Adjournment Matters. - Sea Trout Stocks.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for accepting this important motion for discussion this evening. I welcome to the House the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment. However, I must point out that the motion calls on the Minister for the Marine, Deputy Andrews, to save the sea trout from extinction and I am disappointed no Minister from that Department is here to respond to this debate. I hope it is not indicative of their lack of interest in the matter.

It is important to say that I have no political motive in raising this matter. I come from a constituency which has neither sea trout nor fish farming in it. Therefore, I hope the Minister will accept my credentials in that respect. However, I should say that I am a sea trout angler of long standing and I visited the west for many years to fish for sea trout.

What has happened to our sea trout is an environmental catastrophe of major significance. The report of the Green 2000 Advisory Group established by Mr. Haughey, the then Taoiseach, states that "the decrease in sea trout numbers in the rivers of the Connemara-South Mayo region from 1988 onwards was so sudden and so dramatic as to warrant its description as a total collapse". The same report, which I am sure the Minister of State and his Department are familiar with, also says that "it is possible that the 1992 run of sea trout smolts in the western region may well be the last of any significance". Cruelty to hares has attracted considerable national attention, as have the absence of dolphins in Dingle harbour and peregrine falcons; all of those matters are worthy of attention. However, we are talking about the destruction of a major national resource that seems to be going unnoticed, not a lot is being done about it.

Some of the figures relating to what has happened are startling. Delphi in County Mayo is a famous fishery on the west coast above Leenane and County Galway had catches of around 2,000 sea trout per annum. Last year that was down to 100. Gowla is another famous sea trout fishery in Connemara and I think I am correct in saying that there was one fish caught there last year. That fishery would have recorded numbers into the thousands. The environmental grounds for taking urgent action are extremely compelling.

There is another equally important reason, namely, economic consequences to the affected areas. From the information I have, game fishing in County Galway and County Mayo is worth £10 million a year. There are 1,000 jobs at stake and 100,000 tourist bednights involved. The jobs in sea trout fishing are traditional activities that have gone on for many years in that part of the country; they have sustained small farming and other activities and have kept people in their local communities. They are just as legitimate as the newly created jobs in the salmon farming industry and in the finfish farming industry.

There is a lot said about the promotion of tourism and the need for rural development. This is high value, high quality tourism. These are the tourists we need to attract to the country. I can recall when I started fishing in the west of Ireland there were people who flew to Shannon — shortly they may no longer be able to fly to Shannon — hired a car and stayed for many weeks. They had a gillie every day of the week and spent an enormous amount of money in the area. Those people are wealthy and can just as easily go to Scotland, Norway, Alaska or the Falkland Islands. They will go to where the sport is and if the sport is not there they will not go there.

The latest and most tragic development in this saga which goes back a few years is that Waterville, which is the premier fishery in County Kerry and is of international significance, has been affected by the same condition and the sea trout are disappearing from it. There has been a long and tedious debate about whether salmon farming is responsible for what has happened to the sea trout stocks. Sea trout fishing in Waterville was good up to the time salmon farming was introduced there. Sea trout fishing had declined in Connemara and had continued to survive in Waterville. Sea trout cages were put into Ballinskelligs Bay last year and now the sea trout are disappearing from Waterville. By any reasonable standard, there has to be, some connection between the two activities.

I realise, and I am sure it is in the Minister of State's reply, that a task force has been established. However, we have come to a point where we do not want to talk about task forces, reports or reports about reports. We need to get to the bottom of this problem and we need to sort it out once and for all. We need to restore the stocks of trout to what they were. No Government can subscribe to a situation where a species is in danger of extinction.

In an effort to try and remove the connection between salmon farming and the sea trout, we had what I regard as scurrilous propaganda whereby it was suggested that fish in the Dargle River were infested with sea lice and that there was no salmon farming in that area. However, they were totally different lice. They were the lice that normally appear on any sea trout, and I have caught healthy sea trout in Waterville that had lice on them. They are the trout one wants to see, fresh in from the sea and absolutely silvery. The ones that are affected in the west are juvenile trout and they are infested to the extent that their fins are eaten and they just cannot survive. It is a different case and it should not have been represented that the Dargle River was in some way the same as Connemara. It is my understanding, and I hope I am wrong in this, that a picture was furnished of trout in the Dargle River by someone from the Department of the Marine. If that is the case it reflects appallingly on the Department of the Marine.

I suggest to the Minister of State that there is an urgent need not just to prevent the extinction of these fine fish and to restore the level of tourist activity which they generated, but there is a responsibility to try to restore the stocks in the national interest. There are recommendations in the report to the Green 2000 Advisory Group which I would refer to the Minister of State and which I understand his colleague Minister of State, Deputy O'Sullivan, supports. However, he is not here so I cannot ask him directly.

There are three provisions in particular in the report about aquaculture and they are recommendations 3, 9 and 14. Recommendations 9 and 14 are particularly significant. Recommendation 9 states that:

A mandatory code of practice should be intorduced for both finfish and shellfish cultivation. This should include, for example, mandatory reporting of escapes, detailed listing of chemical usage and out of date chemicals disposal; mortality losses and dead or diseased fish disposal records; lice levels and lice treatment records; antibiotic usage, etc. This code of practice should also apply to enhancement hatcheries.

Recommendation 14 says that:

Adequate funding should be provided for an increased level of research on innovative methods of lice control, on potential genetic interactions between farmed and wild salmon and on the impact of possible long term changes in oceanographical and climatological conditions and the response of the aquaculture sector to such changes.

The earlier provision, recommendation 3, which I will not quote in detail to the Minister of State talks about a "single integrated aquaculture permit" for the various activities involved in fish farming.

I want to stress to the Minister of State the appalling situation. I have fished in nearly all of the fisheries along the west coast from Galway, from Casla to Screeb to Gowla to Ballinahinch to Kylemore and on to Delphi, and I have left out a few in between, and the sea trout are gone. The people who fish them are gone and the people who derived a living from those lakes and from those fisheries can do so no longer. The tourist industry and the hotels in the area are being devastated. I have no objection to job creation in fish farming but the jobs that were there in the sea trout industry are just as legitimate as the other jobs.

Wexford): I wish to thank Senator Dardis for raising this issue. I am glad to have this opportunity to reiterate the Minister's strong commitment to save the sea trout from extinction and reverse the decline in our wild sea trout populations in recent years.

As the Senator may be aware, the results of the 1992 research programme into the collapse of sea trout stocks have been rigorously evaluated and published in the report of the sea trout working group last February. This ministerial working group of scientists is headed by the Department's Chief Scientific Adviser and is comprised of a broad range of scientists actively working on the sea trout problem. The group's remit is to evaluate the results of the research programme and draw scientific conclusions in an objective fashion. These conclusions are reported direct to the Minister together with recommendations on actions which could be taken or intensified in order to halt the decline in sea trout stocks and rebuild them.

The best advice available to the Minister, deriving from the conclusions of all the scientists participating in the sea trout working group, is that on the basis of scientific evidence to date it has not been possible to show a casual link between sea lice on farmed salmon and infestations on wild sea trout.

The report concluded that further research needed to be undertaken in 1993 into the cause or causes of the sea trout problem and recommended a comprehensive range of conservation and management measures which should be taken or enhanced to halt the decline in sea trout numbers and rebuild stocks.

In the absence of definitive scientific proof as to the underlying cause of the sea trout problem, the precautionary principle continues to be invoked and the Minister put in place an expanded action programme for 1993 to conserve and protect sea trout stocks. This programme which builds on measures taken in previous years has a number of key components which I would like to outline to the House.

Research is continuing with special emphasis on stock sampling data and sea lice biology and distribution. The scientific sea trout working group will remain in place to critically evaluate and report on research projects undertaken in 1993.

With regard to by-laws to protect sea trout stocks have been renewed for 1993. The rehabilitation of sea trout stocks has been advanced with a national stock enhancement programme in place which was formulated under the Department's direction. Management strategies for fish farms continue to be enhanced, with particular emphasis on the development of fallowing strategies for salmon farms.

An expert working group on fallowing has been set up by the Minister to recommend on fallowing guidelines for salmon farmers and identity suitable sites for fallowing. The fallowing of production sites after harvest, which is a principle long accepted in the agricultural sector, is an internationally accepted fish farm management strategy to improve husbandry and survival rates for farmed finfish. The use of separate sites for each generation of fish has been identified by the scientific working group as a strategy which should be encouraged in an effort to break the cycle of infections with sea lice and reduce risks of other diseases.

The fallowing group will finalise a guidelines document for circulation to the industry in a matter of weeks and this work will be complemented by regional assessments of concrete proposals for fallowing sites in specific locations for 1994 and beyond. The assessment process will bring together fisheries interests, fisheries boards and local fish farmers together with scientific and administrative personnel of the Department. This consultative process will facilitate site assessment from all perspectives and take full account of local factors and concerns.

The sea lice monitoring programme undertaken by the technical services of the Department has been expanded for 1993 and all results are promptly circulated to fish farmers and fisheries boards and made available to sea fishery owners. This inspection programme is designed to ensure that lice loadings on salmon are monitored and reduced to a minimum and that appropriate remedial action is taken when inspections detect high lice levels. In addition, extensive netting surveys of sea trout rivers have been undertaken by the Department and State agencies in the fisheries sector in a co-ordinated programme. This programme represents a significant increase in river sampling activity over previous years. The results of this sampling and all other data emerging are being analysed at present. Pending an in-depth evaluation of all the scientific data, I am advised that it is not possible to draw any definitive conclusions on the sea trout stocks in 1993.

In recent weeks following discussions wth the sector most affected by the sea trout declines — fishery owners — the efforts detailed above have been augmented by the establishment of a task force with a mandate to secure the survival of the sea trout. The task force is compact and representative. Fishery owners, fish farmers, fisheries boards and Department representatives comprise the relevant range of interests involved and the task force has direct access to all monitoring and scientific information emerging from the 1993 research programme.

In discussion with all interests and representative groupings, including fishery owners and fish farmers, the Minister has stressed the importance of a consensus approach to resolving this complex problem of sea trout declines. Different perceptions, in the absence of definitive scientific proof, as to the cause or causes of the sea trout declines must not stand in the way of concerted action to mitigate or resolve the problem. I am confident that the task force initiative will deliver on its remit in a spirit of consensus and goodwill and I can assure the House that its conclusions and actions recommended will be dealt with speedily having regard to the crisis situation for sea trout stocks.

Before I conclude, I cannot overemphasise to the House the vital contribution, and Senator Dardis has also made this clear, which both inland fisheries and aquaculture make to local and national economies, especially in the critical area of jobs. Both industries are located in isolated coastal regions where few alternative sources of employment exist, and in some areas the economic survival of rural communities is dependent on one or both of these industries. For these reasons I share the concerns of the Senator and, on behalf of the Minister for the Marine, I can assure the House that the determined efforts underway will continue and, we hope, produce solutions as quickly as possible to the difficulties raised by Senator Dardis in the House today.

I thank the Minister. May I suggest to the Minister — perhaps he will convey this view to the relevant authorities — that science should be the agent for solving problems? It is not something that should be used as a mask to hide behind.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.35 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 13 July 1993.