Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Sea Fisheries Sustainability: Discussion with Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

9:30 am

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Before we commence, I remind members to switch off their mobile telephones. The purpose of the meeting is to receive a briefing on the forthcoming EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council meeting to be held later this month. I welcome the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, and his officials and thank them for coming before the joint committee. I understand the Minister wishes to address the issue of the sea fisheries sustainability assessment. I thank him also for circulating a briefing document on the Multiannual Financial Framework 2014 and reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, which we may not have time to discuss this morning.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I ask the Minister to make his opening statement.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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My understanding is that we will have a detailed discussion of the sustainability impact assessment of the European Commission's proposal for discussions on total allowable catch and quota, which is scheduled to take place in the coming weeks. This discussion will allow members to gain an understanding of the Government's position on the issue and some of the priority areas on which decisions will be made. I hope the meeting will focus on some of the specific issues that arise from the sustainability impact assessment, rather than having a general discussion on fishing and the European Union as this sometimes gives rise to a particular type of discussion on quotas. I hope also that the joint committee will provide some information as regards its key priorities for December.

The annual fishing opportunities for the Community's fishing fleets are traditionally agreed at the December Fisheries Council. This year, the arrangements for 2013 are due to be negotiated at the Council scheduled for 18to 20 December. The levels of total allowable catch, TAC, and quotas for Ireland will again be determined at the meeting following negotiations with member states and the European Commission. The Fisheries Council will also decide on the fishing effort, which determines days spent at sea, available for the Irish fleet in the Irish Sea and off the north-west coast for 2013.

The process of preparing for the Council is now well under way with the publication of detailed proposals for TACs and quotas of key stocks of interest to Ireland in October. The proposal covers stocks which are not subject to third party international agreements and are, in the main, whitefish and prawn stocks. The Commission's proposals are based on formal advice received from the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, ICES, which is the independent international body with responsibility for advising on the state of fish stocks. The Commission also takes account of the views of the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries, STECF, which gives the Commission its views on the economic, technical and social impacts of the scientific advice. The basis of the advice provided by the ICES has changed in recent years. In 2012, in response to a request from the Commission, the ICES has addressed the issue of providing quantitative advice where a precise assessment may not have been possible. In the most extreme data limited cases where the exploitation pressure and stock status is unknown, ICES advises a 20% reduction in catch relative to the average catch of the previous three years.

To inform my negotiations at the December Fisheries Council, I have had an assessment undertaken of the impacts of the Commission proposal. The preparation of a sea fisheries sustainability impact assessment is provided for in the programme for Government. To facilitate and inform these deliberations an open consultation process was initiated, whereby stakeholders were asked to submit their comments and observations on the Commission proposal for fishing opportunities for 2013. On 2 November, an online web portal, fishingnet.ie, was activated to enable the transmission of electronic submissions for consideration. In addition, I convened a meeting of stakeholders on 15 of November, which provided a further opportunity to key stakeholders to outline their position on the many aspects of this proposal. In all, nine submissions were received by the closure date and the full content of all the submissions received by the deadline are to be found on the website.

When one considers the various contributions to the consultation process, there is a general acknowledgement that the national consultative process is a positive addition to the debate. While acknowledgement is made of improvements in recent years in respect of stocks, particularly in the Celtic Sea, there is understandable concern about the poor state of certain whitefish stocks targeted by the Irish fishing fleet. I agree with the sentiment in many of the contributions, which call for greater adherence to the scientific advice available to enable prudent and appropriate management decisions to be taken. However, one criticism, which I share, is that of the arbitrary cuts proposed by the European Commission for fishing opportunities in 2013 and the narrow view taken on the use of scientific advice. There is justifiable concern that these cuts in certain quotas will only lead to further discards.

The Marine Institute and Bord Iascaigh Mhara have undertaken an evaluation of the Commission's proposal which is contained in the sea fisheries sustainability impact assessment, copies of which has been circulated to members. The impact assessment acknowledges that while many stocks in which the Irish fleet have an interest are not in a healthy biological state, there has been an improvement in 2012 on the state of the resource base in respect of pressure and state indicators. Of the 59 stocks in which Ireland has a share of the EU total allowable catch, 42% are now fished below the fishing maximum sustainable yield, MSY, compared to 36% in 2011. The position is, therefore, improving. The state of the resource base in terms of the biomass, that is, the population of mature fish in the stock, has also improved, with 34% above the trigger level set, an increase of 8% on last year. The number of depleted stocks has declined from 12 to eight and 14% of stocks are assessed to be depleted. The number of stocks with unknown biomass, no assessments or undefined trigger levels remains relatively high at 51%. This is because we have a large number of fishing stocks for which it is almost impossible to obtain the data required to make assessments maximum sustainable yields.

It is also noted that the activities of the fleet have other impacts on the wider marine ecosystem. Greater efforts are necessary to achieve a more harmonious and eco-friendly interaction with the broader environment and ensure compliance with European environmental directives. These efforts will be required to be imposed at European level on all EU fleets fishing in shared fisheries under the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP. This is an area that will receive attention during the CFP reform process.

I stick to my frequently stated view that decisions on setting total allowable catches should be informed by the science available. However, I am opposed to blanket rules on so called "data poor" stocks requiring automatic reductions of 20%, even where the quantitative information available shows that the stock is being fished sustainably and the biological indicators are positive. I do not intend to engage in a stock by stock discussion as the specific details are available in the document, which has been laid before the Dáil, and the accompanying stock book, which was prepared by the Marine Institute. However, I am prepared to address any specific issues on individual stocks that members may wish to raise.

The impact assessment itself agrees with the need to cut quotas for some of the stocks in 2013, though the level of these cuts is queried in some cases, while in others there is clear scientific data to suggest that a cut is unwarranted. As a general principle, Ireland is committed to having total allowable catches set at levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield, MSY, by 2015, where possible, and by 2020 at the latest. This is consistent with the Council's general approach on the Common Fisheries Policy reform. However, I stress that the transition from the current management framework to a framework based on maximum sustainable yield will need to be on a phased basis. In this way, the transition to maximum sustainable yield will reduce the impact on fishing activities by limiting reductions in quotas, while moving on a staged basis to delivering maximum sustainable yield in the coming years.

The issue of delivering maximum sustainable yield for stocks which are "data poor" is a challenge. For instance, the sole and plaice fisheries off the west coast are so small that it would not be economically reasonable to do a comprehensive scientific sampling programme. In these and other similar cases, the Marine Institute has provided advice and a clear rationale. In one important instance, Celtic sea herring, the ICES advice is for a total allowance catch of 19,000 tonnes but the management plan, agreed by industry, proposes a lower TAC of 17,200 tonnes. We have also for the first time followed a rebuilding plan for the herring stock off the coast of Donegal, in Area VIIa South. This rebuilding plan was prepared by the Irish industry and has received the support of STECF. The Commission has agreed to implement the plan and a TAC of 1,458 tonnes is being proposed. This involves a substantial reduction from last year's TAC of 4,200 tonnes but reflects the commitment of the industry to take hard decisions in order to rebuild stocks and follow management plans even where this involves reductions in quota levels. That is a sign of the maturity of the industry.

The Commission's approach to the science appears at times contradictory and inconsistent and it can be accused of ignoring additional pieces of scientific advice, that is, trends in landings and effort, which give indications on the state of the stock and should inform the TAC setting exercise. In these situations, I intend to follow the advice of the Marine Institute and use all available information to inform the setting of TAC levels.

One major concern surrounds managing for fisheries that need remedial action in a mixed fishery by means of landing restrictions only. It is a fact that in mixed fisheries it is often the case that if quotas are cut without introducing additional technical measures, there is a likelihood that this will only increase discards. In addition, it is clear that if quotas are cut in a situation where the science is indicating increasing biomass, there will also be an increase in discards. This is the situation in the mixed cod, haddock and whiting fishery in the Celtic Sea. The TACs to be set must have regard for this situation. In addition, we should build on the important industry initiative of last year where technical measures developed by industry were introduced in the Celtic Sea and resulted in significant reductions in catches of juvenile haddock and whiting. That is a good news story that cannot be ignored.

The impact assessment is forthright in its contention that reductions in fishing levels on certain stocks are both justified and inevitable and that these reductions will come at a social and economic cost. Taking the Commission proposal as it currently stands, it is estimated that it will result in a net reduction in fishing opportunity for the Irish whitefish and prawn fishing industry of 21% by volume. In financial terms, this amounts to a direct income reduction for the primary producers, that is, the fishermen, of €16.9 million. At a regional level the 12% reduction in fishing opportunities, quotas, in the Celtic Sea and in waters off the west coast will result in a €10.6 million primary production loss for the whitefish and prawn fleets operating there. The level of reductions in fishing opportunities, or quotas, in the Irish Sea amount to 44% with a resultant economic fisheries production loss to the fleets of €2.2 million.

Landings are the raw materials of our seafood processing sector and when the level of landing is reduced it has an exponential impact on the operation of approximately 200 processors as well as other ancillary industries. BIM estimates that the full cost, direct and indirect, of the proposed quota reductions by the Commission are in the order of €53 million with estimated negative impacts for between 450 and 550 full and part-time jobs.

The proposal does not include the 'Hague preferences' which are a safety net for the Irish fleet on specific stocks where total allowable catches are in decline. They are negotiated annually at the Fisheries Council and when agreed offer additional quotas to Ireland. The loss of these allocations in 2013 would amount to 1,625 tonnes of fish with a direct value of €2.95 million. It is estimated that the full value would be in the region of €9.2 million with an associated impact on between 90 and 100 full and part-time jobs. The reason I give those figures is to remind people that the negotiations in December have a real impact on coastal towns, fishing ports, fishermen and processors. It is important to outline the seriousness of that when debating these issues and the management of the quota.

I concur with the findings of the sea fisheries sustainability impact assessment. I will not support blunt and impractical rules for arbitrary cuts where the Marine Institute offers additional information to inform the decision and where there is a real risk of generating higher discard levels than at present. That would be counterproductive. There is a high cost from a social and economic perspective when quota cuts are proposed and we have to be satisfied that in every case these cuts are justifiable and necessary in terms of protecting the stock into the future. Fishing ports and whole communities all around our coast are dependent on fisheries for their very survival. In towns such as Castletownbere or Killybegs, between 80% and 90% of the income in those communities comes from fishing or fishing related activity. That is an indication of its importance. Many other towns are similarly affected.

I publicly thank and acknowledge all those who contributed to the production of this impact assessment, and look forward to the debate on the conclusions. I thank, in particular, the fishing industry and its representatives who have contributed and, most particularly, the Marine Institute. If we did not have as competent and as professional a Marine Institute in Ireland I would be going into difficult and tough negotiations in January without the ammunition I need to make the best possible case for the Irish fishing industry. We are lucky to have an institute that is respected, as the Marine Institute is, at Commission level. I hope that will allow me to do what I did last year, which is to make the best case possible, based on science, for the Irish fishing industry to ensure we get the balance right between, on the one hand, protecting fish stocks for the future and, on the other, ensuring we get the maximum economic benefit from this fantastic natural resource off the coast. I look forward to questions.

9:40 am

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for a comprehensive presentation.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his presentation and acknowledge the officials from the Department. Certainly his presentation paints a bleak picture in the run up to the December Council meeting. The December Council meeting is very important as it sets out the quota allocation for the following year. Before going into the detail of what is proposed, I take issue with one element of his presentation, that is, the allocation of the herring quota.

This was because the criteria that was used to allocate quota was very prescriptive and unfair. This has caused the loss of approximately 250 part-time jobs in Donegal. This is unfair and I ask the Minister to take another look at the issue. Vessels that may not have been fishing in the years selected by the Department, but which have a history going back 20 or 30 years of fishing for herring, are now precluded from doing so because of the new criteria introduced. This should be examined. We are talking about people who have invested significant amounts of money in vessels, but are now precluded from fishing for herring. The knock-on effects of this, acknowledged by BIM in its synopsis, affect the fuel industry, the cargo industry, lorries and the 250 part-time jobs over six or eight weeks in the processing plants in Killybegs and Kincasslagh.

With regard to the proposals and the documentation provided, I agree with the Minister that the Marine Institute is an extremely reputable organisation throughout the world and its advice will certainly be key in the lead up to the negotiations. If we consider what was proposed at the June fishery Council meeting, under the Cypriot Presidency, if that was implemented, it would devastate or wipe out the fishing industry here in Ireland. The first proposal estimated that the proposal, as it currently stands, would result in a net reduction of fishing opportunity in quotas for the Irish white fish and prawn industry of 21% by volume. In financial terms, this would be in the region of €15.4 million, or 14% over what it is this year. This would have a detrimental effect and cannot be accepted.

The Minister outlined the other proposals, including a 12% reduction in fishing opportunities in the Celtic Sea and the waters off the west coast, which would result in a €10.6 million loss in production. The overall loss in the Irish Sea amounts to 44%, with a resultant economic fishery production loss to the fleets of whitefish and prawn to the value of €2.2 million. The quotas of the north-west fishing fleets would be reduced by 20%, with a fishery production income loss of €1.4 million, which would effectively bring about the demise of the white fishing and prawn fleet and have a significant negative impact on Greencastle and Killybegs.

There is scientific data to support every argument. For example, when the ban on salmon fishing was introduced in 2006, scientific data was used in making that decision. However, I believe the decision taken by the Government at the time was wrong. The data was skewed and did not take into account the damage being done in rivers throughout the country where spawning beds were destroyed. No protection was given to spawning beds on salmon rivers and poaching and pollution issues were not addressed. The easy option was taken, namely, to penalise the inshore and draft net fishermen. I believe that was a wrong decision, particularly for island fishermen. However, that decision was taken, but that debate is for another day. I have reservations with regard to the scientific data being used. The pressure being inflicted on the European Commission and on the Minister by NGOs does not rest easy with me, because we are talking about people who have traditionally fished at sea. These people have co-operated as best they can with the Department and with the regulations set down. If these particular proposals are implemented, we will wipe out or severely damage an industry and way of life for many people.

We need to look at the proposals and at the strategy of the Department going into the December Council. The Hague preferences were always a safety net and that is outlined in the documentation that has been circulated and in the Minister's speech. The loss of these allocations next year would amount to a loss of 1,625 tonnes, or a direct value of almost €3 million to the Irish fishing industry. While I do not believe all of the proposals will be implemented, what strategy is Ireland adopting towards the proposals? Has there been any consultation with other member states or other Ministers in the context of seeking support to try and counteract some of the proposals coming forward from the Commission? Does the Minister envisage the matters, as proposed, will be finalised at the December Council meeting or will they drag on into the new year?

9:50 am

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal South West, Independent)
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I apologise for being late for this meeting, but there were a lot of traffic restrictions around Merrion Square this morning. I must apologise too that I will have to leave early, as I am in the House for Leaders' Questions.

I would like to go back to an issue we addressed in this committee in July regarding setting new targets on herring quotas. At that meeting, we asked for information to be provided from the Department on the decision-making process in that regard, but we have not received that information to date. I followed up on this issue with letters, but we have still not received anything. This is not acceptable, because it took quite a long time to get the -----

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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That was a totally transparent process and the information is available to anyone who wants it.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal South West, Independent)
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Both I and the committee have asked for it, but we have not received it.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I came before the meeting and gave a full presentation on it and answered questions on it.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal South West, Independent)
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I asked for additional information.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I think we received a copy of the information.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal South West, Independent)
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If the committee has received it, I have not seen it, but I apologise for saying nothing had been received.

With regard to the total allowable catches, TACs, for next year, every year we go through a phase where doom and gloom is predicted in December, but then the negotiations take place and it never turns out quite as bad as had been proposed initially and the result is deemed to be good. Perhaps we should pursue a different tactic and try to right some of the historical wrongs done to the Irish fishing industry since our entry into the European Union. Perhaps we could achieve more in terms of protecting our fishing industry rather than seeing it cut constantly by adopting a tactic on the proposed measure and highlighting it consistently. Perhaps we could rebalance some of the disparities in terms of what we can access in our waters, as opposed to what other fleets can catch in our waters.

Some of the proposed cuts are startling, particularly the 21% reduction for white fish and prawns, the 12% reduction in the Celtic Sea and the 44% reduction in the Irish Sea. However, we know that it will not end up as bad as that, because of the negotiation process that takes place. The Minister did a very good job last year and held out for as much as he could and we expect he will do the same again this year, because he is committed to the development of the fishing industry. This process highlights how this system works and how false it really is. The scientific evidence is given, the Commission puts out its proposals and there is a lot of toing and froing. We need to look at a different way of doing it and to consider rebalancing it so that Ireland can achieve some real benefits from the stock and potential we have. I understand this is a difficult task and that it will be hard to achieve, but if the Minister does not start on that road, he will not be able to achieve the aim of protecting the industry as much as possible.

With regard to the herring quotas, the management plan for the northwest is welcome. There will be some reductions in the initial years, but the plan will pay dividends in the long run, as can be seen from the experience in the Celtic Sea. It is good the industry has put forward proposals on this and that the plan has been accepted. It is the only way forward, but will probably involve a few years of reductions

However, the potential is there to be seen and there can be increases in the future. A sustainable fishery can be brought back, which would be of benefit to everyone.

10:00 am

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I will call Deputy Harrington and then allow the Minister to respond.

Photo of Noel HarringtonNoel Harrington (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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I am not a member of this committee but I am very pleased to have heard the presentation from the Minister. Obviously, every year the Minister and his officials go through this tortuous process of negotiating the total allowable catches, primarily based on a proposal from the European Commission on the back of scientific advice and the strategies this country needs to adopt to maintain a sustainable industry. It is the less glamorous side of an industry that is not very well understood in this country. This exercise this morning might add to our understanding and enhance the process.

The Minister is going to a meeting about which there will be very little reporting, discussion or comment, except in some of the communities mentioned, where people will be firmly focused on what can be achieved because their livelihoods are dependent on the outcome of that meeting. They will take very seriously the decisions that are made before Christmas. We are dealing with a part of the industry that is rarely spoken about, that is, the whitefish sector. That is possibly the most challenging part of the industry, where we have mixed fisheries with very good scientific advice on some species, but precious little advice on others which are very important to peoples' livelihoods. The idea of an arbitrary 20% cut in total allowable catches for species about which we have no scientific information is unacceptable. I support the Minister's contention that these must be dealt with differently.

I also support the Minister in his view that steps must be taken, where there is scientific advice, to ensure the stocks of certain species are not being challenged or depleted. Such steps are not just about appeasing the scientists, however, and that message must be sent out clearly. Steps must be taken to sustain fishing communities in the longer term and should be seen as intergenerational decisions rather than short-term decisions for which politicians are frequently criticised. When decisions are made and agreements are signed, the Minister must be conscious of the heavy impact they will have on people's livelihoods.

It is very easy to make the case for tearing up the relative stability agreements that have been made, but we would need to walk away from the European Union, and even if we did, we would still have international fisheries agreements that would have to be honoured. We must be very nuanced and strategic in our approach in trying to agree the total allowable catches. We must take the best scientific advice available and use it to the best advantage of our fishing communities. It is very easy to say, on entering total allowable catches negotiations, that we will achieve a better outcome than what the Commission proposes. Just because that is what has happened in the past does not mean that it can be achieved in a few weeks' time. Concessions are not just handed out on a plate and I would be very anxious that the Minister would acknowledge the fact that this is not a done deal. There will be a battle and a decision may well be finalised at 5 a.m. after 18 or 20 hours of negotiations.

It infuriates some of the fishing communities that visiting fleets can fish at will - or at least that is the perception - because they have larger total allowable catches, especially in species like monkfish, for example. I hope the Minister understands that it causes great frustration when the Irish fleet is precluded from fishing a species because of quota while vessels from neighbouring countries are free to do in Irish waters what the Irish are prohibited from doing. When the Minister goes into the negotiations and argues on the basis of scientific advice but is faced with quota restrictions or reductions in the total allowable catch, he must accept that the inevitable outcome of that, as sure as night follows day, will be greater discards, which will add to an already complex problem.

The problem of discards has been highlighted in the south east recently but what has happened there is not the solution. I am quite pessimistic regarding some of the stocks but I would hope that the Minister and his officials can convince the European Commission and their colleagues that swingeing cuts in one species will add to difficulties in terms of increasing the level of discards. The Commissioner has made the elimination of the discards problem in all fisheries a priority but the challenge is particularly acute in the whitefish sector and I am not sure that is well understood at a European level. Indeed, I am not sure it is even well understood in the fishing industry itself. Leaders of the industry have certainly identified the problem and perhaps they could propose new solutions. Technical measures can go some way to addressing the issue but it is a very complex problem.

I wish the Minister and his officials well in the negotiations and urge them to resist the blanket 20% cut for the species about which there is inadequate scientific information. Until we get that scientific advice, the relevant fishing communities must be given a chance to sustain their livelihoods.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I am mindful that Deputy Pringle must be in the House for Leaders' Questions, so I ask the Minister to respond to the questions posed so far. I wish to advise that the aforementioned briefing note on herring was circulated on 6 November and will be circulated again.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal South West, Independent)
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It is referred to on the correspondence list but I do not have a copy of it.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I will respond to Deputy Pringle's questions first because I know he must leave the meeting shortly. If he has any further questions on the herring management document, once he has had a chance to read it, he can contact us and we will be happy to answer them.

On the herring issue, we had to apply some allocation criteria and could not simply allow a free-for-all in terms of allowing everyone who wanted to catch herring in the Celtic Sea to do so just because the quota had increased. Had we done that, we would very quickly have gone back to where we were four or five years ago when the stock was decimated. There had to be some way of limiting numbers and we believe the way we did it was the fairest. I would point out that we intend to apply the exact same rules to the north-west herring stock when that fishery recovers. That means it will be the people who have catches in the historical reference years who will have priority for that area. Let us wait until we see what happens there but I have no doubt there will be people who will be equally upset that they will not be allowed into that fishery when, assuming proper management, we see quota increases similar to those in the Celtic Sea. All we can do is be consistent and that is what we are trying to do with both north-west and Celtic Sea herring. It just so happens that everyone wants to get into the Celtic Sea at the moment because that is where the fish are, or rather where the quota is. Many people would say the fish numbers are starting to grow in the north west and I hope that is true.

Like Deputy Pringle, I would love to be able to change the relative stability agreements. The fact that Ireland, in tonnage terms, catches 23% of the quota in the waters for which we are responsible but only gets 18% of the value is not something with which I am happy.

However, my job is to get the best deal I can for Irish fishing and to maintain Irish fish stocks as best I can year on year. I concentrate on the areas where I know I can get results. This is why we have developed a boarfish industry in Ireland, an area where we have the majority of the quota. This is why we are working on getting foreign landings into Ireland, because if we cannot get Irish trawlers catching fish, we want foreign trawlers landing fish at Irish ports in order that at least we get the benefit of adding value and the benefit of jobs in the processing sector. This strategy is working, especially in the whitefish sector with French trawlers landing in such places as Cobh and processing in places such as Ballycotton, where, I understand, an extra 15 or 25 jobs have been created as a result of French whitefish landings at Cobh. We are trying to work to make the best of what we have.

If I see an opportunity to increase our overall quota or our overall share of quota and if we can do so in a sustainable way, then naturally I will take that opportunity. However, we can get caught up year after year dwelling on the historical unfairness of relative stability agreements and the allocation of quota, but we will get nowhere in that debate. This is one thing that has held back Irish fishing instead of looking for new opportunities with new species and new landing opportunities. Let us consider what happened in Killybegs with blue whiting in the past year. It has been worth a fortune to that town. Foreign trawlers have been landing blue whiting in huge volumes at Killybegs and we are keen to build on that. I realise there is a geographical concern with Celtic Sea herring but we have opened up all ports to landings of Celtic Sea herring and this was not the case previously and, from a processing point of view, it is a good news story. There are various sides to these stories and it is important to highlight them.

I welcome the management plan for north-west herring. There is nothing I would like to see more than the success we achieved last year with the Celtic Sea replicated off the north-west coast. I hope we are on our way to achieving it. There will be some lean years while we are rebuilding the stocks but I hope everyone will benefit as a result.

It is clear what our most valuable stocks are in terms of quota. First is mackerel in terms of value, second is prawns, third is horse mackerel, fourth in value is albacore tuna and megrim is fifth. We are examining this stock by stock and focusing on those most valuable to our fishing industry. We are trying to put a scientific case, as we did last year with some success. Last year we achieved the highest quota allocation in living memory, worth approximately €250 million in terms of the value of fish. That was a significant increase. The problem is that when one gets a really good result in a given December, people expect us to get the same result every year. This is a big danger from my perspective and expectations are high. I am keen to bring people down to earth. The proposal from the Commission this year is for deep cuts across a series of sectors. It will require a lot of preparation for us to be able to improve that situation. To be honest, the only language the Commission understands is science, as opposed to emotion or protests or whatever. We are building the best scientific case we can and we are working with the best marine biologists in the country at the Marine Institute to be able to put a scientific case to change the Commission proposals where it is appropriate to do so. There are many examples where change is both appropriate and sustainable, and this is what we will do to try to get the best possible deal we can in December.

I am perfectly conscious of how reliant people are. Deputy Harrington is correct. People in such places as Rossaveal, Killybegs, Dingle, Castletownbere and Greencastle and those along the east and south-east coasts will be watching the December negotiations more closely than they would have watched the budget yesterday, because it will have a more direct impact next year on their livelihoods and those of their families. I am mindful of this responsibility in terms of trying to do the best job we can possibly do. I think we did that last year and certainly we will take the same proactive approach again this year.

I probably have answered some of the questions put by Senator Ó Domhnaill. It is unfortunate that the Hague preferences do not simply roll over automatically in December. We must use up negotiating capital to ensure we hold on to the Hague preferences each year, and this is unwelcome, in my view. The Hague preferences were negotiated and they make good sense for Ireland. It is a fairness issue because when quotas fall below certain levels or begin to fall below a critical mass, it is almost unsustainable to have a fishing industry catching less than the critical mass. This is why Hague preferences kick in for many smaller stocks in Irish waters. We should get Hague preferences automatically each year but we must negotiate them at the start of the December Council, and this uses up some rather valuable negotiating capital. I am not especially happy about that. However, this is the reality and the politics of it. We need to hold on to the Hague preferences and obviously I will argue for that.

What is our strategy? I have probably outlined that our strategy is to build the strongest scientific case possible. In many cases, there are stocks without much of a scientific basis for an International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, ICES, recommendation. However, the Marine Institute may have additional information over and above the normal data used for a mariculture sustainability index, MSI, calculation or whatever. We should use the information we have to build a case, based on limited data in some cases, but at least it is based on something. We are better off using the data we have rather than applying an arbitrary or precautionary 20% cut because there is insufficient information for a full MSI picture. There may be a miscalculation in respect of some of the recommendations coming from ICES because of a lack of data on some stocks and, if so, this should be corrected. Certainly, we will go about doing that.

The issue of timing was raised but this must be done in December. We cannot enter January without quotas or else we cannot go fishing. Unlike many of the decisions taken at a European level, whereby one can sometimes push a decision back to next month or next year, one reason decisions on total allowable catch, efforts and quotas are agreed at 5 a.m. is that we must get a result in December. There is no alternative or the alternative is that people cannot go fishing in December because there is no quota allocation. This is something that needs to be resolved between 18 and 20 December and if we have to stay up all night to get it done, then so be it. That is what happened last year. I remember sitting around the table at 4 a.m. deciding whether we could live with it or whether we could get a better deal. It is a tribute to the people working on my team, most of whom are present, in terms of their commitment to the industry that even at 4 a.m. they insisted on the best possible deal for from an Irish perspective.

Deputy Harrington asked a question about cuts. We are not going to support arbitrary cuts unless they are justifiable. One progressive journey we have made in the Irish fishing industry in the past ten years relates to an acceptance within the industry now that we need to cut total allowable catch and quotas when it is necessary to protect stocks. This is the reason we have seen encouraging data, even between last year and this year, in terms of the percentage of fish stocks in Ireland not under pressure now versus previously. There is an improving situation, despite the negative coverage the fishing industry sometimes gets with regard to discards, overfishing and so on. The statistics show that the fishing industry is getting better year after year in terms of sustainable fishing and the sustainable management of stocks.

I am keen to continue this trend and over time I want to end discards. We will do this together with the industry in a way that is practical and pragmatic by more targeting of fish for which we have quota and by examining such issues as mesh size, escape hatches, the shape of nets and a series of technical measures that can allow us to target fish more accurately. All of this is relevant whether it relates to avoiding catching cod in the Irish Sea when we are catching prawns or whether it relates to the cod, haddock and whiting fishery in the Celtic Sea, where we need to be more targeted with regard to juveniles and so on.

The fishing industry is leading that debate, and people need to know that. The fishing sector is not without its problems. Some people break the rules, and in those instances we need to enforce the rules. If we look at how fishing takes place now compared with five years ago, the story has improved in the past five years. We need to continue that trend to ensure we continue to have a fishing industry, or have a bigger fishing industry than we currently have. That is possible.

Members may want me to address mackerel issues. We have a particular difficulty with mackerel in terms of the coastal states negotiations with Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Norway. There is massive overfishing of mackerel by Iceland and the Faroe Islands in a way that is totally irresponsible and is damaging the stock in a way that could result in a dramatic reduction in quota for everybody. This would be a disaster, particularly because the management of mackerel by European fishing fleets has been responsible and has resulted in a significant increase in that stock. Everyone should be benefitting from that now. Instead, two countries have decided to help themselves to as much mackerel as they can catch and are even bringing in mercenaries from other countries to catch more. As a result, we are facing a 15% cut in the mackerel total allowable catch. Even the industry accepts that, on the basis of advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, ICES. The European Commission is asking us to accept a cut of more than 15% to compensate for the overfishing of Iceland and Faroe Islands. We are being asked to accept significant reductions of our most valuable stock to compensate for the overfishing that is going to continue, as far as we can see. This needs a political rather than a fishing solution. That is why we have pushed the Commission to introduce trade sanctions against the fish products the Faroe Islands and Iceland sell into the European Union. We are trying to get a common position with Norway, which shares this stock and manages it responsibly, as the European Union does.

The committee has heard me speaking on this issue before. I feel very strongly about it. Mackerel is worth more than €100 million for fishermen in Ireland and we are seeing a cut in the stock when we should be seeing an increase in the total allowable catch because of the management of mackerel stocks over the past five to ten years. That is because of the grossly irresponsible behaviour of two countries that are making a huge amount of money out of overfishing mackerel when it is very valuable. One of the reasons mackerel prices have dropped dramatically in the past six months is because of that overfishing and the way the fish is sold, primarily into Asian countries.

The mackerel story is separate from everything else. There are some positive stories on the pelagic side, especially regarding landings of blue whiting into Ireland. I am both annoyed and concerned about where the mackerel debate is going. We still do not have the solution.

Most of the December negotiations, however, will focus on whitefish. We have our priority stocks. There are not many upsides to having a relative stability agreement whereby countries like France, and after that Spain, have the largest whitefish quota in waters for which Ireland is responsible. One of the upsides, however, is that those countries also have a vested interest in negotiating aggressively for an improvement in the TAC for those quotas. Again, we will be trying to find the science to make a case for that. We will see other countries arguing for an increase in quota that will result in Irish fishermen getting an increase in TAC. That is one of the ironic by-products of our having to share fish stocks in the waters for which we are responsible.

Primarily, we will be focusing on the whitefish stocks that are most valuable to our industry in volume and value and we will be trying to put the best scientific case we can for a more reasonable but sustainable TAC next year. That approach worked last year. I will do everything I can to make sure it works again this year. I have a hugely committed team around me to make the best possible effort to do that.

10:20 am

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North-West Limerick, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister's replies have covered much of what I had wanted to raise. It is commendable that the Minister has a management plan for all sectors in the fishing industry. I am concerned about the Commission's proposal for deep cuts. The battle will be about the scientific evidence prepared by the Minister's Department, in consultation with the sector. If the scientific evidence stands up, the Minister's hand will be strong when he goes into negotiation.

Like many people, both inside and outside the fishing sector, the discards issue is a huge problem. The Minister mentioned that he hopes to end discards through improvements in the type of gear used and so forth. What do we in the meantime? It is difficult to justify dumping the best of fish at sea. Could the Government not find some imaginative way of dealing with this problem and use it to argue in Brussels? Could the discards be sold off at a reduced rate and the revenue used for conservation purposes? There must be some imaginative way around the problem.

The Minister mentioned that some of the data on depletion of stocks that are available to the Commission are based on miscalculations. Does the Minister have evidence of that? Could he elaborate on it?

Like everyone else, I hope the negotiations will be successful. The Minister has all our support in that regard. Fishing is a sizeable industry. It can create jobs it if is used properly. We are all 100% behind the Minister in that.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Let me give an example of a problem that will arise from, for example, the Commission proposals on discarding off the south coast. Let us suppose a fishery is catching cod, haddock and whiting in the same net. Because cod stocks are good, there is a proposal to increase cod allocation by 1%. Whiting stocks are strong so there is a proposal to increase by 29%. The catch allocation for haddock, which is caught in the same net, is to be reduced by 55%. The mesh size of the nets has been changed so that juvenile fish will be released, reducing the overall number of discards. There will be a problem with mature haddock. They are the same size as cod and whiting and will be caught in the same nets.

In order to catch the increased quota of cod and whiting, the haddock will be caught but there is no quota for haddock. This will result in a significant increase in the discarding of mature marketable haddock. This makes no sense on any level. We have to find a way to avoid catching mature haddock by means of some technical measure or else there needs to be a more rational approach to the haddock stocks to see if a higher TAC, total allowable catch, could be permitted in order to avoid discards. The haddock will be caught in any event. The damage is being done to the stock one way or the other. We need to address the discard situation while hoping to achieve some economic value for the catch. The alternative is to reduce the cod and whiting quotas in order to reduce the level of fishing effort generally and in this way to protect haddock stocks. This is very difficult to argue at a time when we need to see an economic benefit from fishing and when two out of the three stocks are at a very healthy level. It would mean a reduction of fishing for two of the stocks to protect the third.

It would be a different matter if the data about haddock stocks was a cause for concern. If we wish to make a case that the haddock stock is not under significant pressure - it may not be growing but neither is it shrinking dramatically - it is our responsibility to make a scientific case to show that haddock can bear less of a reduction in the TACs. This should be argued on the basis of an anti-discard measure as much as about stock management. This is an excellent example of the complexity of the management of mixed fisheries from the point of view of MSY and discards. There is no simple way of dealing with that without the existence of an intelligent net system that could release certain fish of the same size for which we do not have a quota. This is in the realm of "Star Trek". We need a reasonable compromise whereby fisherman can be permitted to catch fish stocks which are not under pressure, which are growing as a result of good management, while at the same time making sensible TAC decisions about the reduction in the level of discards. The Celtic Sea cod, haddock and whiting fishery is a really good example.

I am informed that haddock stock in area seven is healthy. Biological calculations of the volume of fish show the stock level is way above what is regarded as a trigger limit for a big problem. The issue is that haddock is a very unusual fish in that there are spikes in the size of class size in different years. There can be a dramatic spike increase in haddock followed by a decline. This is currently a period of decline. However, there remains a significant level of mature haddock as a result of spike increase three or four years ago.

I have described the detail of the issue because many people do not understand the complexity of trying to manage mixed fisheries.

10:30 am

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North-West Limerick, Sinn Fein)
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Are the spikes cyclical in nature?

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I am informed it could be five years but it is not a regular cycle.

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North-West Limerick, Sinn Fein)
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That is the point. They may migrate someplace else. I was in New Bedford recently. I visited an institute which is undertaking scientific analyses in different parts of the sea. A cyclical pattern implies the fish have moved to a different area.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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This is the type of data we hope to collect. We hope to show that this is a fish with a cyclical pattern of increase and decline every five or seven years in order to demonstrate that this is not a declining fish stock. I refer to a fascinating book which Deputy Noel Harrington might enjoy reading over Christmas. The years 1994, 2002 and 2009 show a significant breeding recruitment. We are now seeing the returns from the 2009 recruitment with an increase in the numbers of adult fish. However, we are not permitted to catch them because a new recruitment is not imminent, according to the scientific analysis. These are the technical arguments we will take up with the Commission in a couple of weeks' time. We will argue that a pragmatic solution is required. We will invite the Commission to examine the history of the stock over the past ten years and to arrive at a practical decision that does not result in perfectly good marketable mature fish being thrown over the side next year. Using the data about last year's recruitment levels to make decisions this year does not make much sense.

The main problem with the ICES, International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, calculations is incomplete data for some of the stocks. As a result, a precautionary approach is adopted by ICES and an automatic cut of 20% is applied. If complete data is not available then decisions should be made on the basis of the limited data that is to hand rather than the application of an arbitrary and automatic cut. If I have to ask the fishing industry and communities to make difficult decisions on the basis of cutting stocks because there is scientific evidence to show the need for that, then when scientific evidence shows that a cut is not justified, that needs to be respected. It cannot be both ways; cutting stocks when the evidence shows they should be cut while also cutting stocks when there is no evidence to show it is necessary. There may be some limited scientific evidence to suggest there is no need to cut stocks. I am all in favour of conserving stocks to ensure a future for our industry but I am also interested in ensuring that this only happens when scientific justification is available. These are difficult times in Ireland. We should encourage the sustainability and commercial value of our fish stocks.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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I wish the Minister well in the negotiations on 18 and 19 December. He has our full support. I know the MEPs will be working closely with him and will provide him with information. He has the best expertise available to him. I agree with the Minister about the mackerel issue. This is a very important fishery worth €100 million. Two countries present serious difficulties, namely, the Faroe Islands and Iceland. The European Commission has been talking about trade sanctions for the past 15 months but nothing has happened. There is a proposal for cuts across the board which will be deeper than the 15% cut. The Commission will have to consider trade sanctions against those two countries. The fishing industry is very important in my own constituency. I appeal to the Minister to exert as much pressure as possible on the Commission.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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At the previous Fisheries Council meeting, Ireland joined with a number of other countries to issue a common declaration. The other countries included Spain, Portugal, France and Poland. We have support in principle from the United Kingdom for action on this issue. The UK has mixed views with regard to trade sanctions but that is for other reasons. There is a common view within Council that some significant action needs to be taken. The EU needs to show its teeth. A natural resource which we have all worked hard to build up is being destroyed. The stock is very valuable and a lot of people depend on it for a living. Fishermen are making repayments for large loans which have been taken out on the back of the mackerel fishery. I have been saying since I became Minister that the situation is an international scandal.

I have been saying this since I entered office but achieving a political solution is not easy.

In some ways, even trade sanctions involve certain dangers. When small countries are aggressively pursued, their response can sometimes be aggressive. Going down the trade sanctions route would not necessarily solve the problems that exist and it would certainly ratchet up the tension. I accept that it may be necessary to do the latter in order to bring people to the table and agree a compromise. Everyone accepts that such a compromise or settlement will undoubtedly involve the European Union and Norway giving some of their quota to Iceland and the Faroe Islands. However, this can only happen within reason. It is, after all, our industry that is going to lose out. Ultimately, such a settlement will be required in order to save the stocks. If the stocks are not protected, there will be dramatic cuts for everyone involved rather than a negotiated compromise. That is the kind of situation we must all avoid. When I refer to dramatic cuts, I am talking about a reduction of 50% or 60% in our mackerel quota. That is the kind of scenario that would lead to communities, particularly those in the north west, being devastated.

10:40 am

Photo of Noel HarringtonNoel Harrington (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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I do not expect that this matter will be on the agenda at the December meetings. When will there be an opportunity to discuss it? It is appalling that those involved will ultimately be rewarded for their bad behaviour. I suspect that some of the Minister's colleagues on the Council will not be as appalled as us in respect of what happened. The Minister referred to some of the mercenaries involved. Some of his colleagues on the Council will be lobbied by the latter, which means that this matter is not clear cut. However, it is clear cut from our point of view. Some of the countries involved have TACs which allow them to fish in Irish waters. With the exception of fishing for boarfish and tuna, our pelagic fleet is generally tied up in port in the summer. Has consideration been given to a complete ban on pelagic fishing - with the exception of boarfish and tuna - during the summer months?

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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My understanding is that very little pelagic fishing happens during the summer months in any event. I accept, however, that one does see large Dutch vessels off the west coast at times. That is, of course, an issue. Ireland cannot take a unilateral decision to shut down fisheries. These are seen as EU waters for which Ireland has responsibility. As a result, there would need to be an EU policy in respect of Irish waters and that would need to be negotiated at Council level. That might prove difficult. I am happy to consider all of these matters. Ultimately, this relates to trying to manage a stock that is by far the largest - in terms of value - to the fishing industry. These matters must be resolved at European level.

Coastal states negotiations are currently taking place in Bergen between the EU and Norway in the context of trying to agree a quota allocation for mackerel. I suspect that agreement will be reached in this regard in the coming days. The Commission has been stating that it must go beyond 15% in order that it will have the moral and legal authority to introduce trade sanctions. In my view we can, from a legal standpoint, move ahead with trade sanctions without it going beyond 15%. That is just a difference of opinion I have with the Commissioner. The most important aspect of this matter is that we must stick with Norway. Whatever is agreed in respect of TAC reductions should be the same in Norway as it is in the EU in order that we will not disadvantage ourselves versus other countries. Together, we can ratchet up the pressure on the Faroe Islands and Iceland to come to the table and reach a negotiated settlement. Iceland has shown some willingness in this regard but the Faroes have shown none at all. In my opinion, this represents a really reckless approach towards a very valuable stock. We need to force change in this regard and if this involves trade sanctions, then so be it.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister. The committee wishes him and his officials all the best at that forthcoming Council meeting. He is correct that the expertise available to him, both from his officials and from the Marine Institute, will prove critical. The only arguments that can be sustained are those which are based on science. I am sure he has gathered that there is cross-party support with regard to whatever measures the Government feels are appropriate by way of action on the mackerel issue. It is very difficult to accept that someone might be rewarded for pillaging stocks. If beggars belief that those involved in this regard cannot see that their behaviour will lead to them suffering in the long term. Those to whom I refer are fishing to such a level that the price is being depressed. That would appear to be self-defeating and it is difficult to understand the logic involved. One could probably state that it is the result of one thing, namely, short-term greed. This matter must be dealt with and we wish the Minister well in his endeavours.

If there is no other business, we will adjourn until Thursday, 13 December next. The select committee is due to meet at 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday - instead of at the previously arranged time - to continue its deliberations on Committee Stage of the Animal Health and Welfare Bill 2012 and the Minister will be in attendance.

The joint committee adjourned at 10.55 a.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 13 December 2012.