Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 22 October 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications
Depletion of Inland Fish Stocks and Impact of Estuary Poaching: Inland Fisheries Ireland
The purpose of this meeting is to engage with Inland Fisheries Ireland to discuss issues relating to the depletion of fish stocks in inland waterways, including the prevalence of poaching in estuaries. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Dr. Ciaran Byrne, Dr. Greg Forde and Dr. Cathal Gallagher of Inland Fisheries Ireland. I draw their attention to the fact that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I also wish to advise the witnesses that any submission or opening statement they have submitted to the committee will be published on its website after the meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite Dr. Byrne to make his opening remarks.
Dr. Ciaran Byrne:
We are grateful to have this opportunity to address the committee on the important topic of the depletion of fish stocks in inland waterways and the incidence of illegal fishing in estuaries. Inland Fisheries Ireland was established on 1 July 2010 following the amalgamation of the central and seven regional fisheries boards. The agency was established under the Inland Fisheries Act 2010, with many of its powers deriving from the principal Act governing the sector, that being, the Fisheries (Consolidation) Act 1959. The main functions of Inland Fisheries Ireland, as identified in the 2010 Act, are to "promote, support, facilitate and advise the Minister on the conservation, protection, management, marketing, development and improvement of inland fisheries, including sea angling".
It is important to note that protection and conservation of the inland fisheries resource number among the primary functions of the agency. These were also primary functions of the central and regional fisheries boards established in 1980 and the Boards of Conservators and the Inland Fisheries Trust before them. However, protection and conservation have comprised a topic of much interest and discussion since well before the formation of the State. For example, in 1836 there was a royal commission of inquiry into the state of salmon in Ireland and, in 1901, the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland, SSISI, produced a report on salmon fisheries.
It is also important that we assist the committee in considering the context of why protection and conservation are conducted. While there are domestic, EU and international obligations, we are protecting and conserving resources generating some €755 million annually for the national economy. The impact of this socio-economic dividend is largely of benefit to peripheral and rural communities, often where alternative earning opportunities can be limited.
In today's context, there are three fish species of particular interest, those being, salmon, bass and eel. The abundance of all three have decreased in recent years. Previously, commercial and recreational fisheries for all three species existed, but today only salmon is fished commercially and on a limited basis. Following concerns in the 1990s about the decline of salmon numbers returning to the Irish coast, the then Minister with responsibility for wild fish established a salmon task force to consider this matter and advise him on how this decline might be arrested and stocks improved.
The then Minister introduced a number of conservation measures for the 1997 commercial season. Between 1997 and 2007, on foot of further ongoing concerns in respect of the abundance of salmon, a number of other fishery management measures such as a carcass tag and logbook scheme were implemented. In 2006 the then Government committed to aligning with the scientific advice. The import of this was that it was no longer permissible to target mixed-stock salmon fisheries at sea. In 2007 the then Government introduced a hardship scheme of €25 million to support fishermen to exit the fishery. An additional €5 million was also made available for community support schemes. From that point forward the management of wild salmon was conducted on an individual river basis in order to reflect the genetically unique stock in each river. The primary driver became - and remains - the independent scientific advice. If there was no harvestable surplus as advised by the scientific advice, then there was no harvesting of salmon. While there are currently more rivers opened with harvestable surpluses than in 2007, anecdotal evidence suggests there has been a decrease in the marine survival of salmon and this has led to reduced abundance in the current year, although the weather may be a significant factor in this regard.
The steep decline in bass stocks in Ireland in the mid-1970s resulted in a severe decline of the renowned Irish bass angling resource. Ultimately, this decline led to the cessation of the commercial fishery in 1990 to conserve stocks through the Bass (Conservation of Stocks) Order 1990. Since then bass has been regarded solely as an angling species and is restrictively managed. Bass is a long-lived and slow-growing species and only attains maturity between four and seven years of age. Specimens can be up to 20 years old.
IFI was anxious to establish the overall and socioeconomic value of the resource it is charged with protecting. The most comprehensive survey of the economic value of recreational angling in Ireland identified that the total direct expenditure on recreational angling in Ireland in 2012 was estimated to be of the order of €555 million, of which €121 million was generated by out-of-State anglers. When indirect and induced impacts are taken into account, the overall economic impact of recreational angling in Ireland is, therefore, estimated to be approximately €755 million. Total tourist angling expenditure was estimated at approximately €280 million and recreational angling can be estimated to support approximately 10,000 jobs.
It is estimated that bass angling in Ireland could contribute in the range of €116 million to €146 million annually to the economy, predominantly in rural areas. Given the importance of this species and the poor status of the stocks, IFI has prioritised its bass research programme. This programme aims to provide scientific advice on measures for the conservation and protection of bass and their aquatic habitat, while also facilitating long-term sustainable social and economic value for stakeholders. The programme has been developed to determine the status of bass stocks and to improve understanding of the ecology and biology of this valuable species which is vulnerable to over-exploitation. Current activity within IFI’s bass programme includes: stock assessment -juvenile, pre-adult and adult; ecological investigations; stock identification; and migration studies. While in Ireland bass is managed as a recreational fishery, there are commercial fisheries for bass in other jurisdictions. In that context, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, ICES, has advised that a management plan is urgently needed to develop and implement measures to substantially reduce fishing mortality throughout the range of the stock as a result of concerns about the overall status of the stock and a number of years poor recruitment.
The European eel is found and exploited in fresh, brackish and coastal waters in almost all of Europe and along the Mediterranean coasts of Africa and Asia. The European eel is a single, panmictic - or genetically identical - stock distributed from northern Africa in the south to the farthermost regions of Norway in the north. Following Europe-wide concerns regarding the status of eel stocks, EU Regulation (Council Regulation 1100/2007) was introduced. This regulation requires member states to monitor the eel stocks, evaluate current silver eel escapement and post-evaluate implemented management actions aimed at reducing eel mortality and increasing silver eel escapement. The Irish eel management plan submitted to and accepted by the EU in 2009 identified four main management actions: a cessation of the commercial eel fishery and closure of the market; mitigation of the impact of hydropower, including a comprehensive trap and transport plan to be funded by the ESB; ensure upstream migration of juvenile eel at barriers; and improvement of water quality. This plan and the stock status of eels was reviewed in 2012 and the management measures to which I refer were continued for a further three-year period.
In addition to the three species I have mentioned, IFI is very concerned about status of sea trout. Following the collapse of the sea trout stocks off the west coast of Ireland in 1989, predominantly as a result of the impacts of sea lice from poorly-managed and poorly-situated aquaculture facilities, stocks in many areas have still not returned to former abundance levels. Sea trout are particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of sea lice due to their foraging ecology. Unlike salmon, which migrate out to the high seas, sea trout spend considerable time in the near-shore estuarine environment and are prone to being repeatedly infected with sea lice.
IFI expends a considerable portion of time and resources on the protection of all fish stocks but, of necessity, greater emphasis is placed on those stocks in greater difficulty. With approximately 5,600 km of coastline extending out to 12 nautical miles, there is an immense area to protect. However, since the cessation of the commercial drift net fishery at sea much of the illegal fishing effort for salmon and other species has moved into the estuarine areas. Anecdotally, incidences of commercial-scale illegal fishing for salmon have decreased. However, there has been an increased targeting of bass off the south and south-west coasts. Notwithstanding this, IFI recorded 381 incidents in 2013 and prosecutions were initiated in respect of 112 of these - an increase of 14 on the number for 2012. In 2013 staff seized over 455 nets totalling 24.1 km, which is comparable with the 24.5 km of illegal nets seized in 2012. The greatest number of nets seized in 2013 were 58, 124 and 122. These were seized in the months of June, July and August, respectively.
In terms of the protection effort, IFI staff expended 44,266 man hours on coastal, sea and estuary patrols in 2013. In addition, IFI staff have fundamentally changed how they conduct their business. They are using arrange of high-tech equipment to target specific "hot spot" areas and increase operational efficiency. Kayaks are being used to conduct silent patrols along rivers and in shallow estuarine areas and to access areas which previously would have been almost impossible to enter unnoticed or using a rigid-hulled inflatable boat, RIB. All-terrain vehicles, ATVs, are being used on some of the country's beaches in order to patrol for illegal bass fishing and personal watercraft - or jetskis - are being used to patrol shallow estuarine areas which would previously have been inaccessible to RIBs. Larger RIBs are being used to launch dawn patrols on coastal areas. Officers go well out to sea under the cover of darkness and then approach coastal areas at first light. It is not only the patrol methodologies which have changed, however. IFI has a 24-hour hotline for the reporting of any illegal activity and also the presence of invasive species. It has also had significant success in the use of other technologies such as night vision scopes, thermal imaging equipment and long-range spotting scopes. In addition, IFI has had some considerable success in detecting illegal nets and fishing activity using its specially-trained patrol dog in a pilot programme which is now being extended throughout the organisation. The unfortunate reality is that while the agency can deploy its resources to best effect and utilise the most up to date technologies, there are still significant numbers of individuals who continue to engage in illegal fishing.
I welcome our guests and I commend IFI on the work it is doing. As Dr. Byrne stated, the industry is responsible for providing a huge number of jobs and ensuring the survival of rural communities.
I regularly meet those who are concerned about fish stocks. I refer to those who fish in the various competitions that are held, particularly the members of the Araglen Anglers Association in my locality who fish on the tributaries of the River Blackwater. The latter continually inform me that this fisheries are an underdeveloped asset. In the past there would have been anecdotal evidence in respect of poaching, etc., taking place at this time of year in particular. However, such activity has, in the main, been consigned to history because the vast majority of people are concerned about conservation. Previous generations would have stated that a flood would have to arrive in order for the salmon to come upriver. I was discussing this matter with my father in recent days and he asked whether salmon come up rivers at all now in light of the way stocks have been affected.
The first thing I want to do is challenge our guests with regard to the underdevelopment of what is an outstanding natural resource.
While today’s proceedings concern tackling poaching at estuaries and stock depletion in inland waterways, more work is needed in developing recreational and commercial fishing. As the delegation stated, it affects predominantly rural areas and there are many fine rivers with good stock levels.
Are salmon levels returning in smaller inland rivers and tributaries to the major rivers such as the Blackwater? Does more work need to be done on stock preservation in our inland waterways? Is Inland Fisheries Ireland constrained by limited financial resources in continuing its work?
Dr. Ciaran Byrne:
The Deputy is correct that a huge volume of work needs to be done with our inland fisheries. We have a good natural resource, namely, angling, which needs constant investment and upgrading. Inland Fisheries Ireland has recognised from its socio-economic study of recreational anglers that we need a national angling development plan. Over the summer, we looked at angling resources to see how we can maintain and improve them. I, along with my staff and officers, have been looking at development needs from simple matters such as shrub cutting and development of bank side infrastructure right up to how we market and promote the resource. The board of Inland Fisheries Ireland and its senior management have been seriously focused on a national angling development plan and hope to bring it forward early next year. One consideration, however, will be that it will cost money.
Dr. Ciaran Byrne:
LIFE projects are well-funded and much work is done under them. One issue, however, is that as it is European funded, it is heavily audited so one cannot stray too far from the core remit of the project. The kind of works we would be looking at would be relatively low level developmental works such as bush cutting and raking gravel. Much of this work would not be covered under the LIFE programme. It can be used as a vehicle to get larger scale works done, however.
Dr. Cathal Gallagher:
Ireland has been leading the way in salmon management compared to many other European countries. Each year, we assess the salmon population entering 148 rivers. In Ireland, we manage each of the catchments individually but not the individual tributaries. Those above surplus are opened for commercial or rod-angling exploitation. Other rivers that are just below the conservation limit but have a certain population are open to catch-and-release angling. There are many rivers that are closed, unfortunately, because of the status of stock in them.
We pay attention to tributaries. If a river is in difficulty, we have other scientific methods of evaluating their populations. We use catchment wide electro-fishing where we examine the juvenile salmon in a catchment to see how its population is doing. If we find there are problems in tributaries or particular locations, we try and identify them such as an impassable barrier, pollution, problems arising from river restoration or gravels. The salmon conservation fund, supported by the salmon anglers and commercial fishermen, is available to do these types of rehabilitation works.
There has been a focus on better understanding the salmon runs in the Blackwater. On that river over the past several years, extensions to the salmon season have been given to facilitate angling because it was believed they were entering the catchments later. Salmon management is difficult. Each individual catchment has genetically distinct fish populations from the Ice Age. While we can talk in general terms about the populations going up and down, they seem to fluctuate inside the catchments over years. Salmon runs also depend on the weather and water levels, a point understood by those who live in the catchment area. We are conscious that the tributaries are the main spawning areas for salmon. We try to focus on ensuring we pay attention to these areas.
Dr. Greg Forde:
This year has been particularly intriguing for inland waterways because we have such low water levels. We have had three months of drought, except in Dublin which has had more normal rainfall levels, particularly in the coastal parts of Galway, Connemara and the south. As a consequence, salmon have been focused in estuarine areas. From our perspective, this is good as the majority of the stock was stuck in the lower parts of the river. Keeping an eye on it from poaching was easier, therefore. It has allowed us to focus on what we know are the hotspots. We would get local tip-offs from the robust relationships we have with individuals across the country, as well as through our hotline. We have moved away from the traditional approach of selecting one river to patrol on one day and another the following day. Now, it is more intelligence-based patrolling.
As Dr. Ciaran Byrne said earlier, we have moved into using new technologies in combating poaching. Some of these are associated more with armies such as night-vision. The nets we take in the larger estuaries such as those on the Barrow and the Suir are taken in complete darkness as a result. It is difficult to catch an actual poacher. A poacher will set a net when the tide is out, wading across mud to do so. These nets are impossible to see as they are covered by mud. The tide comes in, lifts the net, the net catches the fish. When the tide goes out, the poacher then retrieves the net. No boat is involved and these areas tend to be very exposed. This makes it difficult for staff to lie in wait for individual poachers.
However, much of our work is now done using the methods I described and other technologies that we utilise to help us identify who is coming or going or perhaps to intercept a vehicle rather than race across mud flats, which is no mean feat. These types of incidents have taken place.
Our targeting of poaching is primarily aimed at specific hotspots. This year, 89 cases have come before the courts nationwide and almost 60 further cases are in the pipeline. A large number of individuals are being prosecuted for poaching and pollution cases. After local authority prosecutions related to the payment of rates and so forth, Inland Fisheries Ireland is one of main agencies involved in prosecutions for illegal activities. We also use fixed charge penalty notices, similar to those used by many other bodies, for minor infringements which we do not want to bring to court. We want cases that come to court to be for serious matters that require appropriate redress.
In 2013, we seized 24 km of nets. The trouble is that we will seize perhaps 12 m or 18 m of net at one time and it takes a large number of such seizures to reach a total of 24 km. The reason the figure is so high is that we seize a small number of large nets off the coast. This year, the number of large nets detected off the coast has been significantly lower than last year. This can be attributed to a number of factors, including low water levels which reduced the number of fish running into rivers. As a result, people were not able to see the fish running and we did not get the big pulse of illegal fishing at sea that we normally get.
Most of the nets being seized are estuarine or used in rivers. We also seize a small number of illegal fishing nets on lakes and so forth. Thus far this year, we have seized 13 km of net but the year still has a couple of months to run. The lower figure is indicative of the substantial decline in the yardage of net seized this year compared with the significant seizure in yardage terms made last year.
The best intelligence is the poacher because he has his finger on the pulse. He will know when there is a reasonable run of fish and where he has a chance of catching some of them. The risk he runs is that he must be lucky every time, whereas the opportunity we have is that we must only catch him once. Catching a poacher takes him out of the equation and he is unlikely to be caught again.
I apologise for missing the beginning of the presentation but I have another meeting to attend on Wednesday mornings. I will have to review my arrangements. I hope the witnesses will forgive me if the questions I ask were answered in advance of my arrival.
I will explore a number of issues. The goals of Inland Fisheries Ireland are to improve the protection and conservation of the resource, develop and improve wild fish populations, increase the number of anglers and generate a better return for the economy from the resource. If we take these objectives as key performance indicators, how is Inland Fisheries Ireland performing?
My next question is more specific and relates to eels fisheries. I am informed by those who used to be involved in eel fishing that Ireland is probably the only country in Europe that has imposed a ban on eel fishing. A number of families made a fair proportion of their income from this activity. They have been prevented from continuing to fish for eels and have not been offered compensation. They question the scientific evidence on what contribution the cessation of eel fishing is making to the overall eel population. I ask the witnesses to comment.
Inland Fisheries Ireland focuses strongly on poachers. Is pollution not at least as great a problem as poaching? The River Tolka was poisoned recently and the anecdotal evidence suggests that one industry is causing this pollution. It appears, however, that no action is being taken to address the issue.
On value for money, if expenditure from the public purse on Inland Fisheries Ireland and other organisations involved in the preservation of the water base, fish stocks and the amenity value of our rivers were matched against the income generated from the enjoyment of these resources, would one conclude that we are delivering value for money?
What working arrangements does Inland Fisheries Ireland have with other organisations involved in the preservation and promotion of our inland waters, for example, Waterways Ireland? I should point out that many years ago, when I fished the rivers and lakes of south Leitrim, I was blissfully unaware of Inland Fisheries Ireland or any similar organisation.
Dr. Ciaran Byrne:
If Deputy Colreavy does not mind, I will parcel out his questions. I will address his first question, which was strategic, while Dr. Cathal Gallagher, our head of research, will respond to the question on eels. Dr. Forde will reply to the question on pollution and poaching, while I will briefly address the question on value for money. Dr. Forde will then respond to the question on the work we do with other agencies.
The Deputy's question on how we score in terms of our corporate plan is a very good one. I could state that we are wonderful but that would not cut it in a sense.
Dr. Ciaran Byrne:
Exactly. Perhaps the best way to respond is to outline from where we have come. Eight State agencies were amalgamated in 2010 when eight companies were managing the fisheries resource in eight separate regions. Since then, the organisation has focused on rebuilding and rebranding our structures to become more efficient. I will be honest in stating that we have done very well in certain areas and not so well in other areas.
As with many State agencies, we started off at the worst possible time in terms of the economic cycle because the trajectory in terms of resources and finances since the establishment of Inland Fisheries Ireland has been downward only. While this is a challenge on one side of the equation, it also presents an opportunity on the other side because it forces us to act in a more innovative manner and think in a different ways. For example, if we take the protection effort, when one has five men where one once had ten men one can no longer continue to do the work of ten men. What we have done is embrace different methodologies in our approach to our work. We have introduced different technologies to try to increase and drive up efficiency. We are seeking to underpin this legislatively through a review of the legislation to try to move away from the practice of taking large numbers of people to court. It is a matter of targeting resources to achieve the best return. That is one example of an area where we have developed and pushed on but there are various other measures.
I would love to say we are brilliant and, on balance, I believe we are good, although there is definitely room for improvement. We must continue what we are doing. It is interesting that 2015 will be the end of the first strategic cycle for the agency. This will provide us with a chance to review in a critical and economic way what we said we would do, what we did and what has been the outcome in terms of whether we did what we said we would do. We will implement this process in 2015 as part of the development of the next strategic plan.
Dr. Byrne is speaking of how efficiently Inland Fisheries Ireland works. I referred to taking the objectives the agency has set itself as key performance indicators. He should be able to provide figures on what was the starting position compared to the current position. This would allow us to decide whether the agency is hitting its targets. Inland Fisheries Ireland could be working very efficiently without hitting the targets it has set as the targets could have been unrealistic. This data must be available to demonstrate whether these key performance indicators are being met.
Dr. Ciaran Byrne:
The exact data would be provided in two areas, namely, the annual report and the service level agreement we have with our parent Department. The only target for which we have room for improvement is in quantifying the increase in the number of anglers.
That is one about which I have concerns and that is why we are pushing forward in respect of -----
Dr. Ciaran Byrne:
In a sense, on certain stocks but other stocks of fish are doing very well. For example, if one wants to engage in coarse fishing, Ireland is a place to come. While some stocks are certainly depleted, others have increased significantly and in a point to which Deputy Moynihan alluded previously, there has been a change in the behaviour of anglers. As the Deputy mentioned himself, back in the day there was a time when anglers killed and kept every single fish they caught. In their mindset, they have now more or less moved completely to a catch-and-release type philosophy. In respect of specific metrics and numbers, I have them all. We operate them through the service level agreement, SLA, with our Department and report them in our annual report. The one about which I have concerns is increasing the number of anglers. It is a very difficult number to get. In 2012, we conducted our survey of recreational anglers. Prior to that, we only had bits of surveys from the regional fisheries boards regarding different types of fisheries and this was the first national survey. It is an omnibus-type survey and of course, the real metric will be to repeat that in three years' time and compare the number we had in 2012 with the number we have in 2015. That is how we will proceed.
Dr. Ciaran Byrne:
Yes. We are in the process of tendering a commission for an economist and somebody to repeat those omnibus surveys. It is a bit like some of the economic surveys pertaining to household income and all that. The only way one can get those data on an ongoing basis is to keep on resurveying people and asking that question. In terms of the other metrics, we have clear metrics in respect of protection, seizures and prosecutions and I am pretty confident that we are hitting those targets.
Dr. Cathal Gallagher:
If I may, by way of background I will give a quick overview of the life cycle of eels, because it is very important. Members may be aware that eels migrate out to the Sargasso Sea as silver eels and make that big long journey of 1,500 km. International science still has not found exactly where they are spawning out there. However, as Dr. Ciaran Byrne described earlier, they return later en masseto the European shores as glass eels. When they arrive to fresh water, they change pigment and become what are called elvers. They then travel into our freshwater systems, both rivers and lakes, and some stay in estuaries. However, their life cycle is long in fresh water. On average in places, it is 18 years long and then they make their return path, turn silver again and the cycle continues. In other words, we are talking about a species that has a long life cycle and it is important in this context to understand that. It is also important that in poorer catchments, for example, in which there is not a lot of food available, sometimes they can be in the catchment for up to 30 years and longer. One is dealing with a species that has this length of a life cycle.
As for the status of the species, the latest advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, ICES, which offers international advice on this species right across Europe, is that the status of eels remains critical and urgent action is needed. ICES advises that anthropogenic mortality, which is man-made mortality from recreational and commercial fishing, as well as hydroelectric power - we have problems with hydroelectric power stations blocking access to waters - "affecting production and escapement of silver eels should be reduced to as close to zero as possible, until there is clear evidence of sustained increase in both recruitment and the adult stock". To give members an idea of stock levels across Europe, one could refer to a case in which the stock was pristine, that is, back in the 1980s. I am talking about when this problem started to occur and it took so long for it to be understood that this was happening. One is talking about populations that are somewhere between 1% and 5% of what they should be in some areas and between 5% and 10% in others. Were these other sea stocks or salmon stocks, we would be taking really severe action in respect of them. That is what the status of these stocks is like at present. There has been some improvement over the past couple of years in respect of the return of elvers. It is being suggested that there may be some improvement as to what is the level of those stocks at the moment. However, the best advice at present is that the stocks are only approximately 10% of what they should be in pristine status. That is the general picture in respect of the stocks.
As for the second part, which is how are we doing when compared to others, the actions for other countries are not something we are able to control and are outside our gift. A working group was set up in 2009 at the time when this issue was being discussed and recommendations were made then regarding the management of eels in the future. At that stage, a decision was made to take a number of management action regarding eels, one of which was the closure of both the commercial and recreational fishery in eels in Ireland. Another was to have mitigation in respect of the hydroelectric power aspect of this issue and to that degree, there has been a large trap and transport programme in which eels are being transferred physically across the hydroelectric stations in Ireland on the rivers Erne and Shannon, for example. Work has been done on examining water quality and improvement. There must be a nationwide eel monitoring programme and we also have been looking at what impassable barriers there are to eels. Other countries have reported back and there is an information group sitting in Europe to consider how the other eel management plans are performing. I can tell members that only 21% of 81 eel management units have reached their targets, while 42% are not reaching their targets and a further 22% of those eel management units did not report at all. Consequently, the situation is being monitored. From the commercial fishery perspective, I note we are on a three-year reporting cycle. This was reviewed in 2012, when there was a lot of public consultation and a lot of meeting with eel fishermen and all the stakeholders involved in this issue. This process is due to commence again for 2015. As part of that process, the latest scientific information will be reviewed and there will be an engagement with the stakeholders. It is not the case that anyone has stated these fisheries are closed forever or anything like that but the status of the stocks is very poor on the current scientific information.
According to the information I have, approximately five people are engaged in trap and transport activities and that it is more of a description of a solution to a problem than a solution to a problem in itself, which probably is accurate. There must be a role for our European Union representatives in this regard because it is clear that Ireland probably is the only country in the European Union that is taking really seriously eel conservation, which I support 100%. I do not believe that Ireland is in a position to solve this problem on its own. I believe that those who are involved in eel fisheries are entitled to some compensation for the fact that a large part of their income is now gone. I also believe the reluctance of other European countries to get seriously involved in this matter is because of this factor, namely, the question of compensation. This is an issue that should be addressed openly and honestly at European level but at present, we appear to be the only ones who are seriously concerned with it.
Dr. Greg Forde:
I will deal briefly with the matter of water pollution. This is one of the staff's top priorities in respect of the protection of our waters and fish stocks. The Deputy made reference to one particular instance and as that matter is before our legal department at present, we are not really in a position to give the joint committee further details on that. However, we are involved in pollution cases through the courts in three or four different areas. One is at a municipal level and in that respect, we are somewhat at loggerheads with local authorities and perhaps with Irish Water in the future, as we push repeatedly for the upgrading of water treatment works. I acknowledge there now is in place an enormous programme for upgrading sewage treatment plants, which hopefully will take some of the pressure off in this regard.
Other matters are agriculture-related, such as silage and slurry effluent and again, there is a huge push within the farming community to improve practices there. We are also doing a lot of joint work with Teagasc on best farm practices and things like that to try to help to improve matters. We still have problems and we take a serious line in this regard to ensure the standard is maintained. There is much ongoing activity like that. In some years, it is really down to how the rainfall comes because slurry can be spread at certain times of the year but this can also be done inappropriately. For example, if one spreads the slurry just before a big heavy shower of rain, the next thing is all the nutrients will go into the rivers and problems will arise. We are getting away from the position that used to obtain years ago whereby putting the slurry out on the land was a disposal mechanism, rather than an enrichment mechanism to enable crops to grow and we are working on that.
This year, we have had 27 fish kills, which means there have been 27 occasions when, as a consequence of some activity, fish have died.
Some have been related to simple little things such as rivers drying out. We have probably had more little streams drying out this year than in the past 25 years. Some of them are caused by small amounts of pollution but in a river that is at a very low level. There is a cohort of staff who are specifically briefed on water pollution and they work on that.
The second element to the Deputy's question was working with other agencies. In the last one I mentioned Teagasc. We have many ongoing river restoration programmes with the Office of Public Works where we are trying to integrate with its legal remit, which is maintaining certain drainage programmes around the country. We have it doing so in a much more fish-friendly and habitat-friendly way. It is similar with Waterways Ireland with regard to weed clearance. We dovetail with it regarding fish stocks in the waterways it manages and controls, such as the canals and the Barrow.
We work closely with the EPA regarding issues we believe have an EPA element to them, and it contacts us if it believes there is a fisheries matter. We do a lot of work with it and we also bring EPA personnel out in our RIBs when they need to get samples in estuaries or offshore. Dr. Byrne mentioned bass, which falls under the remit of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority. We are the warranted officers who control the bass now. That is an arrangement between the two organisations. All our staff are warranted for the next two years by the SFPA and we carry out work on the protection of bass because it is an angling-only species. There is no commercial TAC - no quota - for commercial boats to land bass. As a consequence our fishery officers - I have my warrant in my bag - can protect bass.
Dr. Ciaran Byrne:
As an accountant, I can say that value for money is a remarkably difficult concept to pin down in the context of public sector agencies. I will outline some quick figures. Our budget is €24.9 million of which about €19 million is pay. We knock out about €3 million to €5 million a year on other projects depending on what we are involved in. Bearing in mind the size of the agency and what we do, we are actually relatively light on budget. The big thing we spend our money on is vehicles. When we have our guys tooled up with a good vehicle, good PP equipment and some of the technology we mentioned such as spotting scopes, which are expensive, and so forth, we can do a fair chunk of our protection as well as our education and various other jobs.
Based on a socio-economic survey, every €1 spent on angling generates approximately €22, which is incredibly high. The reason for that is that when a guy goes fishing, he tends to go and stay. He needs petrol, lunch, bait and all the rest of it. In overall value for money terms I believe the agency is generating a pretty good return. It is a difficult concept. I will give a very quick example. Dr. Forde mentioned that this year we are looking to take about 13 km a net. In the last two years we took about 24 km each. Does that mean we are half as efficient this year as we were last year? The answer is "No". It means we may be even more efficient in terms of stopping more incidents or we may be a bit more efficient, but combined with environmental factors that change things. That is why it is a difficult concept to pin down. Overall for the budget of the agency and the size of it, I think we are delivering a reasonable amount.
I am from County Louth through which a few very important rivers flow into the sea. I am thinking in particular of the River Dee in Ardee. The sewage treatment plant in Ardee is quite close to the River Dee and discharges into the River Dee. I was not too pleased with what I saw going into the Dee six or seven years ago. I hope that has changed. How often do we monitor discharges from sewage treatment works into rivers? Do we have annual inspections or ones every two months? Do we have standards to maintain with discharges required to be within certain guidelines? How often do we check them out?
Dr. Greg Forde:
The overall licensing is with the EPA. We would be looking for abnormal occurrences and we would carry out spot checks on all of the wastewater treatment plants, but especially the ones about which we might have a concern. I refer to ones that are close to their production capacity and ones that may have a bit of a chequered history. Where we have concerns, we would ensure we would visit them fairly often. Even in the current month I am looking at a discharge pipe from a particular wastewater treatment plant where stuff called sewage fungus grows below it. It shows very poor quality of effluent. When we see that, we will take our own samples and talk to the people in the wastewater treatment plant.
There may be occasions when we put up the yellow flag and say things are not right there and we advise EPA. Both agencies have a role because it will come and check that the plant is discharging as per its licence, but even within that we are watching the quality of the river downstream. I cannot say that we are going into every place on a rigid basis because some of them are being visited far more frequently than others. Some are performing incredibly well because they are much more modern facilities. There must be 20 treatment plants being constructed at the moment throughout the country. There is a big investment programme at the moment which one hopes will lead to improved discharges.
On the specific issue of the River Dee, I do not have any details. It has not been banging my door down recently, so to speak. That might be a good sign.
I apologise for being late. I welcome the CEO and the officials from Inland Fisheries Ireland. I read the opening statement and I am very encouraged by what they have said, particularly in promoting both angling and sea angling. Obviously angling is of tremendous benefit to the State; that is not disputed. Sea angling is probably underperforming. I live in a constituency in west County Cork that has huge resources in terms of infrastructure that could support sea angling. Significant investment has taken place over the past 15 years. I believe we have identified almost 200 piers and quays along the west County Cork coastline that would support sea angling and support communities that desperately need that kind of economic investment.
For sea anglers from the UK, Europe or North America looking for a location, does the IFI have a resource to identify locations that are ideally suited for sea angling and the types of species that are predominant in that area? When the witnesses talk about promoting sea angling, is it underpinned by a document, a plan or some effort pointing out areas where anglers would get very good results? That is what would bring foreign anglers back. They might be less inclined to come back if they go to an area and are disappointed by it. Is there a resource that allows for this?
Angling is a significant tourist industry in west County Cork, as is the potential for sea angling. Commercial sea fishing and aquaculture are also significant industries there. A balance needs to be struck and there are sensitivities around each of those areas.
I would also see sustainable aquaculture as one of the only potential job creating vehicles in the area where I live. It is difficult to get IDA Ireland type enterprises to come as far as where I live. Aquaculture has been identified as an area that is required. If it is done sustainably and well, has Dr. Byrne confidence in the aquaculture licensing process within either the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine or the appeals? Is he conscious of the sensitivities between the demands of the angling community, the aquaculture community, the commercial sea fisheries community and, to a lesser extent, the sea angling community? Has he confidence in the institutions that would act as referee in balancing the sensitivities of those competing interests? Has he a conflict with the science the Marine Institute publishes in terms of sea lice, for example? Is Dr. Byrne conscious that if any one of the stakeholders involved in that mix - where I live, it is a volatile and sensitive environment between the competing sectors - overplays his or her hand, it becomes contentious and difficult to deal with?
Dr. Ciaran Byrne:
I thank Deputy Harrington for those interesting questions. I will deal with the sea angling side of it and touch on some of the other issues he mentioned. I might ask Dr. Gallagher to talk about some of the latest research on sea lice and some of the international experience on the aquaculture side of matters.
On sea angling, Deputy Harrington is correct that is it most beneficial to rural economies. There is a lot of it. When we looked at our socio-economic survey, the largest grouping is sea anglers. The person most likely to pick up a fishing rod and go fishing is a sea angler. If we put our hand on our heart and question whether we are doing enough for sea anglers, we have identified that we are probably not doing enough for sea anglers and we need to do more. In terms of our next round of the strategic plan, we will focus more on the sea angling community.
We have a marketing promotion department, including qualified angling guides who have all the various angling qualifications. We produce sea angling guides for a number of locations around the coast, which are freely available as downloads. A person can find out where there are good fishing marks, the kind of tackle and lure one should use, and the types of species one is likely to encounter. If a tourist in west Cork sees the little brown sign which reads "sea angling", we have sea angling guides in many such areas. These guides are not specific to individual locations. For example, it might be a sea angling guide to west Cork or a sea angling guide to the Shannon Estuary. The guides give an understanding of what species are available in the area concerned.
Dr. Ciaran Byrne:
Yes. We have the number one angling information website. When one looks at fishing in Ireland, one comes to our website. We have a comprehensive website. The United Kingdom is our primary market - let us not get away from that. Sea angling in the United Kingdom, according to the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, CEFAS, study in 2012, is worth £831 million. Our next two markets are France and the Netherlands, and we provide the website in Dutch, French and English. It is a multilingual website.
For fishing and angling in Ireland, that is the best angling website going. It gives our information. It gives links to charter boat providers and local guides. Where, for example, an individual in Birmingham is thinking of coming to west Cork to fish, he should be able to get onto our website to get in contact with all involved and get the main information he needs. That informs a visitor to come.
In terms of promoting the area, we would hold a significant number of journalist trips every year. What would happen typically in the case of one of the large sea angling magazines is that a journalist would come over and we would accompany him, sort him out on a sea angling trip and put him in the right locations. These journalists are typically good anglers. They will write the headline piece on how wonderful fishing in west Cork is and point out the enormous cod or whatever they caught. That turns up in an English angling magazine with all the details associated with coming to west Cork. That is a significant way of promoting the location because if we tell anglers on our website how good it is, they may believe us, but it really drives promotion when the angling journalist, who has nothing to gain or lose, states he came here, had a wonderful time, what he caught and how he did it.
As a metric every year in this regard, we look at the number of editorials and articles we get versus what it would have cost us to pay to put those in. We normally work up between €350,000 and €400,000 worth of articles in various angling magazines throughout Europe and America from these journalists' visits. We also ensure placement of articles in various magazines.
We approach it from two ends of the spectrum - providing the information for the individual to come and also promoting and developing the resource. We attend some of the big angling trade shows and bring our information. The big one, at the NEC in Birmingham, was a sea angling show and, while it was going, we attended that.
When we attend the shows, we bring angling experts. When one goes to an angling show, they do not want someone to tell them how beautiful Ireland is, the green fields and so on. They want a guide to tell them exactly what lure to bring and exactly how one does it. Many of our staff are angling experts. They would have fished in the Irish international team. I have a chap up in Donegal, Mr. Michael John Patton, who fished for the Irish sea angling team which won recently. He is the guy. He is the front face of angling when one talks to Inland Fisheries Ireland at an international show.
We are pushing, but we need to do more. There is an area to be looked at - the charter boat area. We need to do more with that. We are working closely with the North West Charter Skippers Association, but there are other groups. We have strong links with the charter skippers in Cobh. Deputy Harrington will be aware of Mr. Murphy running the bass initiative in Cobh Harbour. He is a hotelier ostensibly and he runs a phenomenal fishing operation. There are good skippers on the Clare coast as well with whom we are working. We need to be a little more cohesive, however, and do a bit more in terms of that sector.
Deputy Harrington quite correctly identified three finely balanced competing interests and they are important to a rural community. Angling is only one of them. We have a strong belief that they can all exist in harmony. The Deputy asked whether aquaculture is sustainable. Inland Fisheries Ireland has stated repeatedly in the media that it supports aquaculture. We recognise that aquaculture is an important part of the mix of rural communities, if it is sustainable. What we mean by that is where one sector does not potentially negatively impact on another sector. We all aspire to having that. We all want that and that can be achieved.
In terms of the science of sea lice, I might ask Dr. Gallagher to address two aspects: the large international report done on sea lice by our Norwegian colleagues, which was funded by the Norwegian seafood sector, and the international experience.
Dr. Cathal Gallagher:
I echo Dr. Byrne's comments. From our perspective, it is the sustainable part we are trying to help. We are not against aquaculture. The scientific community I work with works in rural areas. We recognise the difficulties. We spoke about the species. There are a diminished number of species we can use and there are many difficulties in rural areas. Dr. Byrne outlined that there must be a mix. We also have the habitats directive under which salmon are protected. We are the competent authority on wild salmon and sea trout. Our onus is to look at that and see whether it is sustainable.
We have evidence. There is international evidence, from Norway, Scotland and all the other big aquaculture countries of potential damage that can be accrued from aquaculture facilities, whether via escaped fish or parasite transfer, such as sea lice. We have our own scientific analysis and evidence. We are happy to work with anyone, to talk about that or to give advice. If we could be included to give that advice on protection, that is what we are trying to do.
On the science, the two can work together. There are opportunities in Ireland for that to work together. It would be remiss of us not to look at the experience in other countries where the sector has developed to understand what we can learn from there.
Actions are being taken in other countries to help the sustainability of aquaculture development.
With regard to the international perspective, a definitive literature review of more than 300 papers has been done by colleagues in the nature institute in Norway and while they have also concluded there are potential impacts in respect of sea trout and salmon, that does not mean that occurs everywhere or that it occurs all the time. It has been an ongoing issue for a number of years. There have been discussions and two schools of thought have emerged from a scientific perspective. We are happy to discuss this with anyone, to put the evidence we have on the table to support our position and to work with anyone to see if sustainable aquaculture can be developed.
I am not a scientist and I am not directly involved in the industry but I am a public representative who is surrounded by this maelstrom. I have documents from the Marine Institute and I have documents from the IFI which outline different positions. It is difficult for a lay person and a public representative to sail on an even keel through what I understand is required in a rural peripheral area in respect of sustainability. I am not a referee and this is difficult to manage. Is there any way, for example, that the Marine Institute and the IFI could bring the research together? In an inflamed scenario, anyone can cite scripture for his or her own purpose. A published fact sheet can be one person's bible and the Marine Institute's research could be someone else's, but they give me two entirely different views. That is difficult to deal with. With regard to the scientific advice, which feeds into the licensing of aquaculture projects and the protection of angling interests, who calls the shots? It seems we have two referees enunciating different positions and that is difficult to navigate.
Dr. Ciaran Byrne:
I understand where the Deputy is coming from, as he is the meat in the sandwich. The aquaculture debate is not new. It started first in 1989-90 following the sea trout stock collapse, and we have not moved off first base in the debate. We went through the 1990s with a range of task forces and working groups but we have not moved. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, to its credit, has implemented a pest control strategy. Significant improvements have been made at national level, which we acknowledge. We have not moved away, however, from the description we have provided. The IFI, the former Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, and his former Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, had suggested a three person group to assess everything independently of all the science and so on and to make adjudications to chart a way forward once and for all. The IFI board signed up and thought it was a good way forward. We looked for support for this because we recognise the dichotomy that Deputies from coastal areas face with these two sectors. They are not mutually exclusive. People have painted us into box. When one sector is well managed and policed, it does well and this equally applies to the other sector. They can co-exist but we believe some form of grouping such as the three person group recommended by Deputies Rabbitte and O'Dowd would be a good way to negotiate this issue.
We have almost as many referees as stakeholders and it is not working. I do not know whether the IFI has full confidence in the licensing system. Licensing has moved on. I am not a scientist and, again, I do not know whether it is where it should be. I recognise there is great frustration within the industry with licensing and there is visible and audible annoyance among the angling community. Communities that are desperately looking to exploit resources and to survive are in the middle. There is stasis on the issue. Dr. Byrne said the debate began in 1989 and has not moved off first base. The IFI is a stakeholder, as are the industry and the Department. Can someone make the leap?
I represent the Mayo constituency and I will be parochial, as some members have been on other occasions. We have many important inland fisheries in my county, including the River Moy and Lough Mask. Ballina is the salmon capital of Ireland, if not Europe. Fisheries protection was referred to. I understand that in 2010, because of the moratorium on public service recruitment, all the fisheries officers on short-term contracts were let go. Tourist numbers for the Ballina region have increased by 13% over the past year and fishing is a significant reason for that. Public representatives are told anecdotally that because there are fewer protection officers, they would pay for themselves if they were reinstated. The Budget Statement referred to lifting the moratorium. What is the IFI's view on that? It was obvious walking around that region during the summer meeting fishermen from France and elsewhere on the Continent that fishing is a significant attraction. Does the organisation need more people on the ground? Dr. Byrne suggested in his presentation that technology is substituting for people. What is his view on the need for additional fisheries officers?
Members referred to pollution. There is industrial pollution, farming pollution and pollution by local authorities. What are the percentages for each category? Dr. Byrne said there have been 27 fish kills this year. He also referred to prosecutions. Does he have a nationwide breakdown for them in recent years?
Dr. Byrne suggested the termination of drift netting drove illegal fishing into the estuaries. What happened to the people who earned a livelihood from drift netting? I acknowledge compensation was paid. People in Erris, however, dispute the figures in the log book relating to tributaries of the River Moy. I am not a fisheries buff but is there an issue for people in coastal areas who in effect had their livelihoods wiped out?
Dr. Greg Forde:
I will respond as quickly as possible. With regard to the protection officers, the benefits of the technological era have been twofold. One is that we have brought our staff around to a new way of thinking and being cuter about what they do. We did that for two reasons: first, to be more efficient and, second, to cover for the fact that where there used to be a team of five there is now three and in terms of walking or whatever, the same amount of ground simply cannot be covered. Instead of walking one bank of the river, the personnel come down the river in a kayak, which allows them check anglers on both sides of the river. The anglers did not see that coming because they are looking down river trying to catch a fish and the next thing they are being tapped on the shoulder. Not only are we now able to patrol the river with one person, but we are covering both banks.
We have a complement of seasonal staff who come on for our critical period. Thankfully, we have managed to hold on to them throughout this period. We have 34 additional staff who join our ranks for a six month contract each year. They are vital. They are also younger blood. As the members can see, I have more grey hairs than brown ones. There are many members of staff who are older and they are not able to chase poachers as quickly as they could in the past. These young men come along in the summer bubbling with enthusiasm. They lift the morale and the capacity in terms of what we can do, so we are getting a good deal of additional benefit. However, I would benefit from more staff. We welcome the measure in the budget which will allow us to recruit within our budget. We will be examining key problem areas where staff have fallen below a safe level in which to operate.
Regarding pollution, it normally breaks down around 50-50 between industrial-municipal pollution and deliberate and accidental pollution events. We have to be very clear about when we prosecute for pollution. If significant numbers of fish are killed in a fish kill and we have what we believe is a strong case, we take it to court. It may be that a wall failed on a silage effluent or whatever. That is unfortunate but the policy is that we will prosecute where a fish kill has occurred. We take fish kill cases to court where we identify the source of the fish kill.
There would be the deliberate cases also, which are highlighted clearly in a court. Thankfully, the judges are incredibly robust in dealing with matters where they believe someone has deliberately killed fish. Some people think it is very simple to go out and stock the river but in the river is a stock of wild fish. They have grown there throughout their lives. They are genetically unique in the area, and they have adapted to whatever is in the area. One cannot go in and throw fish out of a fish pond on a fish farm. They are totally different, and they will not adapt to the area. They will be available for anglers. They will take them out but nature must be allowed to take its course. In terms of a fish kill that wipes out a river, it might be six or seven years before that river establishes a proper population of fish throughout it. We need to be very aware of that.
On drift netting, a compensatory measure was brought in. The members will appreciate that at the time quite a number of the fishermen were prepared to retire. They were at an appropriate age. Another measure was introduced to allow them go into a different area but there were not enough different areas available for people in a rural area off Porturlin or somewhere like that where there is not much else to do. There was not a lot else made available to them, and I concur with the Chairman that there was not much else for them. There was a gun put to the head of fisheries regarding the protection of salmon and on the idea of indiscriminate drift-net fisheries, Ireland was about to be blown out of the water, so to speak, in Europe. We are now setting the standard and other countries not too far from Ireland are coming under scrutiny from Europe in terms of how they are managing these mixed stocks in the sea. Unfortunately, there was not an option here. Opportunities were given to some people but not everybody was in a position to diversify. In terms of the opportunities in rural areas in Connemara, I am from Connemara and I live in Connemara so I would be aware of some of the people in a similar boat.
In regard to the River Moy, it is the salmon capital. It has a lot of fish. In years like this one when the people upstream have not been catching fish, they believe everything is going on downstream from them, and they blame everybody else for taking too many fish. There was a bit of a reality check in the Moy this year. I do not believe it has performed as well as other years. We have been working on the counters at the cribs in Ballina. We have put a counter into another of the gaps so that we might get a better handle on the number of fish going upstream, but this year was disappointing.
On behalf of the committee I thank Dr. Byrne, Dr. Forde and Dr. Gallagher for coming before the committee today, engaging with us and educating some of us on the challenges and the progress they are making with regard to those challenges. It is very much appreciated.
The joint committee is adjourned until Wednesday, 5 November 2014 when the representatives of the Freight Transport Association will come before us to discuss post codes. Is that agreed? Agreed.