Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 20 March 2013
Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine: Joint Sub-Committee on Fisheries
Aquaculture and Tourism: Discussion with Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine
I welcome Dr. Cecil Beamish, assistant secretary, and Mr. John Quinlan and Ms Josephine Kelly, principal officers, and thank them for appearing before the committee.
The Joint Sub-Committee on Fisheries was established to focus on the socioeconomic situation and on promoting sustainable industries. The main industries identified by the joint sub-committee in this regard are aquaculture, island and coastal fisheries and inshore fisheries, specifically sea angling combined with tourism. The joint sub-committee had intended to have officials from the three relevant Departments at its meeting scheduled for tomorrow morning. However, I understand that those who were with us earlier will not be available to attend. I thank them for agreeing to meet us this afternoon.
Before we begin, I am obliged to remind witnesses that they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give this joint sub-committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence with regard to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they will be entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise nor 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 call on Dr. Beamish to make his opening statement.
Dr. Cecil Beamish:
Demand for seafood is growing at a very rapid pace. This demand is linked to global population growth. In 1999 global population levels passed 6 billion for the first time, last year they passed 7 billion and in 2025 they will pass 8 billion. In conjunction with changes in dietary habits and increased demand from Asia, this has led to a rapid rate of increase in demand for seafood. It is generally estimated that global capture fisheries have reached the maximum sustainable output of approximately 80 million tonnes per year. Demand for seafood at a global level will, therefore, increasingly be met through aquaculture production. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that an additional 42 million tonnes of farmed seafood will be required annually by 2030. Aquaculture is already producing almost 50% of the world's seafood. In 2010 global aquaculture production reached 60 million tonnes, with an estimated value of was $119 billion. This was an increase of nearly 8% on the previous year. Production is estimated to have increased further to 64 million tonnes in 2011.
European aquaculture production now stands at approximately 2.5 million tonnes per annum. This accounts for around 4.2% of world aquaculture production. Countries within the European Union produce approximately 1.2 million tonnes of aquaculture product. In the European aquaculture context, salmon has been the main species to be developed. Demand for salmon has been growing very well. The current size of the farmed salmon market is approximately 2 million tonnes. Demand in this regard is still developing. In Europe, which is considered to be a mature market, demand for salmon has been growing by around 7% per annum for the past ten years. The Russian market for salmon is growing at 27% per annum. Close to 60% of world salmon production involves farmed salmon. Much of this comes from Norway, Chile, the UK and North America. It is estimated that the Atlantic salmon market will continue to grow by 4% per year in the period 2013 to 2020.
Norway is now the world's largest producer of farmed Atlantic salmon, generating more than 1.2 million tonnes in 2011. More than 838,000 tonnes of that, with a value of 29 billion krone, was exported. Norway has been developing its industry since the early 1970s. It was targeted as a means of restoring the livelihoods of rural fishing communities whose economies have become depressed on foot of a decline in wild fisheries. Norway's initial production was less than 500 tonnes. This was largely generated by small family businesses and sold to local markets. In recent decades the industry has developed very rapidly and some vary large multinational companies are now operating in it. Farmed fish has become Norway's fourth largest export commodity after oil, gas and metals.
Within the EU, the UK produces farmed Atlantic salmon in significant quantities. The vast bulk of this is generated in Scotland, which is the largest farmed Atlantic salmon producer in the EU and the third largest globally. In 2011 Scotland produced 158,000 tonnes of farmed salmon, worth £584 million. Scotland did not begin farming salmon until the 1970s. In 1971 it produced 14 tonnes of farmed salmon. This had increased to 40,000 tonnes by 1991. By 2001 it had increased again to 138,000 tonnes. Farmed salmon is now Scotland's largest food export product.
To set the context for any discussion we might have on aquaculture, we must compare the situation in Ireland with those which obtain in Norway and Scotland. Ireland commenced salmon farming in 1974 and in 2012 we produced just 14,500 tonnes of farmed salmon. The fact that Irish aquaculture production has not grown but has a substantial opportunity for growth was recognised in Food Harvest 2020, which the Government has adopted as its food strategy document. Food Harvest 2020 identifies ways in which the seafood sector can increase turnover to €1 billion and employment to 14,000 full-time equivalent jobs by 2020. Food Harvest 2020 also calls on the aquaculture industry to play its part by expanding the volume of its production by 78%. It seeks that the relevant State agencies, Bord Iascaigh Mhara and the Marine Institute, should continue research and development work in the areas of offshore aquaculture and alternative species aquaculture.
In the context of the Food Harvest 2020 recommendations, BIM has begun to consider new fish farming production areas in deeper waters. This is a response to the fact that the Irish aquaculture industry has previously been constrained, in part because more than 80% of its operations are located in inshore areas governed by EU environmental directives, primarily the Natura directives. The concept is that situating the larger aquaculture operations in deep waters would place them outside Natura areas, thus minimising impacts, simplifying licensing requirements and taking account of the necessary environmental limitations. This has led to an examination of potential sites by BIM and the Marine Institute and also to a consideration of oceanographic and other data which indicate what sites might be most suitable for allowing Irish aquaculture to expand, given the opportunity.
BIM estimates that one deep-sea salmon farm could potentially produce 15,000 tonnes of organic salmon, generate more than €100 million in exports and create 500 direct and indirect jobs. In view of growing international demand for salmon, it is perceived that there would be significant interest on the part of operators to run such a farm. In addition, there would be scope for expansion. I am seeking here to establish an economic context for any discussion we may have in respect of aquaculture.
The aquaculture operating in a marine environment is subject to a variety of regulatory regimes which seek to ensure that it is operated properly, is located well and that its impact is minimised. In recent years, a key feature of aquaculture regulation has been compliance with the EU birds and habitat directives. Those directives apply to special areas of conservation, specially protected areas, the latter having particular relevance for birds. Most aquaculture in Ireland is carried out within either special areas of conservation or specially protected areas. In 2007, the European Court of Justice declared that by failing to take all measures necessary to comply with the EU habitats and birds directive in respect of the authorisation of aquaculture programmes, Ireland had failed to fulfil its obligations under that directive. This required a significant re-thinking of policy. In negotiations with the Commission to address the judgment, the process was agreed with the European Commission on how to move forward to implement a licensing system in those specific areas which would be in compliance with the Natura and birds directive.
That process includes data collection in 91 bays and estuaries around the coast. That data collection was a major exercise. It would not be possible otherwise to move to a situation where decisions could be made in compliance with the habitats and birds directive. The data collection covered both the seabed, the water column and migratory species, whether fish, sea mammals or birds. It required the development of a time series of data to allow for judgments to be made, the analysis of that raw data and the setting of individual conservation objectives for each of those areas by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Appropriate assessments had to be carried out on each licence application or fishery plan against the detailed conservation objectives which were then set on the basis of the data available to the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The completion of the appropriate assessments can then lead to determinations on the licences and on the management of the fisheries on the basis of the appropriate assessment.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, has been working with the Marine Institute, BIM and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, to achieve compliance through a multi-annual work programme to build up that profile of data. A key factor of that work programme is the identification of prioritised bays, based on the number of aquaculture sites, the availability of scientific data and other factors. That work is ongoing and is a significant financial, administrative and scientific investment by the State seeking to resolve the issue and to move to a situation where aquaculture decisions can be made in compliance with the habitats and birds directives and to allow the continuation and, where appropriate, the development, of the aquaculture industry in those locations.
A regularly arising issue is the backlog of licences which has built up over a period of time, largely due to the decision on the Natura compliance. The low number of licences issued since 2007 is a result of that decision and the requirement to build up a complex system which is in compliance with the Natura directives. Initiatives were taken during the period. Last year, 115 licence determinations were made by the Minister for licence applications in non-Natura areas. This year, the expectation is that this number will be exceeded and that for the first time it will include determinations in Natura areas.
The appropriate assessments have been completed at this stage in respect of Dundalk, Roaringwater Bay and Castlemaine in County Kerry. In respect of Castlemaine, the public notice phase of the licensing process has concluded and the process of finalising licensing determinations is at an advanced stage. That largely affects the mussel industry in Castlemaine.
BIM has submitted an application to the Department for an aquaculture licence for the cultivation of fin fish near Inis Oirr in Galway Bay. That application and its accompanying environmental impact assessment statement is being considered under the provisions of the 1997 Fisheries (Amendment) Act and the 1933 Foreshore Act. They provide for extensive consultation with stakeholders and also for a general period of public consultation. The public consultation stage of the assessment process in respect of the application is now closed. A total of 410 valid submissions were received by the Department. As the application is under active consideration as part of a statutory process, it would not be appropriate to publish the submissions in advance of a determination in respect of the case. All aspects of the Galway bay application are currently being examined by the Department in conjunction with its scientific, engineering, technical and legal advisers. All submissions received as part of both the statutory consultation stage of the process and the general public consultation stage, will form an integral part of the Department's consideration of the application. There is extensive consultation associated with that process.
It is also important to clarify that as the application is under active consideration as part of a statutory process, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the merits or otherwise of the application, pending the completion of the formal assessment process by the Department. The application process is governed by legislation and must not be subject to parallel discussions which could be misconstrued as indicating any predisposition on the licensing authority in respect of the application. It should also be noted that the legislation provides for possible appeal of any ministerial decision to the Aquaculture Licence Appeals Board, an independent authority for the determination of appeals against decisions of the Minister.
I refer to other deep water sites. A site off Inisturk in County Mayo is also being examined by BIM for suitability as a deep sea site. Other aquaculture licences which have been the subject of recent comment include an application received by the Department from Marine Harvest Ireland, a large aquaculture company operating in Ireland, for an aquaculture licence in respect of a proposed salmon farm at Shot Head in Bantry Bay. That application is under consideration by the Department in accordance with the legislatory framework. As that application is under consideration it would not be appropriate for the Department to comment.
Another issue which arises about discussion on fin fish aquaculture in particular is that of sea lice, a natural organism living in the marine environment which lives on approximately 40 different wild species of fish in the sea. Sea lice are a permanent feature. Control of the sea lice is an issue for aquaculture and it continues to be part of the overall regulatory process applying to aquaculture. Control protocols are in place and these are operated by the Marine Institute on behalf of the State. These include inspections of farms by the Marine Institute, a total of 14 inspections per year. The results of those inspections are made public. The inspection regime is independent. When the inspection finds a sea lice level on a farm or site is above what is known as a trigger level, a mandatory treatment is ordered. The protocols have been the subject of detailed investigation and testing by the EU Commission in response to a complaint from a member of the public in respect of the effects of sea lice on wild salmon. In October 2012, the Commission closed its investigation of this complaint in the State's favour, following its examination of all relevant matters. The Commission also indicated it regards the sea lice protocols operated in Ireland as representing the best international practice.
During the period when licences have not issued during the data collection process on the bays covered by Natura, a parallel process was done to upgrade the licence instruments that would be applicable once the new system came into being.
The new aquaculture licence scheme provides a much more comprehensive set of obligations and rights for licence holders to ensure that operations are fully compliant with all relevant obligations.
I shall outline the key features of the new licences. There is a move to a standing stock biomass for fin fish as a means of measuring production capacity at an aquaculture site. There are enhanced provisions on environmental monitoring. There is greater clarity on the requirements for operators with regard to operational conduct and monitoring. There is the possibility of group marking of sites for navigational purposes so that a significant number of operators can work in tandem in an area. Specific provisions cover company registration, dissolution, tax certificates, payment of fees, etc. The new licence templates are also specific to particular sites so are a more targeted instrument than previous ones. The Department held a number of information seminars for industry when the new templates were introduced.
I hope I have put things in context for members regarding the overall global aquaculture sector, the demand for aquaculture products, international development of the industry and the regulatory regimes in place to develop aquaculture in Ireland. The sector will play a much bigger part in seafood production in Ireland and globally and that is what the Department has seen in all countries.
I thank Dr. Beamish for giving us the background of the socioeconomic situation. He mentioned Scotland and the Natura sites. The committee tries to trawl through a lot of information. Can the three or four areas that we mentioned work in harmony? A significant number of inshore aquaculture sites are Natura sites and I hope that the new checks and balances will deal with our concerns.
I thank Dr. Beamish for the information he gave on the aquaculture element that is of concern to the committee. The report is comprehensive and covers most of the policy aspects.
I have a question on appropriate assessments. Dr. Beamish said that all of the assessments had been completed on the Natura sites. Is that true? If so, the conservation objectives will then be laid out in order for applications to be progressed and, from what I heard, that will probably be done this year.
The committee hopes to examine another aspect which arose following the ban on net fishing in area 6A and the impact that has had on small inshore fisherman, particularly in island communities that depend on fishing. The ban means they must concentrate on crab and lobster fishing only. Can Mr. Beamish explain what discretion or policy options are open to the Irish Government regarding the six and 12-mile limits that would make allowance for small inshore fishermen and fleets? They traditionally fished in these waters but the ban will make them part-time fishermen. Are there policy instruments available to a national Irish Government? Do the instruments fit in with the Common Fisheries Policy? Is there scope to develop an alternative policy that would allow traditional fishermen to continue fishing?
I read a newspaper report today which highlighted the fact that planning permission was refused in Nova Scotia because of possible contamination of wild salmon by sea lice. Does the Department wish to comment?
I thank Mr. Beamish for his presentation. Having examined the Norwegian and Scottish experience, I can see there is great potential to develop an aquaculture industry on the western seaboard of Ireland. If the licensing framework and appeals regime is robust, independent and seen to be independent then I have no doubt the sector will provide employment over the next decade to 15 years. It would particularly provide employment in areas that IDA Ireland or Enterprise Ireland would not go into in a month or in decades. We must embrace the sector and its potential. However, we must adopt a sensitive approach. I welcome the work that has been done on the sensitive SAC and Natura sites. Many of these sites are contentious and controversy will inevitably follow many of the proposals, whether they are from BIM or private industry. Much inadequate information and misinformation has been circulated. There is also a lot of genuine concern about the sites. For example, there is a concern that traditional jobs and fisheries will be displaced, and we should not ignore such concerns. When one is balancing books and saying that a provision will create X jobs, one must subtract the jobs that will be displaced, such as those in sea fisheries. We should avoid that at all costs.
Deputy Pringle mentioned the exercise on the 94 bays and harbours that are Natura sites. Has that work been completed? Roaring Water Bay, Dundalk Bay and Castlemaine Bay were mentioned. Are they the only bays being considered for licensing applications at present?
The committee does not just focus on aquaculture. We have a concern, which was touched on during our previous meeting, that some rural communities have suffered as a result of consolidation in the sea-fishing industry. Can we explore the possibility of aquaculture being complementary to sea fishing? Can we allocate a total allowable catch, TAC, improve licensing or create more favourable policy instruments to support island and remote rural communities that do not have access to fishery harbour centres on the west coast? Can we explore how such communities can exploit resources on their doorstep to provide jobs, not just in the aquaculture sector but in the small inshore fleet? I know that much of this subject requires a national discussion and a national policy. Some of the challenges that lie ahead are the allocation of TAC from one sector to another and the controversies that could follow.
Dr. Cecil Beamish:
I shall first clarify the points made by Deputies Pringle and Harrington. I sought to convey the position on the Natura sites and perhaps I did not convey it fully. The process is long and detailed and one can only reach the endpoint if one has built all of the previous steps along the way. The task was set to gather information on the pelagic environment, living marine organisms, migrating sea mammals and fish species, the tidal environment and migrating birds.
Data has had to be collected across 91 bays and estuaries. A one-year dataset on migrating birds, for example, is not adequate for an environmental decision. One must build a time series. Simply gathering information one year does not get one there. The process has frustrated everybody involved. It is very complicated and slower than anybody wants but it is what is required.
A significant part of the process has been a huge data collection exercise across bays and estuaries. A bay may be 30 miles long and 20 miles wide. It may be an even larger area of water. The focus in the first number of years has largely been on data collection. Analysis of the data has been carried out by the agencies of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, particularly the Marine Institute. BIM has also worked on the data in relation to fisheries matters. The data as analysed is provided to the National Parks and Wildlife Service to allow it to decide what the conservation objectives will be for a particular area. Without knowing the conservation objectives, there is no target by reference to which one can judge the potential damage of any proposals to which consent is sought. Creating the information and analysing it as required to set the detailed conservation objectives of designated areas has been the second stage of the process.
Once conservation objectives are set, the appropriate assessments can be made of every licence application and fisheries plan proposed. At this point, appropriate assessments, which run to hundreds of pages and include detailed technical argument, have been finalised in relation to three bays. It is not that we have got to the end point in relation to the 91 bays, but we have started down the road. Other assessments are at various stages of being worked up. The final step is to make decisions on the basis of the appropriate assessments which come out at the end of the process. The Cromane-Castlemaine mussel fisheries are the first that will come out of the process. They are almost there in terms of a decision. The objective, clearly, is to work through all the other bays. It goes back and forwards a bit. One gets the data and when it has been reviewed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service it may transpire that all the data required to make a decision has not been obtained. Further specific data collection on a particular species may be required. It is an iterative process and is a very major undertaking.
At the conclusion of the process, we will have built up a dataset on all major inshore waters which are seafood producing. The dataset will be equally applicable to any other activity proposed in a bay. It does not just have a benefit for fisheries and aquaculture. Any other development, including a pipeline, wind farm or marina, can be appropriately assessed by reference to the dataset to ensure compliance with habitats protection. That should allow decisions on development to be taken much more quickly. The ammunition will be there. The data has a wider application than just to our work on fisheries and aquaculture but it must be done in this context. It also means that when we get there, we can consider new proposals which arise for developments over and above what is currently in place. While all of this process been going on, the position has been that aquaculture activities have continued at the same level where they already exist. They have not ceased. That people have not been stopped from continuing their activities has been an important element of the process.
There is a huge variety of inshore fishing activity in Ireland. While it is technically the case that the Common Fisheries Policy governs all living marine organisms from the shore to a point 200 miles out at sea, management measures have not been developed for many species. Only a certain number of species are subject to quotas, tax and other limitations. For many inshore species, few if any Common Fisheries Policy positions exist. There are provisions to govern the registration of fleet vessels but there are few at species level other than provisions on minimum sizes and other technical provisions. We have many inshore fisheries which are not heavily impacted by the Common Fisheries Policy and it is very much open to debate as to whether that is a good or bad thing. It is a question of whether they should be subject to further management. Decisions in that context are dependent on the availability of information, the ability to manage and the ability to enforce. We could go through a whole raft of inshore fisheries ranging from lobster and crab fisheries to whelks and crawfish. There is a huge multiplicity of things that can be done and that fishermen are still able to do. The specific situation in relation to area 6 is a result of poor white-fish stocks there and the need to rebuild them. Poor stocks for many years led to the introduction of a so-called "cod recovery plan" which then led to a series of other restrictions on activity. There is a great deal of detail as to how the situation in area 6 has evolved which can be provided.
Deputy Martin Ferris referred to the issue of sea lice. I have not read the specific article he mentioned but sea lice are endemic. They are part of the marine environment and hosted by many wild species. The issue with fin fish farming is the extent to which concentrations of sea lice build up and are managed. They cannot be eliminated as they are endemic in the environment. It is a question of managing levels. A great deal of work has been done in Ireland over the years to develop a stringent, independent and transparent system to manage sea lice on finfish farms. It is a very open system and the results are available to everybody including on the Internet. Farms are independently inspected and the consequences of inspections are clearly set out in the relevant protocols. The protocols are procedures attached to the licences for farms and are legally enforceable. In the event that treatment does not reduce sea lice levels, there is a racheting up of the actions which must be taken up to the point that the stock can be removed. It is a stronger and more transparent system than we see in other major salmon producing countries. In terms of the impact of sea lice, there has been a long and energetic debate between the angling and aquaculture community on the impact of salmon farms on wild stocks. The Department takes its advice from the Marine Institute which is our scientific adviser and has expertise built up over many years. Its most recent report is a paper published in March 2013 in the Journal of Fish Diseases. The paper is the result of a nine year study on 350,000 migrating salmon and is comprehensive.
Effectively, they inoculated one population of migrating salmon against sea lice and did not inoculate another population, and then measured the returning fish in both cases. There was a 94% or 95% rate of mortality at sea beyond the range of the sea lice, depending on whether the fish had been inoculated. It added 1% to the mortality rate.
To some extent, the target of the debate is often missed. Both salmon farmers and anglers need sea lice to be controlled. Not tightly controlling them in is in the interest of neither party. Farmed salmon do not thrive if there is a build-up of sea lice. Whatever one's view on the extent to which the risk to wild salmon exists, it must increase if the concentrations of sea lice increase. It is in the interest of both parties that sea lice are controlled. The regulatory system in place is designed to control the level of sea lice for that purpose in the interests of all parties. They both have the same objective. Neither party can eliminate sea lice, which are an endemic part of the environment. It is a lively debate that will always be there as long as fish aquaculture exists. It is simply a debate about how to effect controls.
Mr. Beamish said that in one case there was a 1% difference in the number that returned. That looks very small. However, if 5% returned in one case and 6% in the other case - because Mr. Beamish said that 95%, give or take, died at sea - that is a 20% difference in the number that returned, which is huge. Could Mr. Beamish confirm whether the 1% was on the 95% versus the 94%? Percentages can be very deceiving. A 100% increase in nothing is still nothing. It is similar to cases in which commentators say a team has doubled its lead when it is one point ahead and gets another point. It is not half as dramatic if one is 15 points ahead and doubles one's lead by another 15 points.
Dr. Cecil Beamish:
What the Deputy is saying reflects the way different interest groups read the science on this. The last thing this debate needs is more energy. It probably needs calm observation. I can only read what the report says. We did not produce the report; we are advised by it. It was a study of 352,000 migrating salmon over nine years. I will quote from it. I do not take a view. The report concludes:
The results of a meta-analysis of the combined data suggest that while sea lice-induced mortality on outwardly migrating smolts can be significant, it is a minor and irregular component of marine mortality in the stocks studied and is unlikely to be a significant factor influencing conservation status of salmon stocks.
Dr. Cecil Beamish:
The figure of 1% is very clear. The report states:
I could go on. If anybody is looking for the report, it is published in the March 2013 edition of Journal of Fish Diseases. The reason I quoted that particular study is that it is the latest one and is a particularly large study conducted over a nine-year period. Whatever decisions are taken on the sea lice issue, it would be in the national interest for everybody to be informed by whatever science is available.
The observed level of marine mortality attributable to sea lice infestation is very small, both in absolute terms (approximately 1%) and as a proportion of the overall marine mortality which in this study had a mean value >90% at all locations. At these levels, it is unlikely to influence the conservation status of stocks and is not a significant driver of marine mortality. Recent studies have been carried out in Norway with broadly similar results (Skilbrei & Wennevik 2006).
We hear of difficulties in the co-existence of agriculture and angling, as well as other activities. Dr. Beamish said that when the comprehensive studies that are ongoing are completed, the data collected will allow for all sorts of activities. Would he consider it as part of the planning process for any or all activities that would take place in those designated bays? Would that include the potential impact of aquaculture on inshore or even freshwater fishing? Some freshwater anglers will say a salmon farm in the inlet where they fish could be affected as well. Does it take that into account?
Dr. Cecil Beamish:
Some of that debate is about sea lice. The general environmental information on the seabed, living marine organisms, the tidal area and migrating animals and birds is effectively a national asset that is being created to allow informed decision making on anything else that might apply to be developed in a Natura area. The State will equally have to give informed consent. It will be another Department or consenting authority, rather than this Department, that will have to give informed consent, in line with the habitats and birds directives, on whatever the application is. The Department or consenting authority in question will have access to this data and, therefore, should be able to make a quicker informed decision to accept or reject the application in accordance with the Natura directives. If this data did not exist, any individual promoter of a project would be equally at a loss and under pressure to produce those data to allow an informed decision. The information might not be easily available to an individual promoter and, therefore, that project might not proceed. The data collected do not relate only to fisheries and aquaculture but can assist with wider decision-making.
This follows on from some work we did on the oil and gas report in the last committee to get that level of data collated so the State would have possession of it before anybody else came in to present an application. It is important. I know it is an investment and is tedious and laborious but we should accept that it is very valuable for the State to be in possession of that data. Does Deputy Ó Cuív have another point to make?
I am sorry; I was not being discourteous in not being here, as I was speaking in a Topical Issue debate on agriculture in the Dáil. There are too many things happening in one day, but that is life. I take it that what we are talking about here is the potential for aquaculture to create jobs in coastal communities.
One thing I am curious about is the "big bang" approach with outsiders, as opposed to steady growth in which one deals with the issues as one grows, promoted by locals who are sensitive to local interests. I am interested in why the Department seems to be going for this huge "big bang" approach under the aegis of BIM, which is obviously subject to ministerial policy direction.
That ministerial policy direction seems to be as follows: first, the ownership is not local; second, if anything goes wrong it is a big failure; third, environmental risks are huge from day one; and fourth, it is very unlikely to get general local acceptance. This is as opposed to trying to get those who have done this at a sustainable level on a small scale to grow as their knowledge and capacity grows with the ownership staying local. The basic nature of inshore fishermen is to work on their own rather than be employees of a big multinational, which can at the turn of a switch decide the game is over and all that is left behind is the waste.
What informs the Department's approach on a policy level given that we are trying to develop sustainable rural communities where as many aspects of people's lives as possible are controlled from within the community? I am very proud of the local timber mill in my area. One of the great advantages it has had from the outset is that the general manager and minority shareholder is a Galway person and the majority shareholder is Connacht Gold. That has created a great rock of connection to the place and we know it will stick with it through hell and high water, whereas if a multinational company owned it, the mill would be the first place to close if it ran into any difficulty. I am wondering about the policy approach of the Department reflected by BIM actions.
Inshore fishermen perennially complain that where there is considerable fish farming, certain species of fish that are basically scavengers, will scavenge all the food that falls to the bottom of the sea. They then become very fat, soft and mushy, but are inedible. I do not know if the scientists dismiss this, but the fishermen swear it is so. I will need to go out with the fishermen someday to find out whether they are feeding me a lot of foolish talk, but it is certainly local perception among dedicated inshore fishermen as opposed to anglers. If there are 15,000 tonnes of fish a year and even allowing for the fantastic conversion rates they were saying they were getting, it would be strange that only 20% of that goes to the bottom of the seabed, which is still 3,000 tonnes of feed. All of that must get consumed - that is the nature of it. We all know if animal feed is left out the rats will come out of nowhere fast enough. If we are doing a development that is for inshore fishermen I am concerned that they themselves complain it interferes with their very basic livelihood.
Dr. Cecil Beamish:
The way we approached this in committee was conscious that there are things that can be talked about and things that cannot be talked about. At the outset we set out the global and European context in which aquaculture is developing and try to present where Ireland stands in that global and European market context as regards the apparent potential that seems to exist for aquaculture generally and in Ireland. It is clear that other countries have seen ways of developing aquaculture while remaining very committed to the marine environment, their commercial fishing industries and their fishermen. Some countries have developed significant industries and also retained very significant fishing industries. However, we cannot enter into any discussion or debate on specific applications that are under consideration or indicate any predisposition or otherwise towards any big, small or other applicants of any kind. So we are somewhat hamstrung in that regard.
The Deputy mentioned specific numbers and clearly it is an area of interest to his constituency.
Dr. Cecil Beamish:
All I can say is that in the context of the specific Galway Bay application we are going through a statutory process. All the submissions that came out of both the statutory consultation and the public consultation are being examined. That process will follow the legal prescribed process set out for it. That process will take into account all matters arising - environmental and otherwise - that have been raised. However, I do not believe it is possible to go into it in any more detail because one would end up making comments about specific applications.
I asked why there is a policy to go for huge farms. If this were so lucrative it is curious that the existing farms have not been growing in the past ten years. There are a number of existing fin fish farms, including one owned by a very large company off Clare Island. If all this were so lucrative and positive I would have thought that the Clare Island operation would have expanded. However, I have heard of no expansion in Clare Island. I have not heard of any major expansion by the operators off the coast of Connemara. I am not talking about the BIM proposal that is before the Department. I understand that the BIM policy at a wider level under the direction of the Department is to go for major developments rather than locally-owned and controlled developments. What is the thinking behind this policy approach? It has nothing to do with a specific application. I am critical enough about the tainting of that already. I believe the Minister is in no position to make a decision on this because fundamentally he is a judge in his own court in that. While I understand Dr. Beamish's caution here today, unfortunately that one was tainted before it started.
Dr. Cecil Beamish:
It is not BIM spiel; this is the Department setting out what it understands the global context to be. In that context, therefore, the question is whether Ireland wants to take part in aquaculture production opportunities that arise, etc., and how that can or cannot be facilitated. Part of that facilitation involving examination and ensuring compliance with environmental directives is all of the effort going on regarding Natura sites. The Natura sites cover the bulk of what are traditional aquaculture sites. Nobody has made a decision against traditional aquaculture. Much is going on and I could talk about it. Indeed there has been substantial restructuring in aquaculture in Connemara on which the Department has been working with the other parties in recent years, which has led to fairly significant change there.
We did not talk about shellfish, oyster production, mussels,-----
Dr. Cecil Beamish:
-----rope muscles or bottom mussels. All of that is equally covered by the context that was established for aquaculture. There are specific markets and specific site issues affecting each of those types of aquaculture developments. In many ways aquaculture is only in its infancy. The committee deals with agriculture, which has been around for 3,000 or 5,000 years. It has been refined and developed with different species etc. Aquaculture is essentially a 30 or 40-year old global venture now producing some 60 million tonnes a year. It is only in its infancy in terms of where it is likely to go in order to meet the food demands. Debates on aquaculture often become focused on one species or one application.
There is a multiplicity of things going on around the coast and across Europe. Aquaculture for other species may become dominant. The largest part of feed production in the Mediterranean is sea bream and three or four related species that have developed there over the past 20 years. They are different from the species we have. There is ongoing research into other species. The Deputy is probably familiar with the work on farming cod in Connemara. That work showed that Ireland could produce very fast-growing farmed cod. The problem there is that the rapid expansion of the cod stocks of Norway, which are much larger than anything we have, has kept down the price in the markets at levels that make it uneconomic to develop farmed cod. Biologically it has been proved that the species can be farmed. This is an evolving situation and it is diverse. The debate is focusing on one or two species or one or two projects, but it is wider than that.
I agree. I live near the Killary, one of the best places for mussels. Difficulties arose there in connection with licensing but it is totally natural. One has only to hang a rope out and mussels will grow on it. I have always believed that we have an obsession with fin fish farming and particularly with salmon which by its nature is an extensively migratory species. We would be better off concentrating on the things that are natural where we have natural advantages and do not have to put artificial feed into the sea. Has any examination taken place of producing fin fish on land so that all the stuff at the bottom of the pool can be collected, there is no risk of interfering with anything else and water can be filtered? Has there been any examination of that because there seems to be much greater acceptance of the concept of on-land fin fish aquaculture?
Dr. Cecil Beamish:
We were speaking earlier about the volumes of farmed salmon in the global markets which amounts to approximately 2 million tonnes. Almost all of that is produced exclusively from sea-based rearing. The operators across the industry are private and they choose sea-based production for most of that production. One would have to study the economics of land-based cages. I presume private operators are doing that. If applications come forward for a substantial commercial land-based farm, they will be assessed through the process too. Operators have to make a decision based on the economics of electricity costs, pumping and the rest of the inputs required.
BIM is applying for the licence in these cases. It could choose to operate land bases and the operators would not have a choice because there would be no licence for sea-based farms, and if they want a sea-based licence let them go and fry.
That is a question for BIM or maybe Teagasc. The Department is the overarching entity. BIM is carrying out the work in conjunction with the Marine Institute and the National Parks and Wildlife Service bringing us back to where we started, given the Irish context.
I thank Dr. Beamish, Mr. Quinlan and Ms Kelly for attending today's meeting and making their presentation.
That concludes our proceedings for today. Tomorrow morning we will meet officials from the Departments of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht Affairs, and Inland Fisheries Ireland will be in attendance.