Fisheries Protection.

I wish to raise a matter which is becoming close to a national scandal, namely, drift netting off Irish waters. I have come across an extraordinary number of people who are concerned about this although I represent a constituency which is not near the sea, the sea fishing community or any vested interest group. However, I have been lobbied by many people; anglers, hoteliers and others in the tourism industry who say that what the Government is doing in allowing excessive drift netting of wild salmon is killing the tourism industry in certain areas and is also building up serious trouble for future generations.

What I cannot understand is that the Government has apparently yielded to certain small but strong vested interests and is allowing drift netting to continue on a scale which is completely unacceptable and is way above European norms. It is unfortunate that the Government has not taken the initiative and yielded to pressure from ordinary people to stop this habit which will shortly ruin our salmon industry and damage our tourism industry.

I have been told of many ugly incidents in which those who practise drift netting have behaved in an illegal and threatening fashion towards those who accidentally disturb their activities. I came across someone at lunchtime today who told me he had been sailing off the coast of Donegal when he was unexpectedly caught in drift netting and that he was pursued by some fishermen who were guarding the drift nets to protect their salmon catch. The industry as it is practised is somewhat murky and it must be tackled, not only in its legal activities but in its ancillary activities.

Salmon stocks are in steep decline, not only in Ireland but in Europe. We are all aware that if drift netting is allowed to continue, we will have very few wild salmon left in our rivers in the near future. Successive studies have shown this is the case. One of the extraordinary and stark revelations of recent years has been that the Government has commissioned successive studies to look at what can be done and has continuously ignored the scientific data and the conclusions of its own consultants. It did not like the conclusions so it simply ignored them. It also ignored our European partners who have taken action to curtail the salmon catches from drift netting. Within Europe we are undoubtedly, once again, the black sheep. We have behaved appallingly in allowing this to continue. It is vested interests which allow it to happen.

As the Minister of State is aware, the drift nets intercept salmon approaching our rivers. Statistics now show that 86% of freshwater salmon in Ireland are at risk. The latest information appears to indicate that if the Government does not take action, the Liffey will be devoid of salmon in a very few years, the Slaney probably has about ten years to go and the Boyne has about six years. This is a totally unacceptable situation which is only taken by the Government for short-term electoral reasons in order to defend one or two seats, not too distant from the constituency in Donegal of the Minister of State with responsibility for the marine. That is not the way to plan the long-term prosperity of the fishing and tourism industries on which we depend for prosperity and the spreading of money outside the areas we are discussing.

The Welsh and the British are already complaining that 10% to 12% of salmon stocks returning to British rivers have been caught in the drift nets. I suggest to the Minister of State that if he does not do something about it, he will face protests from our European colleagues who will eventually force him to take action.

In the short term, there may be some political gain for the Government in taking this appalling attitude to drift netting but in the long term the economy cannot afford such an injection into the pockets of one or two at the expense of so many.

I thank Senator Ross for raising this issue. I will reply on behalf of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.

Salmon habitats and stocks throughout the north Atlantic regions are under threat from a variety of adverse pressures. Some of these pressures are environmental and some relate to water quality. Other pressures include drift netting, seals, poaching in rivers and estuaries, and pollution. With this in mind, the Government has accepted the National Salmon Commission's advice that continues to maintain that reductions in the overall fishing effort are required in order to sustain and rebuild salmon stocks nationwide. For this reason, current Government policy has been designed to bring spawning escapement up to the level of the scientifically-advised conservation limits and to fully align the wild salmon catch on the scientific advice so that we can have increased confidence that a sustainable management regime is in place.

My colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for the marine, Deputy Gallagher, has indicated that the Government is committed to limiting the salmon catch to that advised by the scientific advice by 2007. He is not convinced however that operating a managed fishery in accordance with the scientific advice will necessarily mean the cessation of the drift net fishery. He will consult with the new National Salmon Commission on the best method of achieving an alignment on the scientific advice by 2007.

The Minister of State assures me that he is fully aware of the widespread concerns being expressed that drift netting for wild salmon in the Irish fishery is having a damaging impact on wild Atlantic salmon stocks. It should be noted however that despite these claims, the Government does not accept that there is any sound or agreed scientific basis for the allegations made that the Irish salmon drift net fishery has an unacceptable impact on salmon stocks, either in Ireland or in other European countries.

In this regard, the Government would argue strongly that, together with its commitment to align on the scientific advice in two years, its management of the Irish home water commercial salmon fisheries, which limits the commercial salmon fishing season, confines it to within the six-mile limit and restricts the number of fish being caught, clearly demonstrates a commitment to the conservation of the wild salmon stock which is in keeping with the spirit and principles of our obligations, both as a member of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation, NASCO, and under relevant European Union and other international legislation.

Since 2002, the Government has promoted the application of quotas on commercial fishing and bag limits on angling to achieve catch reductions as the best instrument available to achieve the restoration of salmon stocks. A quality and value strategy is also in place within the commercial salmon fishery aimed at improving how fish are handled, post-catching, to ensure the maximum price per fish is obtained. This approach maintains or increases the overall income derived from the fishery even when the total catch is reduced.

In these circumstances, the Minister has no plans to introduce proposals to purchase commercial drift net salmon fishing licences. The Government has consistently ruled out buy-out as an effective means of achieving the restoration of salmon stocks. Moreover, no convincing case has been advanced as to the public good that would be acquired by the State in the context of a publicly-funded buy-out of commercial salmon licences nor why stakeholders benefiting from increased numbers of salmon entering the rivers should not contribute in whole or in part towards achieving that increase.

As he has previously indicated to the Houses of the Oireachtas, the Minister of State with responsibility for the marine is prepared to keep the matter under review. In this regard, he advises me he would be open to any relevant proposals presented to him whereby stakeholders benefiting from any reduction in commercial catch would engage in the first instance with licence holders and indicate a willingness to address any compensation issues that might arise.

In the wider context, the EU Commission has recently begun work to examine the management of the wild Atlantic salmon in Community waters and, in particular, to examine the position on interceptory fisheries of mixed stocks of salmon inside the 12 mile limits. The Government has noted the EU Commission's concerns in this regard and has already indicated its intention to work with the Commission to achieve proper regulation of these fisheries.

I understand the European Commission expects to complete its report on these fishing activities later this year. As this study is expected to provide an accurate analysis of the impact of interceptory fisheries on mixed stocks of wild salmon in Community waters, the Government believes we should await the outcome before any further conclusions are drawn in the matter.

In light of the Minister of State's reply, am I correct in believing he intends to do absolutely nothing about this problem?

The Senator focused on drift netting as the only problem but, as I indicated, there are a number of pressures affecting salmon habitats and stocks throughout the north Atlantic region. Naturally, we are very conscious of the impact a reduction in the salmon catch would have on our tourism industry. We will monitor this but no changes are envisaged in the short term.

Plenty of monitoring. I thank the Minister of State.