. The same is true in the Boyne valley, which I am sure Deputy Bell mentioned. The mussel fisheries there have been wiped out as a result of the Department granting licences for dredging.

There is a conflict between the different interests in the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources. The Minister of State has a responsibility to ensure those interests do not clash. The activities in the marine sector should complement each other rather than conflict with one other. One activity, for example, is the disposal of waste, particularly oil, from trawlers which washes up on the coastline. The Minister of State may be serious about developing aquaculture, but it sounds hollow if ports do not have facilities for trawlers and if measures are not enforced which make the fishing community realise it is unacceptable to pollute the seas and to destroy the marine and coastal environments.

That is happening and people are looking for assistance to set up facilities at harbours for oil collection and to clean up the fishing industry from the polluting effects of an unscrupulous minority. They are allowed to get away with destroying the livelihoods and the environment of people who depend on the fishing industry, through aquaculture and trawling. The Minister needs to show leadership in this regard.

There is a serious and worsening problem as fishing becomes more and more difficult as an employment. People are becoming more hard-pressed. Putting in facilities and ensuring safeguards are in place to combat pollution tends to suffer when people are under pressure and feel they are not being heard and are not being given due respect for their activities. The members of the fishing community constantly remind me that the fisheries have suffered because of our membership of the EU. It has been said many times that £2 billion worth of fish was taken out of Irish waters by EU boats every year and Ireland's share is about £100 million. One way of looking at it is that Ireland gives £2 billion in structural aid to the rest of the EU in the form of fish every year. A large amount of ground needs to be made up by the Government on behalf of the fishing community and the marine environment, given that in our negotiations with our EU partners, the fishing interests of this country were the ones to suffer, more than any other sector. Farmers may disagree given the current crisis, but over the years fishermen have felt as if they were the Cinderella of Ireland's interests. This must now be recognised.

It will be difficult to develop aquaculture unless we come to terms with the pollution of our seas. The quality of the product relates directly to a clean marine environment. Many other factors contribute to pollution at sea but the factors which are under the control of the Department of the Environment and the Department of the Marine, in particular, should be the ones to be dealt with first. It is ironic that our EU partners claim Irish fishing waters to be open for all EU boats and yet when it comes to defending the fishing interests of Ireland and the EU, it is the Irish Government which is expected to provide the defence and naval facilities to patrol those waters. The map of Ireland is regarded by many as being in the shape of a teddy bear. However, the extent of Irish waters beyond the land mass of Ireland makes the map of Irish territories and seas look like a huge oyster shell. The Minister for the Marine has a responsibility to redefine in the Irish mind what constitutes Ireland: a great deal of water and very little land. This fact must be recognised if our fisheries are to be protected.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Perry and Finucane. I have to admit that I am not the most well read on this Bill. I listened to Deputy Sargent with some interest as he is an expert in that area, much more so than I am—

The Deputy's modesty is killing me.

—I did not call the Minister an expert yet. I agree with Deputy Sargent's remarks about our accession to the EU. If any industry lost out, it was the fishing industry and I have no doubt successive governments were to blame. The fishing industry lacked an organised lobby which the agricultural sector had and it was short-sightedness on all governments' parts. It is one of our great natural resources and it is now struggling. All the facilities and financial resources at the Government's disposal should be put in place for the industry. The export potential of our fish products is excellent.

I question the Minister on some points in his speech. Aquaculture has a role to play in regional economic development, especially on the west coast. Freshwater aquaculture is carried on in Lough Allen in County Leitrim and the operators have been doing well for several years. There was a complaint from one of the Lough Allen operators about the licensing system and the length of time taken to process the licences. A year's trading was lost because of the delay in the issue of a licence.

The Minister notes in his speech: "it is only proper in the interests of transparency and fairness of procedure, that all future determinations of the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board shall be examined, explained when made, and the board shall, on request, give a summary of the main reasons and considerations for past determinations." If a decision is appealed, an applicant should not be given a summary but should be informed of all the reasons for the refusal of his appeal. Most individuals going into this business are committed and see a future role for themselves there, but it is all dependent on the issue of a licence. A summary is not good enough. They are all entitled to a full explanation of the decision and it would also be an exercise in transparency. Perhaps the Minister could consider this point on Committee or Report Stage of the Bill.

I remember when I was elected to the House that in 1987 one of the main issues was fish farming in Connemara and the detrimental effects of sea lice on the area's tourism industry. Connemara was famous for its sea trout fishing but the establishment of salmon farms brought sea lice into the waters and killed the sea trout. The creation of one industry resulted in the decimation of another. I have not received correspondence on this matter for some time and I presume the problem was resolved. If it has been proven that sea lice were introduced as a result of salmon farming, we must bear that in mind when issuing licences.

How does the industry affect water quality? We are all aware of the EU reports which state that the water quality around our coastline is poor as a result of sewage and industrial waste pollution. This detracts from Ireland's clean image as the Emerald Isle. If aquaculture is to survive, we must ensure high standards of water quality. The Minister and his colleagues in the Department of the Environment and Local Government should take these matters into consideration. If we develop a reputation for poor water quality, we will experience huge difficulties in marketing our fresh and farmed seafood products.

I am not sufficiently well read to make in-depth suggestions on possible improvements to this Bill but my colleagues will doubtless table amendments on Committee Stage to ensure the Bill lays the foundations for a progressive aquaculture industry.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate although I am not an expert on these matters. It is very important that the independent licensing appeals is allowed to carry out its functions in as effective, efficient and transparent a manner as possible. People in the industry must be assured the appeals process is fair. A solid licensing framework is necessary to facilitate the development of aquaculture to its full potential. The industry, which has not yet reached its full potential, employs more than 3,000 people and generates an annual income of £67 million. As an island nation, the development of the aquaculture industry is to be welcomed.

I occasionally listen to "Seascapes" when travelling home to Sligo on a Thursday evening. There was a considerable degree of controversy on last week's programme about the licensing of boats. It appears some vessels were being registered and licensed in other jurisdictions due to the harsh taxation system here. The view was expressed that the Minister for Finance had failed to provide sufficient tax concessions on tonnage. As I understand it, a certain tariff is levied per tonne on Irish-registered vessels whereas there is a ceiling on charges in the British Isles and other areas. Perhaps that does not come within the remit of the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources but I would welcome the Minister's views. It would be very disappointing if people who had invested heavily in shipping vessels were to continue to register them elsewhere. That would be a big loss to the industry here.

A socio-economic study on the impact of aquaculture on four counties on the Atlantic seaboard has found indisputable evidence that it significantly boosts peripheral areas. People in one Connemara community believed the locality would have died out were it not for the aquaculture industry. The same applies to communities in Donegal, Sligo and other areas in which people have an affinity with the sea and depend upon it for a livelihood. A further study published by the Marine Institute recommends that the industry should be given development priority and investment support from both the public and private sectors. Does the Minister envisage the introduction of public-private partnerships or tax incentives to encourage people to invest in this high cost industry? It would be important to provide such incentives to encourage investment in new processing plants etc.

The study bases it findings on the industry's performance to date in dependent communities in Galway, Donegal, Cork and Kerry. A case study of Kilkeerin Bay in south-west Galway revealed that unemployment and emigration levels would be higher and that fewer young people would build houses and raise young families in the area in the absence of the opportunities presented by the aquaculture industry which is still in its infancy. If we are to develop a good reputation in fish farming in regard to issues such as traceability, quality processing mechanisms etc., we must be disciplined from the outset.

The aquaculture industry complements the traditional skill of boat building which must also be encouraged to avoid the fragmentation of the cultural identities of coastal communities. This is a high risk business from the perspective of individuals and investors alike but investment is of paramount importance.

One case study found that unemployment levels were around the national average in a population of just over 6,000. Case studies indicate the viability and risk factors involved in various projects. Positive case studies on this matter will encourage other communities to become involved in the industry. At least seven ancillary industries in the area, which generate £1 million in wages for 120 full-time and 30 part-time jobs, depend totally or heavily on fin fish farming.

The industry is also a tourism attraction and it is important it is encouraged. Salmon farming companies in Kilkerrin Bay recorded sales of £6.26 million in 1997 with 70 jobs tied up in finfish and aquaculture alone. That says a great deal. The development of salmon farming is very important because, despite it having a bad image, for whatever reason, with people involved with wild salmon, it is a huge growth area in terms of the economy and exports such as smoked salmon.

Irish fish farmers welcomed the merger of two of the world's leading players in the aquaculture market – Hydro Seafood of Norway and the Dutch owned Nutreco Holding NZ. Both multinationals have Irish interests as part of their existing global network. Hydro Seafood employs 165 people in Fanad, County Donegal, while Nutreco's aquaculture subsidiary employs more than 40 in a salmon feed production base in Westport. This merger will create the world's largest salmon farming company with a projected output of 150,000 tonnes annually, ten times the size of Irish production alone and representing about 20% of the global share of the salmon market. It is very good the Irish are part of that and it is important we have access to a huge market. Hydro Seafood has 1,500 employees internationally and had a turnover of £220 million in 1999.

The Irish Salmon Growers' Association said that both Hydro Seafood and Nutreco were strong supporters of the Irish salmon rearing industry through their respective companies in Donegal and Mayo. I do not know the exact nature of the relationship between those companies and the Minister of State's Department, but I do not doubt it played a major role in encouraging them to the State. I am sure they sought grants and that the Minister of State provided the money to encourage them. That makes sense when one is conducting business with world players who can guarantee exports and it is very encouraging.

I know from being a retailer that people are seeking alternatives to meat, and I have seen the growth in sales of fresh trout and salmon. Fish is a huge industry whereas, years ago, it was a diet for Lent. It is stocked every day of the week in most supermarkets because sales of it are huge. It is an industry which must be encouraged, and so should sales of fish on the domestic market. The business is huge and we should pride ourselves on the quality of the product.

We can command excellence in this area because of our reputation for doing things correctly. Therefore, regulations are important. It is also important that people licensed for the trade conduct their business correctly. The Minister of State does not want cowboy operators who are in it for the grant and the fast buck and who give the industry a bad name. They will do more harm than good. The Minister of State will be much better off being selective about who he allows into the business and approving a handful of good people committed to the idea of producing a quality product and conducting business in an ethical manner. This will ensure that Irish produce will withstand any checks worldwide. The Bill will introduce regulations to the trade in this regard.

The Minister has allocated £25 million for the aquaculture industry under the national development plan. That is important and it is also important that the spending of that money and by whom is properly monitored. Accountability is very important, not so much in terms of value for money but in light of the fact that public private partnerships will be involved which will match that funding pound for pound. It will encourage people in the industry with a vision. The funding is also important in that it will create jobs and give an alternative enterprise to people who love the business.

I compliment the Minister of State on his work in this very important industry. The Government has announced funding for a pier in Rosses Point in County Sligo, something I appreciate. Mullaghmore is also a coastal town in County Sligo and State funding for aquaculture there is very much appreciated. It is a good start and I compliment the Government on taking a lead in what will be a major industry for the future.

I will be brief. I am concerned that statements made in the House indicating that everything is well and happy in the aquaculture business will go unchallenged. The industry is anything but so. The practices of aquaculture in Ireland have led to a massive breakdown in the eco-system, especially on the west coast where aquaculture is practised very intensely. Sea trout have vanished from many of the traditional and lucrative fisheries on the west coast and arising from that disappearance, there has been large scale unemployment there. Tourism has suffered dreadfully. It is proven beyond doubt that the aquacultural practices of fish farms have led to lice infestation of the smolts of sea trout which has led to their deaths in large numbers and to a decline in their numbers. Likewise, the smolts of wild salmon are now being infested by sea lice and their numbers are declining seriously.

The value of wild sea trout and wild salmon is much greater than any aquacultural business. There is a place for properly managed aquaculture but we do not have properly placed or managed aquaculture. That is not the fault of the Minister of State who is moving in the right direction to ensure it is properly placed and well managed. It is possible to have a thriving aquaculture business and to have it in such a way that the return of wild sea trout and wild salmon can be encouraged to many rivers denuded of these species.

Another speaker mentioned the salmon farming methods used. These are being used and championed by the State in the salmon research station beside Newport. They have been very successful. Large numbers of salmon are returning to lakes and rivers arising from those practices and fishermen at sea are also getting their share of these fish. That is the way to go. If fish must be reared in cages, let it be done in places where it will not do terminal damage to what has been a traditional industry, namely, tourism based on angling.

I thank those who contributed to this debate – Deputy Connaughton, Deputy Bell, the Minister of State, Deputy Coughlan, Deputy Kenny and Deputy Sheehan, without whose contribution the consideration of no Bill in this area would be complete, Deputy Ellis, Deputy Sargent, Deputy Reynolds and Deputy Perry, who modestly said they did not know that much about the area but proceeded to amaze me, and Deputy Stagg who was the only one who took the opposite point of view. It is important in any debate that such a view is taken. I compliment him on doing so and, if I have the opportunity, I will deal with his concerns. Otherwise, so as not to bring Members back another day, I will deal with them on Committee.

I thank my staff, especially Mr. Thomas Tobin, for their wonderful work. As Members indicated, licensing in this area has never been easy. It is much more transparent now that all the agencies are made aware that a licence is being sought. There is also an appeals board. It is unlikely that any licence application that goes through my Department and Mr. Thomas Tobin will be appealed because it is usually so watertight. I thank Mr. Tobin and the staff in that regard.

I assure the House, in these difficult days for farming and the country, that the marine and forestry sectors are playing their part in trying to keep this terrible plague out of Ireland. We are fortunate to have someone of the calibre and statesmanship of the Minister, Deputy Walsh, dealing with the matter. Most people in Ireland and perhaps elsewhere believe the right man is in the right place at the right time. I assure the House that we will play our part in discouraging people from crossing land for marine activities.

In relation to Deputy Stagg's concerns, I am proud to work with an industry that has a vested interest in the health of the product it produces. Ireland has accessed probably the best market in the world in France. Given the French palate, Ireland's penetration of that market is a strong vote of confidence. However, the Deputy's point is that no activity is perfect. I intend to continue the efforts to improve the industry and the quality standards in as transparent a manner as possible.

I was pleased Deputy Connaughton was present for the debate almost to the end. Retrospection will apply under the Bill. If it is passed, as I expect it will be because every speaker was so progressive and supportive of it, retrospection will apply from the date the first licence is granted. I am sure the Deputy will be glad to know this. The details of past decisions by the appeals board will help the Department in its consideration of the method used to grant licences. When I grant a licence, I want to be sure that everyone has had their say. Deputy Connaughton asked about the number of licences. There are approximately 250 licence applications in hand at present and I will deal with those as quickly as possible, although I will be careful not to overlook any aspects.

It would be great if legislation was unnecessary and a voluntary code sufficed. However, a voluntary code called CLAMS – the co-ordinated local aquaculture management system – has been introduced where everybody in a bay is invited to meet and express their views. This may address some of Deputy Stagg's concerns. Environmentalists, anglers, inshore fishermen and tourism, shipping and aquaculture representatives are invited to discuss the zoning of a bay area. This ensures that everybody has their say and is happy with the activities of others. It is working well in the areas in which it is operational.

Question put and agreed to.