Fishing Industry: Presentation.

I welcome Mr. Jason Wholley of the Irish South and West Fishermens' Organisation, Mr. Lorcan Ó Cinnéide of the Irish Fish Producers' Organisation and Mr. Sean O'Donoghue of the Killybegs Fishermens' Association. They have appeared before the committee before and we welcome them back.

We are aware of their concerns about the Irish Box, the replacement tonnage and power and harbour and landing fees. We arranged this meeting when another meeting was cancelled because we realised the urgency of the matters to be discussed but I ask the witnesses to confine the presentation to no more than 20 minutes, with the remainder of the time for a question and answer session.

Mr. Jason Wholley

I am accompanied by Sean O'Donoghue, chief executive of the Killybegs Fisherman's Organisation and Lorcán ÓCinnéide, chief executive of the Irish Fish Producers' Organisation. We are here to highlight the three main issues facing the fishing industry. Collectively, the three organisations here represent 95% of the Irish fishing industry which has a unified front. There is a perception that we are not as unified as other industries. That is not exactly the position. On 99% of issues we agree 100% and work together, maybe not under one umbrella body but the three organisations represented here today work in close consultation with each other on all major issues.

We have three main topics to discuss today. The first is the Irish Box and fleet tonnage, both of which are EU issues. The second is the decision-making process, which is outside our control in that we have three votes out of 87 at the EU table. The third topic is the harbour charges, which is a domestic issue. We intend to deal with them as they are on the committee's agenda and each of us will speak on one issue.

The Irish Box encompasses the Irish coast and goes into the west coast of Scotland and the south west of the UK into Cornwall. That protects the stocks within the Box by limiting the number of Spanish vessels to 40 at any one time. Until the end of 2002 the Box was as I have described. The Commission tabled proposals at last December's Council meeting suggesting that there is no longer a scientific basis for maintaining the box, and referring to open access. During the Greek Presidency things moved along slightly in that the Greeks put forward an alternative at the June Council. This creates a new Irish Box to include areas outside the Box proposed by the Commission. If we have a track record of fishing in any of the areas between the Greek version and the Commission's version we can continue to fish there. Otherwise we are excluded.

Our main concern is that large sections of the Irish coastline appear to be vulnerable so a fleet that is operating in areas as far down as the Bay of Biscay in France can, under the present proposal, quite legitimately fish into the Irish Sea, into the coast at Waterford and all the way up to the north west. That would pose serious problems for us and for coastal communities in those areas. The Commission is now prepared to accept that there is a scientific justification for the continuation of some form of Box and that is a positive move for us. Nevertheless, we are concerned that the proposal is for a smaller and less defined area than that which we have previously used.

On the plus side, the European Parliament voted three to one to maintain the Irish Box for another ten years after which it will be reviewed. That is a significant boost to our campaign and this compromise and the parliament vote demonstrate that we have a legitimate case and that what we have been saying from the outset stacks up scientifically and independently. We must continue and it is crucial that our Minister and our Government continue to support the case to maintain a full Irish Box as it is at present.

Satellite imagery shows that the most productive fishing grounds in a large area of EU waters are around the Irish coast. This justifies our case that it is particularly important from a scientific point of view. It is a breeding ground and important spawning area for large stocks. If we increase fishing in any respect around those areas, including by Irish vessels, that will cause fundamental problems. We are taking the high moral ground but in this argument we are right and there is a logical and objective basis for our stance.

The Spanish fleet has been waiting on the edge of the Box since 1995. Under the new proposals those vessels will move to our inshore waters. Our national fleet represents 2.5% of the EU fleet. Of our vessels 83% are smaller than this committee room. Their future will be decimated if that armada is allowed fish along our coastline. We are in the hands of Mr. Berlusconi and his administration. Hopefully they will be as accommodating, if not more so, as the Greeks have been up to now. It is crucial, even if this means stalling until the Irish Presidency begins on 1 January 2004, which may be the best tactic to use.

The question of Irish fleet tonnage has major significance for the industry and if it is not resolved satisfactorily we can forget about the Irish Box and all the other issues because this is a big problem. It arose only in the past three months so had I addressed the committee at the beginning of March we would not be discussing this issue. It is like a bombshell that has hit the industry, the Minister and the Department since March. On the fleet tonnage issue, we made a presentation to the committee last November on the Common Fisheries Policy. A new policy was agreed in December 2002. While we had certain misgivings about many of the issues, one that we thought had been put to bed was that concerning the size of our fleet. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

There are two distinct articles in the new Common Fisheries Policy agreed by the Council of Ministers in December - articles 12 and 13. Article 12 is of huge significance in terms of the way the Commission is interpreting it. That article states that the reference levels shall be the sum of the objectives of the multi-annual guidance programme 1997 to 2002 - pursuant to the Council decision 97/413. To put that in plain language, Ireland had fleet targets to reach by the end of last December, which we actually met. Going forward, the Council of Ministers signed up to those targets. In terms of numbers, when one is talking about fleet capacity there are two central issues - the gross tonnage, which is the volume measurement of the vessel; and the power of the vessel, which is measured in kilowatts.

In terms of gross tonnage, the figure that Ireland had to reach by the end of December 2002 was just over 83,000 gross tonnes. In terms of kilowatts, roughly 215,000 was the reference level. Those two figures are important to remember because the nub of the problem lies in those figures. The Commission is no longer accepting that these are the reference levels for the Irish fleet.

Article 13, which the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources signed up to, deals with vessels coming off and on the register. There are two different categories in this. One deals with vessels that are to be grant-aided in the future. However, it is unlikely that Ireland will have a grant-aid scheme in the future. If one was to bring in a boat, one would have to remove 35% of tonnage and kilowatts to receive grant aid. One would also have to reduce the overall size of the fleet by 3%. This is a non-runner for Ireland going forward. A major issue for us was the non grant-aided vessels. It was to be a one-to-one replacement capacity. For the first time, that is written into EU legislation. There was provision for an entry-exit regime before this, but this is the first time it has been defined as one-to-one. It is important to remember Ireland has operated such a scheme for the past ten years.

In March 2003 the industry was first informed verbally. In May we saw the Commission's proposal. What the Commission is saying is that the reference levels for the Irish fleet are not the 80,000 GT and 215,000 kilowatts. Instead, it is actually what was physically on the Irish register on 1 January 2003. That is contrary to what the Council agreed in December 2002. I defy any Commission official to show me in the text of the Common Fisheries Policy where it is stated that the reference levels should be as on the fishing vessel register on 1 January 2003. It is not there. One wonders can the Commission read plain English or is there another argument taking place?

This is not just a fisheries issue. There is a fundamental point of principle involved here. What is happening is that the Commission proposes and the Council disposes. The Commission is taking on powers that it did not get from the Council. If it does manage to get this through, we are calling on the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and the Government to challenge it using whatever means are necessary. The fundamental principle here is that the Commission cannot go beyond the powers that the Council gives it. It is also a fundamental principle in the treaties of the European Union. We have a battle taking place between the Council and the Commission.

What are the implications if these proposals go through? This is an issue that will have an impact from Clogher Head to Malin Head. There are many individuals in Ireland who had tonnage off-register on 1 January and there are many reasons this was the case. The bottom line is that all those individuals would have received letters of comfort from the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources that they owned so many kilowatts and tonnes. Now, at the stroke of a pen that is wiped away. My estimate, given my knowledge of the Irish fleet, is that if the Commission gets its way on this proposal on 15 July, we are talking about reducing the fleet at the stroke of a pen by 15%. In GT terms, it brings us down to 70,000 instead of 85,000 and down to 183,500 kilowatts.

At those levels, the viability of the Irish fleet is in question. If it does go ahead, there will be large scale unemployment in coastal areas - it will not be in just one area, but in all coastal areas. There will also be bankruptcies. There is no justification for these proposals by the Commission. If we cannot resolve this issue satisfactorily, the other issues we are discussing become irrelevant.

Can Mr. O'Donoghue clarify the gross tonnage issue, from 83,000 tonnes down to 70,593 tonnes?

That figure is 76,920 tonnes. Those are my estimates.

If one combines those, how much tonnage is being taken out of circulation? One figure given was 13,000 tonnes.

The figure of between 12,000 tonnes and 13,000 tonnes is my estimate as to what will be taken out of circulation.

Mr. Lorcan Ó Cinnéide

As Mr. O'Donoghue said, the previous issue is one that is important and fundamental for all those in the fishing industry. Like the issue of the Irish Box, they are both generated at EU level. Our problems are with the EU as our fishing industry has been rained upon solidly in the past six to seven months with proposals from the EU.

I also wish to discuss an issue that is within our domestic remit and cannot be blamed on the EU or any other institution. We have five State-owned fishery harbour centres at Howth, County Dublin; Dunmore East, County Waterford; Castletownbere, County Cork; Rossaveal, County Galway and the largest at Killybegs, County Donegal. Charges for the use of those harbours by the fishing industry have been put in place. The last harbour order was in 1990. A draft proposal that would see these charge increase by at least 500% was issued. That is a conservative estimate, and there would be a much broader range of charges.

At this point, it is necessary to comment on the Minister's reaction to our analysis of this problem. I have seen transcripts of comments he made regarding our claim of an increase of more than 500%. He rejects that case, which is a re-run of an argument that we had with him on the facts at Christmas. We three organisations are very much standing over our analysis of the effect of these charges. We certainly reject the contention that seems to have been expressed that no one was paying for the harbours. That is simply not the case. As an industry we fishermen quite readily accept that services provided to us in such fishery harbours must be paid for, and that is happening. It is accepted that a negotiated increase in them since 1990 is not unreasonable. What is not reasonable is for something to be introduced without consultation. We were threatened with the introduction of them on 1 July and we were given a limited time to make written submissions. We are quite happy to pay for services, provided that they are value for money, that the level of service being provided meets the mark, and that we and our members are not competitively disadvantaged by the scale of charge scale compared with other harbours here or those of our major competitors abroad. The scale of charges contained in the proposed Order is far in excess of that.

I also note that, in the present Administration's Agreed Programme for Government, it is stated:

We will establish efficient management structures and develop our fishery harbours, including electronic auctioning, new distribution networks and completion of investment programmes for harbours.

That is a commitment by the Government. We would argue very strongly that the timing, as well as the scale of the present proposal, definitely puts the cart before the horse in so far as we would like to see that level of services, infrastructure and so on before something of this sort. The proposal should be withdrawn, negotiated and agreed over a period of consultation. We note that the Minister has stated - although we have not had confirmation - that the Order was not introduced on 1 July, but we await with great interest a commitment to a meaningful discussion and dialogue on the charges.

By way of conclusion, I can say that all the views expressed by the three of us today are shared by the other organisations in so far as we are speaking for each other. There are other very pressing issues which will be coming to the fore later in the year, and we would welcome an opportunity to come back to the committee on those. However, we have prioritised these issues for today's meeting and are very glad of the opportunity that the committee has afforded us at very short notice to put these very important issues, both domestic and EU, to it.

Deputy O'Donovan requested this urgent meeting, and it is only fair that we ask him to say a few words, after which we will take Deputy Coveney.

I will be brief, for I have another commitment. Perhaps we might start off with the Irish Box. Everyone here is aware of the seriousness of the situation, and we are 110% behind what these organisations and our Minister are trying to do in regard to this. We are making some progress. It is obviously not to our or the industry's entire satisfaction, because we are representing the people of our constituencies. We are aware of the seriousness of the situation and what must be done. The second issue was the question of the tonnage. There has been a drop from 83,000 tonnes gross to 70,000, and from 215 kW to 183 kW. It hardly takes an expert to figure out what that will cost financially. Perhaps the delegation has figures on job losses. One can imagine the devastation that it will wreak on ports such as Castletownbere and Killybegs which depend on fishing.

Perhaps the representatives might also clear up another query in my mind. Let us say that someone was in the process of buying a boat or had tonnage that was not in use at the end of last year on 1 January. Is the Commission saying that because it was not live at that point, it is now being wiped off the circuit? That is a very serious issue. I have already raised the matter with the Minister. My third point relates to the charges. I am glad that in the last day or two the Minister has said that he will stand back and re-examine the situation, but I have one or two queries which the delegation may or may not be able to answer. I had hoped that the Minister, or his officials, would attend, but it has not worked out that way. Last year there was a deficit on the harbour charges.

We did not invite the Minister or his officials here today.

That is all right. I can understand that. The information that I have is that there was an operating deficit by the harbours throughout the country, and I have some interesting figures. Howth shows operating profits of about €6,000. Castletownbere had a loss of €23,000 and Killybegs represents almost 50% of the deficit with a loss of €256,000. I am not too sure what those figures represent. Is there is so much going on in Killybegs that there is a greater operational loss? Howth seems to be doing well, and the second-lowest is Castletownbere. I have had at least two meetings with the Castletownbere port users, and they were obviously seriously concerned over the past few weeks about the announcement of the charges. Do those figures indicate that things are being run badly in Killybegs? I say that not in any disparaging way. Perhaps someone might explain those figures.

I will split my question into the three sections dealt with, the first being the Irish Box. I know that all three representatives were in Luxembourg on the occasion of the most recent negotiations. What decisions were made there? The meeting broke up without agreement. What is the view of the representatives on who supports the so-called compromise proposal? As far as I can see, we are making the case here that the Irish delegation and the Minister should not support it under any circumstances. We want to keep the Irish Box intact, as has been supported by the European Parliament. My understanding is that the Spanish are totally opposed to agreeing even to the compromise proposal. We are, therefore, no closer to an agreement now than we were two or three months ago from a Spanish point of view. In many ways, we are more entrenched in our positions. There was a grey legal area before which prevented aggressive political debate, but that seems no longer to be the case. What is the view of the representatives on when the issue is likely to be settled? It highly unlikely that we will reach agreement in July. What allies do we have for our case? For example, where do Portugal, Britain, France and the Netherlands stand? Do the representatives see it as advantageous to prolong the matter, or is it purely that we have dug in our heels and are not going to budge, with the result that it drags on? I made the case strongly on many occasions for trying to keep the current box intact. Does Mr. Wholley regard the Italians, for example, as being sympathetic to our cause? When they take the Presidency, will that be of some help to us? It is important that the committee gets a flavour of the Minister's task in making the case for the Irish Box.

What is the scientific basis for the reduced box? It appears, according to the charts displayed today, that the Irish Sea between the two islands has been taken out of the Irish Box under the Commission's proposals. What scientific argument has the Commission made in respect of reducing the box? Obviously, it is not of as much concern to a fisherman on the south-west coast as it is to someone on the north-west coast. It is unfortunate that fishermen in Killybegs and Greencastle have been hit hardest by the Common Fisheries Policy but if this measure were agreed it would add insult to injury.

On the tonnage issue, there appears to be a difference of opinion between Irish representatives and others. Some in the EU Commission would say that this proposal was on the table before Christmas yet we are being told by the industry, and by the Minister, that the first they heard of it was late March. We need to know the absolute position. I tend to believe that we did not know anything about it until March because otherwise the fishing industry would have made a huge issue of it in December and January. The accusation has been made that this was part of the negotiation process. Did we miss it in December because if we did, it is a massive mistake and clawing back now will be very difficult? I would like to be convinced it was not on the table in December.

Another matter the committee needs to be aware of concerns the difference in the workings of the tonnage system between the Irish and other European countries. For example, my understanding, as it was explained to me, is that tonnage in other countries is given to the country. The country and the Government own and allocate it whereas in Ireland the individual fishermen own the tonnage and because of that we may have a loophole in terms of making a special case for Ireland. Perhaps Mr. Wholley would tease that out because it is important that people understand it.

I agree the consequences of it are catastrophic. We are talking about a significant level of tonnage, 15%, being lost. Will Mr. Wholley outline the sections of the fishing fleet that will be hit most? For example, will people who are upgrading vessels and who may have bought extra tonnage in December and January, but who were not using it at the time because they anticipated getting a new boat in September or during the summer, now find that they are paying " X " million euro for a new boat but they will not have the tonnage to get a licence to fish that boat or will they be safe because they had signed contracts for a new boat? What about the people who did not sign contracts until January and who were buying up tonnage in January, February and the start of March when we did not know about this until the end of March? Are those people safe? If they are not, there will be some people in severe financial difficulty as a result, with brand new vessels being tied up in areas like Crosshaven, Castletownbere and so on.

My last question concerns the fisheries harbour charges. I issued a press release to welcome the Minister's backing off on that for the time being but Mr. Wholley said that the vibes he is getting are that the Minister is delaying something he intends to introduce. Will Mr. Wholley give some figures to support the comments he made about the increase in charges making Irish ports uncompetitive? What are the charges in Spain, France and Britain? How do they compare to here? What is the difference between the Minister's argument and that of Mr. Wholley? Mr. Wholley said that this is a rehash of a disagreement they had some months ago. Will he give us the details of that difference of opinion?

We will hear the answers to those significant questions before we come to Deputy Broughan and Senator Finucane. I will then call Senator Kenneally and Deputy Morgan. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Wholley

Deputy Coveney asked about the Irish Box and who is supporting the vote. The Irish Box proposal we put forward and the compromise document is part of the overall western waters agreement. While we are greatly concerned about our element of that proposal being the Irish Box, other member states have been engaged on different issues. In the last Council, what was new was that the Portuguese appeared to have woken up to the fact that under the western waters agreement and the current proposal, the Spanish fleet would get full access to their waters which, until now, enjoyed similar protection to the Irish Box. While member states may support our position on the Irish Box, they might oppose the overall proposal because it is either all of it or none to a certain extent. From our point of view, the Portuguese have thrown a spanner in the works. They have changed the negotiating position.

On the question of the Italians, I am aware the Minister met the Italians prior to the Presidency. I hope he has had some success with them. The lobbying exercise will have to be started all over again at governmental level to ensure we have the same degree of influence over the Italians or that they have the same degree of understanding of our concerns. The difficulty, in fisheries terms, is that the Italians have no fishing interests or quotas of any description off the Irish coast. Similarly, we have nothing in the Mediterranean and to a certain extent, therefore, it is ludicrous to think they are now presiding over something that has such a key influence over our futures, but that is the reality. As regards the negotiations and who is on-side or off-side, that is very difficult to pinpoint because behind the scenes people will be bought off at different stages in an attempt to get the qualified majority required to pass this measure.

Is the fishing group of countries that work together within the EU——

Mr. Wholley

Friends of Fishing.

——Friends of Fishing, meeting to try to agree amendments to the proposal?

Mr. Wholley

No. That group met to discuss fundamental issues under Common Fisheries Policy negotiations prior to the December Council but it agreed to differ on certain issues, and this is one of them. Two of the main pillars of Friends of Fishing are the Spanish and the Irish, and we are on completely opposing sides.

I wish to address the tonnage questions posed by Deputies O'Donovan and Coveney. On the employment and value aspects, Deputy O'Donovan is correct. If this tonnage measure goes through as currently proposed, we are talking about large-scale unemployment around the coast. I would estimate that on the fleet side we could be talking about between 1,000 and 1,500 jobs around the coast, and that does not take into account the on-shore processing end. The vital aspect I want to get across is that if that 15% is taken off the Irish fleet, we will be down to the viability of the Irish fleet. A large number of catchers who bought tonnage in anticipation of getting new vessels will be wiped off the scene. Given that they are in a smaller pool, it will become very expensive to buy tonnage. In terms of value, I reckon the 12,000 or 13,000 tonnes is somewhere in the region of €100 million to €120 million.

It is worth teasing out the fundamental question put by Deputy Coveney, namely, was this on the cards last December and did we know about it? The answer to that is definitely not, and that is why I displayed article 12 on the screen. There is no mention whatsoever in articles 12, 13 or any other article in the Common Fisheries Policy of 1 January being the reference level for the fleet. On this issue we aread idem with the Minister and the Department. The boat was not missed this year but the Commission has deliberately misinterpreted a regulation. It is not the first time this has been done - the Commission did it with the safety tonnage issue as well. At some stage somebody will have to shout stop and ask who is in charge. Does the Council make the decisions, which are implemented by the Commission, or does the Commission do both? Under the treaty there is only one answer to that: the Council decides and the Commission implements. I would refer the committee to articles 12 and 13 again because there is no mention of the date there. If this measure goes through the Commission on 15 July in the management committee, our industry will call on the Minister and the Government to take immediate steps to have the decision annulled because it runs contrary to what the Council decided.

I was asked about the difference in tonnage systems in the various member states. Our system is similar to that of the UK; the only difference is that on 1 January, my understanding is that the UK will not have the same amount of tonnage off register at that time as Ireland does. In Ireland, the individual actually owns the tonnage and the kilowatts but that is not the case in Spain, for example. If this Commission regulation goes through, however, Spain will also take a hit of 27% on its reference levels. I can assure the committee that the Spanish are up in arms about this, also. It is not just one member state that has problems with this proposal - Portugal has a similar problem, as does Ireland.

It will hit all three sectors of the Irish fishing fleet: pelagic, white-fish and shellfish. Individuals in those sectors bought tonnage over the past couple of years - or even last December - that would have come off the register so it would not have been physically on the Irish fishing register on 1 January. However, the Commission is saying, "sorry lads, you should have had it on the register. If it is not on the register it's gone".

I was asked about a person who bought in January or February of this year. Obviously, if a person did so, they would be buying off the register, unless they were buying from somebody who had it off the register. If it was on the register they would have had no problem but if it was off the register they would have had a big problem. A couple of hundred people will be disenfranchised by this measure. It is not acceptable that the Commission can make retrospective something to which the Council never agreed.

Mr. Ó Cinnéide

Deputies O'Donovan and Coveney raised the issue of harbour charges. The question of losses at the ports has been mentioned and we have been told that there is an accumulated deficit of €1.2 million which has been used as a justification. However, we have not had consultations, meetings or briefings on what exactly the loss constitutes, where it came from or what form it takes. What charges are being made? Is administration at head office or elsewhere being charged? We need to have discussions on the value for money we are getting in this area and the scale of existing losses. We may be able to contribute something to the thinking on that matter, either in terms of staffing or other systems.

The difference of opinion with the Minister is that we believe these charges will result in cost increases, for overheads related to port use, of more than 500%. The Minister has said that is patently not the case. We would argue that there is a much wider range of charges involved than would otherwise have been the case, including charges for parking and crane use. In addition, for example, the basic charge for a nine-metre vessel of ten tonnes to enter a harbour is up by 291%. A single entry charge for a vessel of 180 tonnes has been increased by 393%. There is a 446% increase in discharging costs and charges for berthed boats have risen by between 112% and 235%. Charges for the use of water has risen by 273%. Therefore, there has been an increase in the range of existing costs, along with a much wider range of costs generally. The Minister can say what he likes or prove otherwise, but that is what we believe to be the case according to our spread-sheet analysis which is based on conservative estimates.

We welcome the fact that the proposal has not been introduced on 1 July as was written down, but if we want to advance the debate the proposal should be withdrawn. We should have a period of meaningful consultation and dialogue on this matter. We are not arguing about the increase in charges but we will not have discussions whereby we end up with a 300% increase, yet the Minister tells us he has obtained magnificent concessions. The books must be opened in order to have that meaningful dialogue.

There is no doubt that the present charges would be lower in comparison to other countries but one must compare like with like in terms of the quality and availability of the services that are being provided. If anyone looks for a ladder to board a boat at Dunmore East, they will not find one. There is no ladder - one has to climb down a chain. We are being told that major safety initiatives are being taken, yet people are being asked to pay 500% more for that privilege. That is simply not acceptable. The question of overseas comparisons needs to be brought in but the answer lies somewhere between the two.

The industry cannot countenance or accept this situation in a year when we are being hit from all sides by poor global fish prices and grave difficulties are being imposed at EU level. We have a right to expect that the Government would help an industry that supports approximately 60,000 people in coastal communities and which generates €500 million worth of output. In common with other sectors, we have a right to expect that the Government would support development, safety and hygiene, as well as having a dialogue with us in order to reach an acceptable solution.

I thank you, Chairman, for having brought forward the meeting. Unfortunately, I have to leave to attend another engagement.

We are all under time pressure so I will try to be brief. This is not the first time that these issues, including harbour charges, have been raised. They have already been raised on the floor of the Dáil. Three or four weeks ago, I tried to raise these issues with the Taoiseach but a debate was refused. Many efforts have been made to get these matters into the public arena. I wish to thank the representatives for making three excellent presentations. The fishery harbour centres legislation is being prepared. It will deal with the five ports. Should there be consultation before the legislation is introduced?

There is a huge safety issue regarding these massive increases, as was evident in the week following thePisces disaster at Dunmore East. The slipway charges appear to be a major deterrent to safety procedures.

On articles 12 and 13, it is extraordinary that there was a mention of the reference levels in the period 1997-2002, although the representatives have explained the context to Deputy Coveney. What is the regional breakdown of the 12,000 to 13,000 tonnage register situation and what areas are most affected? On the disastrous blue box, is there a possibility that under the Italian Presidency, the area may be extended to cover the retention of the Irish Box? The Minister extended our economic area by another 50 miles to cover the fields of exploration by Corrib Enterprises and others. There seems to be a unilateral extension of Ireland's territory, while at the same time the Government is being put under pressure to concede ground on the fisheries aspect. Perhaps the Minister should draw together all aspects of our marine resources.

I thank the three speakers for their comprehensive presentation. On the extent of the Irish Box recognised under the Greek Presidency, what will influence the specific locations to be selected? With regard to fleet capacity, what good are the letters of comfort to the Department if the Commission insists on these types of proposal? Will the industry accept that in every year a certain tonnage will be out of circulation and not used? The 13% provision on 1 January this year has put this aspect sharply into focus. If a portion is taken out of circulation this year, can it be used in subsequent years?

The proposed fishery harbour centre charge increases were draconian. A Department spokesman indicated they had not been increased since 1990, when the cumulative consumer price index increased by 50%. The Minister has deferred the increases, but what is to stop him permitting an excessive increase during the summer recess? The industry could have a problem accepting that scenario. Would the Department have to seek ministerial consent before imposing charge increases?

I thank the representatives of the various organisations for their presentations and I also thank Mr. Wholley for sending me his excellent newsletters. His latest one deals with the three subjects under consideration.

The Greek Presidency proposal for the Irish Box will not be accepted. However, is it still proposed that up to 40 Spanish vessels will be allowed enter the box? Can any compromise be made on the box?

I am puzzled about the figures for the fleet tonnage. The gross tonnage was 83,000, and it has been reduced to 70,500. I do not understand why a boat, if it exists, is not on the register. In my experience, a swap of tonnage for tonnage must be noted on the register. If it is not, it cannot be removed from the fleet. Perhaps there are administrative reasons, but I seek clarification on this point. What is the tonnage ofAtlantic Dawn?

It is 14,000 tonnes.

That means it comprises one sixth of the gross tonnage of the entire Irish fleet. Has that caused a problem? If we get the EU to accept a gross tonnage figure of 83,000, can we live with a reduction of 3% from that? Are other countries, such as Spain, being asked to reduce their fleet tonnage and, if so, by what amount? For grant-aid purposes, replacement tonnage can be allowed at a ratio of 1:1.35 whereas previously the ratio was 1:1. What is the ratio in other countries, especially Spain?

I agree with the views expressed on the proposed increase in harbour charges. Like others, I was surprised there was no consultation with the organisations represented today. I am more aware of the position in Dunmore East than elsewhere. Is there a difficulty with the way these harbours operate? A haphazard collection regime in Dunmore East was part of the problem. The fishermen had no difficulty in paying a fair price for the services. They even put in place a harbour uses committee to try to regulate matters. However, there was mismanagement by the Department. Are similar problems prevalent in other ports and are you happy with the way the Department is running services there? The proposed harbour charge increases related to the five major fishery ports. If they were to be implemented what will be the effect on other ports that may be used to the detriment of these ports?

On the Irish Box, it seems the only option available is to prevaricate here, to drag out the issue until January to get it into the bailiwick of the Irish Presidency and to try then by some manner to negotiate it at that point. I do not see any sign of a resolution. Does the delegation share my view that this is the best option available? I wonder, as history has been made at last, if in the past year scientists have begun to agree with fishermen on the location of breeding grounds for fish around the coast. I mention that in conjunction with the Irish Box and the case which can be made for the retention of it.

All the points I intended making on the harbours have been addressed. On the employment front, I appreciate that the delegation represents the producer organisations, but I was born and reared on the other side, the on-shore end of the industry, and I know that the backs of those of us at that end of the industry will be to the wall if anything happens regarding the Irish Box.

Mr. Wholley

I apologise to Deputy Coveney because I missed his earlier question on the reason for having the compromise Irish Box.

The scientific basis for the argument.

Mr. Wholley

Yes. It was raised by Deputy Broughan afterwards. The basis for it is that this map or section is already in place in what is called the hake recovery plan which was introduced by the EU Commission. That box already exists. On the one hand the Commission, at Christmas, stated there was no scientific justification for it, yet 18 months ago the Commission introduced this box to regulate what it felt was a declining hake stock. The Commission has superimposed the hake box onto the Irish Box and stated this was the scientific justification for it.

On how the Italian Presidency could possibly handle this, it could say that it does not agree with anything that has gone before and will introduce a completely separate box, or that it agrees with the Commission's proposal of December that there was no need for an Irish Box. I suppose we are on a wing and a prayer with them at this stage. We do not know how they are reacting and we are waiting for feedback from the Minister. We will have a better idea following the Council meeting on 22 July.

On increasing the EEZ like the Minister has done for the off-shore industry, if only it were that simple we would be delighted. Although we know it is not realistic, the ideal situation would be to have more control over our own destiny in terms of management and putting forward the cases. It is not that simple when we are effectively tied in for another ten or 20 years to a common fisheries policy only as recently as last January.

The number of Spanish vessels entering the blue box or hake box - the new compromise Irish Box - is the big issue. We do not know whether there will be more than 40 and, unfortunately, the serious situation facing us is that we may not know, even after voting for or against this proposal, in that only time will tell. The information we are being given is that there will be no increase in that the number of 40 will not be exceeded in the new Irish Box. That is comforting at present but the reality could be totally different, and that is what we are worried about.

In answer to Deputy Morgan on the idea of prolonging this until the Irish Presidency, we are familiar, from the point of view of the Irish industry and the Government, with the importance of the Irish Box. Therefore, it would suit us to have that level of interest and that potential for initiative on 1 January when Ireland takes over the Presidency. The difficulty with the Greek Presidency, and certainly now with the Italian Presidency, is that they do not have the same engagement on the issue of the Irish Box and it is quite likely that it could be shelved. It is also quite likely that they could bring forward something totally unsuitable or a lukewarm solution to the Irish Box problem.

If it is shelved, what will be the position? What if, for example, we were to find that there are 60 Spanish fishing vessels this weekend? The Minister has given a clear instruction - seen under FOI - to the Department of Defence that if more than 40 Spanish fishing vessels enter the Irish Box, they are not to be arrested or detained. Their entry is merely to be noted. That, to me, is a very weak position to take if we are insistent on trying to keep the Irish Box intact. What is the fishing industry's reaction to what is a very weak response by the Minister on enforcement in the meantime? If the legal advice from the Attorney General is that we are entitled to keep the Irish Box in place until it is re-negotiated and agreed, then surely we should be enforcing that?

Mr. Wholley

I do not know when that information was obtained under FOI.

It was printed inThe Irish Times about two months ago.

Does the Deputy have a copy of that? Was this reported?

It was reported inThe Irish Times by Lorna Siggins and I raised it in the Dáil. It is on the record.

Do we have a copy of that documentation?

I do not have it with me but I can provide it to the committee.

Unless we can back up what we are saying, it is important that we——

Let me clarify the matter for the record. According to an article by Lorna Siggins inThe Irish Times, which quoted directly from an internal memo within the Department of Defence, the Naval Service was given the instruction by the Minister last December that if more than 40 Spanish fishing vessels entered the Irish Box, they were not to be detained. The precise words were that a cautious approach should be taken towards enforcement within the Irish Box, and that the numbers should be noted but the fishing vessels were not to be detained.

We as a committee will seek clarification from the Department on that matter.

If that is the case, we now have an opportunity to ask the representatives of the industry what is their view on it.

Certainly, if we accept the reported comments of the Minister.

On that question, does it weaken our negotiating position if we are not taking a strong line on enforcement?

Mr. Wholley

I also saw the report inThe Irish Times. I am not so sure it came under the Freedom of Information Act, but I certainly saw the report.

The Attorney General's advice and the legal position are quite clear. At his press conference following the last Council meeting but one, in Brussels, Commissioner Fischler clearly stated that in the absence of new regulations, the existing ones stood. If more than 40 Spanish vessels enter the Irish Box at any one time, that represents a breach of existing EU legislation and is an open and shut case. The committee has accepted that, as has the Commissioner. That might have moved on since last December when they were not prepared to admit it, but they certainly are maintaining that position now.

We will clarify that for the sake of the integrity of the committee.

They should be detained if they are in the Irish Box.

We will seek clarification on that from the Minister. Mr. Wholley, did you answer the other questions from Senator Finucane and Senator Kenneally?

Will Mr. O'Donoghue address the question on tonnage, the 13%? Is there always a percentage residual which is not used up because people are buying in tonnage?

The answer is there will always be tonnage off register for one reason or another. Even if one got the year to tidy up everything, there would still be some individuals who would not utilise the tonnage in the year in question and it might be carried forward to the next year.

While I have the floor, perhaps I could deal with some of the other issues. There were quite a number of questions on tonnage. There was a question on the regional breakdown but I do not have precise figures. Judging by the number of people who have been in touch with me, I am certain that this is an issue which affects every coastal county in Ireland, from County Louth to County Donegal.

The majority of that 13,000 tonnes will be in the north-west. However, the loss of ten or 20 tonnes assigned for a boat on the east coast is every bit as important to that person as perhaps the loss of 100 tonnes to somebody else because the person has invested in it. That brings me to the reason tonnage is off register. This is easy to explain. If a vessel was sold in December 2002, the first duty of the seller would be to de-register it. If the new owner was late in his paperwork and did not re-register that vessel until January, the following would apply. According to the European Commission, as the tonnage and kilowatts of that vessel are lost, one must try to buy the tonnage and kilowatts for it. That is only one example; there are others. Where people will be introducing new or second hand vessels in the next year to two years, they try to cover their position so that, when the vessel arrives, they have full one-to-one replacement capacity. They will buy tonnage off the register, de-register it and have it in safe keeping until they want to allocate it to the vessel again. The Commission is saying that is now being wiped off the equation.

That sounds like an administrative problem here. Surely it is only a matter of transferring it from one person to another and leaving it on the register until such time as the other boat arrives.

The Senator may be correct in saying that the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources may have to take a view on what it calls administrative decisions that this off-register tonnage is really on-register. That may be a solution. However, such transactions are not being allowed because there is a fear in the Department that the Commission will get its way in writing off this tonnage.

TheAtlantic Dawn was referred to. I assure the committee that it is not part of this issue. As Ireland only comprises about 4.2% of gross tonnage of the EU fleet, the Commission sees this as an opportunity to reduce the fleets of some of the larger players, especially Spain and Portugal whose fleets would be reduced by 27% and23%, respectively, overnight if the Commission had its way. There is a large prize in this for the Commission. I emphasise repeatedly that the Commission has no legal basis for this. It goes beyond what the Council agreed in December. Someone at some stage must cry “halt”.

Other countries and grant-aid were referred to. The grant-aid ratio for replacement tonnage of 1:1.35 will apply to all member states. The committee can take it that Ireland will not choose grant-aid in future because, as well as the 1:1.35 replacement ratio, the overall size of the fleet would also have to be reduced by 3%. Grant-aid, which only existed for whitefish vessels in recent years, is finished. We can safely say that the last round was announced last June. There is provision to protect that from this regulation.

Mr. Ó Cinnéide

I concur with Deputy Broughan's point that the increased charges for harbours should succeed the proposed legislation for the future management of those harbours. That is why I said in the presentation that the cartwas being put firmly before the horse in thisregard.

Senator Finucane and Deputy Coveney inquired about the Department's powers in this area. The draft order must be signed by the Minister to become law. It cannot be introduced by administrative fiat without a statutory instrument being signed by the Minister. We have requested him to withdraw the current proposal because we do not want a significant reduction to what will still be an unacceptable level. We would not like to see the long hot or cold summer coming about in this regard.

Regarding the management or mismanagement of ports, individual departmental staff working in the ports do their level best in difficult circumstances. The thrust of our objections is not directed at them. It may well be that there are more effective ways of running matters and there may certainly be more effective ways of accounting for them. We believe there are areas in which significant improvements can be made to the level of service which would be to the benefit of the industry and allow for improved administration. This is all part of what we seek, namely, a serious discussion over a period of months. We are unhappy about such a process of dialogue being undertaken with a sword of Damocles, represented by the current proposal, hanging over us. The Minister has not signed the order, but he has not stated that he will withdraw it. We repeat our request for him to do so.

Will Mr. Ó Cinnéide deal with the suggestion of directing fishermen to ports other than the five referred to?

Mr. Ó Cinnéide

There is a possible displacement effect and smaller harbours might not be fit to accommodate the displaced vessels. There is also likely to be a knock-on effect where county councils and harbour commissioners in non-fishery harbour centres would see this as a headline and try to follow the lead. It is certainly likely to lead to many artificial distortions in the system in the medium term which is counter to any policy of developing these ports as fishery harbour centres.

Unfortunately, I had to attend another meeting and missed the presentation. Perhaps the witnesses could e-mail a copy of the slides to committee members. I would find it useful.

I have a few questions following on from the question and answer session. Regarding any proposals put forward by the Greeks or us, would we argue for holding the position as it is at present? Given that conservation will be key to what measures are agreed, would we agree to a reduced fishing effort regardless of how the existing fleet is then divided? We could examine in negotiations how it would be divided. I am aware that individual recovery plans are in place. Is it our negotiating position that we will accept a certain reduction on grounds of conservation, and would that benefit our position?

It seems to me that the Government's position depends on the Italian Presidency's position. I would have thought the Taoiseach and the Italian Prime Minister, Mr. Berlusconi, would have seen eye to eye in most matters. I would be surprised if he did not have much influence over the Prime Minister. I noticed recently in reading the draft convention for Europe that competency for management of fisheries stocks was effectively given to the European Union rather than to national states. What would be the witnesses views on this and what changes would it bring? Were the witnesses involved in the discussions, were they consulted prior to the convention or did they expect it?

I sought a briefing note from the Ministers office relating to the port charges. It is important to read them into the record in order to be clear on the Minister's position, as he is not present today.

Charges at fishery harbour centres were last increased in 1990 and are in need of upward revision. The 2002 draft accounts of the fisheries harbour centres fund show an operating deficit of €544,990 and an aggregate deficit of €1.2 million. The operating deficit for 2002 is as follows: Killybegs, minus €256,745, Castletownbere, minus €23,736, Howth, plus €6,314, Dunmore, minus €157,695 and Rossaveal, minus €123,128. That gives a total of €544,990. Without a significant increase in income the deficit will increase rapidly as staff and other operating costs increase.

The taxpayer meets the total capital cost of developing the harbours through the national fishery harbour development programme and is providing €28 million in 2003 for that purpose. The current development in Killybegs represents the largest single investment in a fisheries harbour in the history of the State and will provide state of the art facilities for the fishing industry in the northwest. Capital investment by the Exchequer will continue to be a priority but increased harbour charges are proposed to cover operating costs only. The proposed new charges were published on 31 May 2003 with a statutory consultation period of 21 days which expired on 10 June. More than 50 submissions were received as part of the consultation process and the Minister will carefully consider these before making a final decision on the nature and level of the charges.

I wanted to read that into the record because it is important that the Minister's view be part of the record.

Can we get a copy of that for the members?

Certainly, yes.

Mr. Wholley

Regarding Deputy Ryan's question on conservation, we fully support conservation in the Irish Box. As a matter of fact our consistent position has been that far from the Commission looking at any measures to increase efforts in the Irish Box, we feel that it needs increased protection. That has been our position for as long as the negotiations have been going on.

It is important to realise, without getting into the detail, that increased protection can take different forms. What is critical is that the fishing industry is at the centre of any proposals that come forward, particularly those which have implications for its future. A catch-all effort reduction scheme for the Irish Box is not the way forward. We would tailor the specific conservation measures to ensure there is a viable future for the fishing industry. That is crucially important.

We must realise too that the Commission seems to speak with forked tongue on conservation. It seems in favour of it but it has no difficulty in introducing proposals which would significantly increase efforts regarding stocks in sensitive biological areas. We support 100% the need for increased protection for the Irish Box.

We are not just talking about technical conservation measures but reduced catches in the Irish Box area.

Mr. Wholley

We see technical conservation measures as something the stakeholders - the fishermen who are the day-to-day practitioners - are hugely supportive of. Whatever is introduced must have the full support of fishermen or, as has been shown historically, they will look for a way to circumvent rules and regulations. We are saying: involve the stakeholders fully in the proposed conservation measures and then we will have realistic stock conservation.

Would Mr. Wholley go beyond technical conservation? I am not seeking the delegation's negotiating position but could we possibly move in our negotiating position beyond technical conservation measures in return for protecting the Irish Box?

Mr. Wholley

The Deputy touched on quota reduction. There has been a 4.5% or 5% reduction in some species of overall PACs. We have seen reductions in the past three to four years of anything up to 100% in some cases. We cannot get much smaller as an industry but I assure the Deputy that our fishermen are 100% in favour of conservation. The measures they will put forward will not pay lip service to consideration but will actually work. That is the critical issue - that these measures work.

And the question about the convention?

It comes as no surprise to us that fisheries is dealt with at the European Union level. That has been the case since the Common Fisheries Policy was introduced in 1983, so that was not a surprise to us. Were we consulted about it? No, but we are not surprised. There is an issue here in that if it were left to the member states one could have all sorts of problems with a common fisheries policy so I can see why they went with the status quo that has existed since 1983. Obviously, this debate will begin when the convention, if it ever sees the light of day, is discussed by everyone in the EU. We will make our views known at that stage.

I thank Mr. Jason Wholley of the Irish Southwestern Fishermen's Organisation; Mr. Lorcan Ó Cinnéide of the Irish Fish Producers Organisation and Mr. Sean O'Donoghue of the Killybegs Fishermen's Organisation. We are grateful for the presentations and no doubt we will meet again.