Ceisteanna–Questions. Priority Questions. - Aquaculture Licences.

Alan M. Dukes

Ceist:

1 Mr. Dukes asked the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources the basis on which exclusive rights to mussel fishing on Lough Foyle have been granted to a small number of operators, notwithstanding the fact that the transfer of mussel seed to the lough was publicly funded; the access other operators can claim to that mussel fishery; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17387/01]

No operators have been granted any rights to farm mussels or any other species in Lough Foyle to date because the necessary legalisation to enable aquaculture operations to be managed and controlled under licence is not in place. Under the British-Irish Agreement Act, 1999, responsibility for the development and licensing of aquaculture in Lough Foyle was conferred on the Foyle Carlingford Irish Lights Commission, one of the six North-South implementation bodies established under that Act.

The British-Irish Agreement Act provided that the necessary legislation to enable the FCILC to carry out functions regarding aquaculture would be brought forward in both jurisdictions. This draft legislation is being finalised by my Department in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland, with a view to publication later this year.

In the absence of a legislative framework for aquaculture in the lough, public funding has not been made available to operators to support the development of commercial operations. However, in 1998 BIM made payments to operators for the relaying of mussels throughout Lough Foyle to enable a scientific survey to be undertaken, aimed at determining the mussel growing potential of the lough. At the time all operators were entitled to participate in the survey and it was also made clear that receipt of public funding did not confer any rights whatsoever in relation to any area where mussels were relayed.

When the necessary statutory provisions are in place, which will entail parallel legislation being enacted in the Oireachtas and in the Northern Ireland Assembly, it will then be a matter for the FCILC to determine who will be awarded aquaculture licences in Lough Foyle. Any parties aggrieved by decisions of the FCILC will have a right of appeal to an independent aquaculture licence appeals tribunal, the establishment of which is also being provided for in the proposed new legislation.

Can I take it from the Minister of State's reply that participation in the seeding operation will not carry any right, or any claim to a right, to a licence? Does the Minister of State agree that the draft legislation to which he referred is long overdue? What provisions are being contemplated or put into force to allow the normal continuation of existing aquaculture operations on the lough?

The harvesting of mussels and oysters will continue as heretofore. We do not have any right, by way of legislation, to enforce a particular system within the lough. There is a gentleman's agreement and natural justice applies.

Irrespective of past arrangements, no rights will be granted to anyone. Each application for a licence will be considered on its merit and licences will be granted or refused on this basis. We are very anxious that this legislation will stand the test of time. Consequently, we do not wish to rush it but are progressing it as quickly as possible.

We are now getting to the nub of the matter. The Minister of State said that mussel and oyster harvesting operations will continue "as heretofore". What exactly does he mean by that in terms of who carries out these operations and the basis on which they are carried out? Will he inform the House what is involved in the gentleman's agreement to which he referred? What are its terms and on what are they based? While I understand the Minister of State's concern to ensure the legislation will stand the test of time, others are concerned to ensure that the gentleman's agreement, whatever it may be, will also stand the test of time.

The time for this question has almost expired. The Minister of State should be brief.

On a point of order, if the Minister of State does not have sufficient time to reply to these questions orally, I would be satisfied to accept a written addendum.

A gentleman's agreement is an agreement among all the operators within Lough Foyle. Some wild oysters were being cultured in the area and BIM was anxious to ascertain whether mussels could also be cultivated in the lough. That proved very successful. By and large, those who lay the mussels harvest them. Some people in the area traditionally lifted mussels and there are tensions in this regard. It is my intention through BIM and the Department to allay some of the operators' fears. I would like to see people in the lough working together. I hope to facilitate this, as has happened in other areas in which there were difficulties and tensions. That is my goal and I am sure the Deputy shares my view.