Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 30 June 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Landing Obligation Update and Fishing Fleet Management: Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine
I welcome the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, and his officials to the joint committee and thank them for attending to brief the members on the landing obligation and the mismanagement of fishing fleet capacity.
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 House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I invite the Minister to make an opening statement.
I wish the joint committee a good afternoon and thank the members for the invitation to update them on the progress of the implementation of the landing obligation and to discuss the submission from the fleet sub-segmentation lobby group on abolishing the sub-segmentation of tonnage and kilowatts for the Irish fleet. I will begin by addressing the issue of fleet segmentation.
The management of fishing fleets using vessel capacity in terms of vessel volume, which is measured in gross tonnes, and engine power, which is measured in kilowatts, was introduced in the early 1990s and is a cornerstone of the Common Fisheries Policy.
It was introduced in the early 1990s. Capacity limits, known as fleet ceilings, are set at EU level for all member states. To ensure the fleet ceiling is not exceeded, member states must manage their fleets in such a way that the entry of new capacity into the fleet is balanced by previous withdrawal of at least the same amount of capacity. This is known as the entry-exit regime.
The Irish fishing fleet has been divided into segments since the early 1990s. The fleet is divided into five segments, in accordance with Ministerial Policy Directive 2 of 2003, as amended. The five segments are refrigerated seawater, RSW, pelagic vessels, polyvalent, beam trawler, specific and aquaculture. The specific segment is divided into two sub-segments, namely, scallop and general sub-segment. The polyvalent segment is divided into four sub-segments, namely, potting, scallop, vessel under 18 m in length overall and vessels greater than or equal to 18 m in length overall. The transfer of capacity between segments and sub-segments is not permitted. For vessels to qualify for mackerel and-or herring authorisation, all of the capacity used to license the vessel must have the required track record as stipulated under the individual mackerel and herring fleet policies.
It is important to note fishing capacity is privately owned and is traded independently of the Department and the licensing authority for sea fishing boats. The current fleet policy has been put in place over many years. The request for a change in licensing policy involving the removal or amalgamation of segments or sub-segments would have a substantial impact on the Irish fishing fleet. Potentially, such changes could have impacts on access to fishing resources and the management of quotas. There are many diverse views in the fishing industry and these often conflict. It is important, therefore, that views such as those proposed are debated widely in the industry. The objective is to achieve the maximum possible level of agreement and support in the industry for any proposed changes sought.
The Fisheries (Amendment) Act 2003 transferred the function of sea fishing boat licensing to the licensing authority for sea fishing boats and provides the licensing authority is independent from the Minister in the exercise of its functions. As Minister, I have responsibility for policy on sea fishing boat licensing and may use policy directives in this regard. However, under the 2003 Act I am precluded from getting involved in individual cases or a group of cases with which the licensing authority is or may be concerned. For this reason, it is preferable that proposals for changes to licensing policy are made through the recognised representative structure of producer organisations. In this way, a business case for change to the licensing policy would be fully examined, including positive and negative consequences for operators with divergent fishing activities and covering large and small operations. I encourage the group of vessel owners in this instance to engage with the producer organisations so any proposed changes can be brought forward with a full understanding of the views throughout the industry.
Given the potential impact of changes to licensing policy, any amendments I might consider bringing forward would be subject to a public consultation with stakeholders. We are happy to look at changes but we want to ensure we have a full reflection of the industry perspective, as opposed to one group of stakeholders coming forward with a specific proposal about which many others may have concerns or comments or may decide to support. Any change we make in what is a very sensitive area, because whenever one segment gains another segment tends to lose, needs to go through a process, and preferably needs to come through the producer organisations which are the official representative bodies of fishermen and boats. We can answer any questions members may have on this.
With regard to the landing obligation, or the discard ban as many people call it, the recent regional agreement brokered by Ireland on extending the landing obligation to a number of important whitefish stocks brings us another step closer to eliminating the wasteful and unsustainable practice of discarding.
Everyone is against that, first and foremost, fishermen.
The reform introduced a practical and phased discards policy. The first part of the landing obligation, the ban on discarding pelagic stocks, such as herring and mackerel, came into effect from 1 January 2015. The landing obligation will be extended to certain demersal stocks - whitefish and prawns - from 1 January 2016 and will be fully phased in by 1 January 2019. The phasing in period will allow fishermen time to adjust and implement changes that will allow for the avoidance of unwanted catches.
A major element of the new CFP is the introduction of regionalisation. This gives member states in a region, working together, greater power to make decisions on the management of their own fish stocks and moves away from the former one-size-fits-all approach, which was dictated by the Commission. It also underscores the importance of meaningful input from stakeholders, requiring that member states consult with the relevant advisory councils, comprising stakeholders from industry and environmental NGOs. Ireland is a member of the North Western Waters Group along with Belgium, France, the Netherlands, the UK and Spain. The preparation of the discards ban for whitefish species was carried out during the period of Ireland’s chairmanship of the group and I thank my colleagues on both sides of me for doing a good job in getting an agreement across the line. The member states worked closely with the North Western Waters Advisory Council, which involves representatives of the fishing industry and other stakeholders. The council representatives attended and inputted into the meetings of the North Western Waters Group. The entire process was demanding, given the high bar of having to come to a unanimous agreement among six member states. An agreement was finally reached in May on a discard plan for whitefish stocks to take effect from 1 January 2016. The ban on discarding will apply to the prawn fisheries in all waters, the whiting fishery in the Celtic Sea, which is a complex, mixed fishery, the haddock fishery in the Irish Sea and in the north west area, the hake fishery in all areas and the sole fishery in the Celtic Sea from 1 January 2016.
The vessels, which will be subject to the landing obligation in 2016, will be identified on the basis of a combination of gear type and historic landing data. For example, a vessel that had landings in 2013 and 2014 of more than 25% cod, haddock, whiting and saithe combined in its landings in the Celtic Sea will be obliged to land all whiting in 2016. The other species will be phased in over the following three years. Another important element is the inclusion of what are known as deminimis exemptions. What this means is that, in the example I just gave, a vessel obliged to land whiting in the Celtic Sea will still be allowed to discard a small percentage. These deminimis exemptions are only allowed where it is difficult in the short term to dramatically improve selectivity without having an unduly onerous economic effect on the boat concerned.
With regard to setting TACs and quotas for 2016 in December, which is the positive news apart from rebuilding stocks, I will seek a quota uplift for the stocks subject to the landing obligation. This is needed to take account of the situation whereby, in 2016, discarding of these stocks will not be permitted. In other words, we are moving away from a quota allocated on the basis of a landed quota. If somebody had five tonnes of quota and caught seven tonnes of the species, he can only land five tonnes. Historically, he would always have been required to discard the other two tonnes at sea. There was nothing illegal about this because that is the way the policy worked. From now on, fishermen will be given a catch quota, not a landed quota. They will be required to land everything they catch within the flexibility of the rules that apply in respect of deminimis and so on. That should mean that taking existing records relating to discards within specific fisheries into account, there should be an uplift when moving from a landed quota to a catch quota. The Irish industry has been kept fully informed throughout this process through the discards implementation group, chaired by Dr. Noel Cawley.
I established this group to allow the Irish fishing industry to be fully prepared for and engaged in the implementation of the discards ban, which is going to be challenging but which, I believe, is doable. Agreement on the discards plan for 2016 provides the discards implementation group with a clear blueprint to help prepare the industry for the forthcoming changes. I am providing funding support for the fishing industry through the new EU fisheries operational programme, which I am currently progressing, for effective delivery of the new measures. I have made €450,000 available to BIM and the Marine Institute in order that they might undertake a project exploring the potential impact of the landing obligation on commercial fishing activity during the summer months. This project will follow up on the discards simulation trials conducted last autumn.
I firmly believe that the biggest challenge will be to develop and implement improvements in selectivity and to develop other means to enable fishermen to avoid juvenile fish or unwanted catches. The national discards implementation group is prioritising this work, as indeed are the producer organisations. Our fishermen, working with BIM and the Marine Institute, are best placed to find better ways of fishing. I will strongly support this work through the new fisheries operational programme and I am confident that we are moving forward into an era in which healthy fish stocks, fished sustainably, will be the norm. The latter will give assurances of economic stability and profitability to our fishing industry and dependent coastal communities.
In the event that anyone is in any doubt as to the extent of the discards problem, it is important that I place some facts on the record in order to highlight the challenge we are facing and to explain why we are making the changes I have outlined. Among the annual catch of 6,556 tonnes of Celtic Sea haddock, we are currently discarding 2,227 tonnes. This represents a discard rate of 49%. Of the average annual catch of 6,633 tonnes of Celtic Sea whiting, we are currently discarding 1,669 tonnes, or 25%. The discard rate for Celtic Sea plaice is 57%. In the context of Irish Sea haddock, it is 37%, for Irish Sea whiting, it is 81%, and for Irish Sea plaice it is 66%. The discard rate for nephrops is 29%. What we want to do is ensure that the fish we catch and kill are fish that will actually be sold, that fishermen will obtain a commercial return and that stocks will not be damaged as a result of fish being caught and killed at sea and then discarded, or thrown back into the water, because the fishermen involved do not have quotas to land them on the shore. This is the biggest challenge in the context of the Common Fisheries Policy. We are moving towards the use of maximum sustainable yield, MSY, which is a more scientific calculation for maximising fish catches commercially while simultaneously protecting fish stocks. We have obtained agreement in terms of regional decision making, which is extremely important, but the big change for both the public and the fishing industry as regards the changes in approach, gear, selectivity, targeting, etc., will be that which relates to the obligation to land. We will invest a great deal of money, time, resources, effort and support into assisting the industry in this regard.
What I have outlined means that in five, ten or 15 years we will still have a very strong and growing fishing industry, because we will have healthier stocks and quotas that will hopefully be growing as a result. I am not pretending that introducing an obligation to land or banning discards will not be challenging. It will be, but we can do it in a way that makes commercial sense for fishermen as well as making environmental sense in the context of the sustainability of fish stocks. That is the big challenge to be faced and the big ambition behind the new Common Fisheries Policy. In broad terms, what is being done has been broadly welcomed by NGOs and also within the industry.
I understand that the Minister will be obliged to leave the meeting at 3.45 p.m. sharp, which means we will have one hour for our deliberations. There are two items on the agenda, namely, sub-segmentation and discards or landing of-----
I would be quite happy to facilitate the Deputy in that regard. However, members will have to limit themselves to three minutes each when asking questions.
How many are indicating? I presume there are five, which will mean 25 minutes.
Very well. It will be five minutes each and I will be obliged to hold members to that. We will then get back to the Minister, after which we will go back around for the discards. We will take the sub-segmentation item first and I call on Deputy Ó Cuív.
I thank the Minister for appearing before the joint committee and giving members the exposition on sub-segmentation from his perspective. The first point everyone must accept is because a thing is as it is or because there is an historic arrangement in place does not mean that it represents best policy either now or into the future. I understand the nub of the issue here really relates to the pelagic and polyvalent sectors. The nub issue is that in the whitefish sector, there is tonnage and kilowatts available but that in the polyvalent sector, there is not. As the Minister appreciates fully, the world does not stand still and members raised an issue with him last year in respect of timber boats that required replacement with steel boats. At the time, members suggested this be done with safety tonnage but that has now been eliminated. Consequently, in the case of someone who is obliged to replace a boat with a slightly bigger boat or to replace a timber boat with a steel boat - even if the latter is not significantly bigger and of course the same quota will be allocated to it - or where modifications must be carried out to a boat on the recommendation of the marine safety office that increase its capacity, it is practically impossible to purchase polyvalent tonnage and kilowatts. Although whitefish tonnage and kilowatts are available, because of the sub-segmentation policy, a person who tries to purchase that particular tonnage and kilowatts, even if it is a very small fraction of the total tonnage and kilowatts on one's boat, in other words, one is only topping it up to comply with the requirements of the size of a boat and the engine power, effectively is locked out of the market. I understand, for example, that in some cases in which fishermen have been obliged to replace boats, they have wound up in a situation whereby if they inform the Department they intend to buy even a small amount of whitefish, they are being told they cannot fish either all or part of their polyvalent pelagic entitlements. In other words, they are put out of business. Consequently, this becomes a catch-22 situation and as the Minister is aware, many fishermen have signed the documentation sent to him outlining their concerns on this matter.
I understand that to every change, there will be people for whom it will not suit but ultimately, as Minister, Deputy Coveney must decide objectively, irrespective of what any group is saying, what is the best and fairest thing for all. I will give the example of a boat up in County Donegal. It is an 11.89 m timber vessel and its owner wishes to replace it with an 11.9 m fibreglass vessel but is short three tonnes of the requisite polyvalent pelagic tonnage, as well as being short 25 kW of the requisite associated kilowatts. He has been offered a licence but basically he is being told he can have the licence but he will be denied his polyvalent pelagic entitlements and the gill-netting entitlements, which effectively would put that fisherman out of business. The Minister is aware of the situation regarding the sinking of the Iúda Naofaoff the coast of Scotland and, thankfully, there were no casualties in that event.
Efforts had been made for a long time to replace the Iúda Naofa, a timber boat, with a steel frame boat of more or less the same external dimensions. However, the conditions applied in terms of whitefish tonnage and kilowatts were such that the fishermen in question were put out of business. I have cited only two examples.
I believe the Minister recognises that this issue presents a challenge. In 2011, modification of a polyvalent pelagic vessel and the use of whitefish tonnage was permitted in one case on safety grounds. If that was possible then, surely it would not be a major step to make this option available to all fishermen. I hope the Minister will indicate a willingness to examine the proposal put to him as a matter of urgency and on its own merits. Having listened to the case made for the proposal, I believe it has merit on the basis that polyvalent fishermen are being locked out of the market and precluded from improving their position.
I understand sub-segmentation is not taking place in most other European countries. If the Minister believes the case put to him has merit, I ask him to immediately commence a public consultation in order that we can advance this issue and ensure the producer organisations and all other individuals and groups are able to make a submission. Ultimately, the Minister's decision must be based on achieving objective good and fairness for the fishing industry, rather than any view expressed by powerful vested interests. One of the worries we must have is that a small number of dominant players - the fishing sector has a number of extremely large owners - will exercise inordinate control over the industry. The Minister is under an obligation to make his decision based on the common good.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I thank the Minister and his officials for appearing before the joint committee. Based on the information provided by the fleet sub-segmentation lobby group, I get a sense that the Minister has not set out his position on this matter in any great detail. The group made a highly compelling case and I concur with all of the points made by Deputy Ó Cuív in this regard. The pelagic polyvalent fishing sector appears to be on its knees. It strikes me that the issue is more closely related to health and safety than the viability of this segment of the fishing industry. I understand that many of the vessels in question are not covered by the producer organisations through which the Minister suggests they should make representations. A large section of the fleet is not represented by these organisations.
On the specific recommendations, the fleet sub-segmentation lobby group has indicated that in the event that the Minister does not adopt the policy changes it proposes, the Irish fleet would continue to fall behind other fleets in the European Union, the market value of Irish catch would continue to decline owing to fleet inadequacies, Ireland would lose its competitive position on the export market and the whitefish sector would continue to decline and eventually become unviable. It calls for the introduction of a decommissioning scheme to help the whitefish sector, which would cost the Government and the European Union. I trust the Minister and his officials are party to the issues raised by the group. Where does the Minister stand on the specific points the group has raised and the requests it has made? While I understand the Minister's point that a change in policy would require consultation with all relevant stakeholders, will he indicate whether he agrees or disagrees with the specific recommendations made by the group?
It strikes me that the system employed here is very rigid and cumbersome and more complicated than similar systems in other EU states. It may well have worked for Ireland up to now, but it is surely time to review the policy with a view to maintaining the livelihood of the fishermen in the polyvalent sector.
I thank the Minister and his officials for engaging with us on this issue. The current fleet sub-segmentation policy is a ministerial policy and, as such, I assume the Minister can decide to review it on the basis of evidence he has heard and based on the comprehensive business case that was submitted by the vessel owners who are seeking a policy shift. He can initiate a policy review if he so decides; it does not require a senior official to ask him to do so. Will the Minister clarify whether he will give active consideration to such a review?
I understand the sub-segmentation issue is unique to Ireland among EU fleets. Moreover, the problem in this regard is specific to one particular sub-segment, namely, the polyvalent pelagic sector. My understanding is there is plenty of available tonnage in the refrigerated seawater, RSW, pelagic sector and surplus tonnage in the whitefish sector. However, because of the way the policy works, operators in the polyvalent pelagic sector are not able to access that tonnage, which is all being used up by existing operators.
A number of fishermen find themselves in situations which are rightly classed as emergency cases, some of which were outlined by Deputy Ó Cuív. Another such case of which I am aware involves a vessel owner who is required by the Marine Survey Office, in accordance with a seaworthiness survey, to have a bulbous bow fitted on his craft. In order to do so, however, he must purchase additional tonnage, which he cannot do because the only tonnage available is whitefish tonnage. There is a risk, therefore, that he may not be able to get a licence to go back to sea. Reference was made to another vessel owner who was granted the required tonnage and offered a licence but would, as a consequence, have to be taken out of the sector in which he is fishing. The case to which I referred is a very pressing one and there are people in a similar situation across the fishing industry. Even if the Minister does decide to initiate a review, those cases should be dealt with in the meantime, on a one-off basis, to allow people to continue to sustain themselves within the industry.
I do not see why the sub-segmentation system should be so rigid. The policy was introduced in 2003, but sub-segmentation has been going on, as the Minister indicated, since the early 1990s. Surely no policy should be cast in stone but instead should be subject to periodic review to ensure it continues to meet the requirements that were placed on it at the time it was introduced? I urge the Minister to address this particular issue. As other speakers pointed out, there is precedent here by way of the vessel owner who purchased whitefish tonnage in 2011 and was licensed subsequently to continue in the polyvalent pelagic sector. Dealing with cases like that, at the same time a review is ongoing and a new policy is being drafted, would go a long way to satisfying the concerns of those operators who find themselves in a very difficult situation because of the current provisions.
I thank the Minister for his presentation. My question might be somewhat outside the scope of today's discussion. It relates to a person who operates a craft for leisure and tourism purposes and does not have any quota. This person would like to sell the fish caught by his vessel, which are mainly mackerel. Is there any means by which a quota might be granted to people who are fishing for tourism or leisure and wish to dispose of their catch?
I thank the Minister for his presentation to the committee. My question relates to the producer organisations.
The Minister indicated in his presentation that he wants to engage with the producer organisations. He also said that he would consider any change in policy following public consultation with stakeholders. I take it he is not ruling out accepting submissions from or engaging with small vessel owners that are not tied to the larger producer organisations.
There is a strong case to be made around the safety aspect of sub-segmentation as against segmentation. A number of weeks ago we heard a presentation on this issue in Buswell's Hotel during which concern was expressed by those giving the presentation about the safety aspect of this. It was on this basis that they put forward the argument regarding the need for extra capacity from another sector - in other words, the need for people who have been involved in fishing all their lives and want to get out of it being able to trade the capacity in their vessels. I would be very supportive of that proposal, particularly in the context of safety. Deputy Ó Cuív referred earlier to the incident in Scotland, which the people concerned were very lucky to survive. I would welcome the Minister's response on those issues.
A number of speakers raised the issue of the 2011 case. Let me be clear that it was on the basis of a High Court order, following a court case. Legally, we were required to act and we did. That was not a voluntary intervention by the Minister for an individual case. There was a High Court judgment, a court order, which was clear and we simply implemented it.
I am trying to recall the exact wording. The court order was that there was a requirement on the State to put the person back into the position he was in back in 2007. The only way we could do that was the way in which we did it. I would caution against using that as a precedent. There were specific circumstances involved, in respect of which we can provide members with the details, if they so wish. That was not, as is being suggested by some, the Minister interfering and doing a particular job in respect of a particular vessel. I have a clear record of not dealing with licensing issues in respect of individual vessels because I am not allowed to do so, legally. That was put in place by a previous Government for good reason and because of the pressures that Ministers were coming under previously to do individual deals in respect of individual vessels. We need to be careful of that. I am not saying I do not have an open mind to suggestions because I do, as it happens. However, I cannot do individual deals in respect of individual vessels; otherwise, I will spend all of my time doing so. Also, I would need to change the legislation before I could do it.
Essentially, what we are talking about here is 18 boats. What we are being asked is that we would allow people to essentially use whitefish tonnage in kilowatts in order to have bigger boats that are targeting pelagic fish. Essentially, we are using whitefish capacity to increase the capacity per catch in the pelagic sector, accepting, of course, that the quota does not change. We need to be careful before we do that. It is not true to say that somebody cannot replace a wooden boat with a steel boat. They can if it is the same size. However, they cannot build a bigger boat without getting extra capacity.
It has been suggested that the pelagic and polyvalent sectors are on their knees but they are not. Some boats are finding the going tough but some are making a very good living now. The people who are looking to expand and buy or build bigger boats are in this category, by and large. It certainly does not suggest a category on its knees if people are looking to build bigger boats. Let us have an honest conversation. I want to try to help the industry to make more money and have as many viable fishing boats as we can in the Irish fleet. I want to get them as much fish to catch as we can. I also have to balance the fact that we essentially have a whitefish and pelagic fishery, which are quite different, and the way we manage them is quite different.
We had a mackerel review in 2010 that was quite significant. We had a herring review in 2011 and 2012. It is not as if we have not had recent reviews in terms of the split and segmentation within different categories. There was a change in terms of the percentage of mackerel that the refrigerated sea water fleet was catching versus the polyvalent sector. In the future, we will probably have to review that again. I would like to see proposals from the fishing industry as a whole so we can get a sense of what the fishing industry is looking for and I can make proposals on the back of that. I understand what they are saying but there are consequences for many other people in making those changes. If bigger boats in the polyvalent sector catching mackerel and herring are facilitated, we would be increasing the capacity for catch without increasing the quota available. We must ask questions as to the likely outcome of somebody having the capacity to catch much more fish but not the quota to do it.
I have multiple roles. The record of this Government with respect to safety, particularly the money and resources put into it and the changes made, has been fairly strong. I am glad to say we have had some positive results. Although there have been some tragedies in the past two years, there has been a big improvement on previous years. I take safety very seriously. I have personal and professional experience of the consequences of not giving safety at sea full attention. I will happily debate with anybody who wishes to question my bona fides around safety. This issue should not be sold as simply a safety matter, as it is more than that. If people are to build a bigger boat with the capacity to catch much more fish but people are not allowed to catch more fish, concerns will be raised about the temptation to catch more fish without having the quota to do so. Essentially, capacity would be taken from the whitefish sector and given to the pelagics without the corresponding change in quota. Maybe that is the right way to go but I would certainly like to have the views of others in the industry outside of those 18 boats before going ahead to make a proposal. That is not an unreasonable approach.
If this is a slam dunk and the obvious action to take, why are no producer organisations asking for it? Some of the members know them very well because of where they come from. No major producer organisation is asking for this at the moment because they cannot get agreement on it. The Killybegs Fisheries Organisation would certainly get no agreement and the Irish South and West Producers Organisation does not have agreement on it. My understanding is the organisation in the south and east does not have agreement either. Let us not paint this as something obvious to be done. Instead, we can consider it, and I am happy to do so.
If, after there has been a discussion with all stakeholders in the industry, a majority of people say this is the right thing to do, then we will do it. I do not accept the suggestion we are hearing here today that we should get on with this because it is an obvious thing to do for safety reasons. I do not think it is as simple as that. Most people who understand the fishing industry will accept that too. I have read the letter. I have it in front of me here. The key paragraph proposes that permission be granted to use whitefish tonnage, of which there is currently surplus available, on polyvalent pelagic vessels. Pelagic fishermen would then be enabled to purchase whitefish tonnage and kilowatts in order to effect the necessary modernisation of their pelagic catch. All I am saying is that while this makes sense on the face of it for some boats, I cannot in all conscience ignore the knock-on consequences it would have for the industry in terms of the sustainability of catch, the availability of quota and all the rest of it.
As I have said, if even one producer organisation came out in support of this proposal along with the group that is here, we could start to build a consensus about what we should be doing. It is wrong to paint this as the mainstream view of fishermen on the basis that some people are asking for it. Some people want it for very good commercial and other reasons. They might want to upgrade their boats or increase their capacity, safety and comfort, etc. They are perfectly entitled to aspire to all of those things. I need to make sure we make a decision that in the round is right for fish stocks and for the fishing industry as a whole. That is all I am saying. I am not ruling it out but I am not saying that, as Minister, I should pursue the proposal we have here as policy at this stage.
I would like to raise three issues. On the court case, I would appreciate it if the Minister could outline for us in writing the circumstances of the decision made by the Department in this instance. What did the court say? I understand that if the court told the Minister to do something, he had to do it. If the regulations as they were written at the time did not allow him to do so, he would have had to amend the regulations to make it happen. In other words, if the court tells the Minister to do something, that does not give him dispensation from law in doing it. He is obliged to change the law so that he can do what he is required to do legally. I ask the Minister to give us a comprehensive explanation of how this was done. If it was possible to do it without a change in the regulation in one case, it should be possible to do it in similar cases. I am curious about it. I am not asking for a detailed explanation today, but I would appreciate it if such an explanation could be forwarded to us and this particular issue could be addressed in it.
The second issue I would like to raise relates to wooden boats, which were mentioned by the Minister. Does he agree it is time to take larger wooden boats out of the system for safety reasons? Does he accept that if a wooden boat is replaced by a steel boat with the same external dimensions, extra tonnage and kilowatts will be needed? As steel is much thinner than timber, its internal dimensions will be larger. My understanding is that the measurement goes by the inside. Basically, I understand that if a steel boat and a wooden boat are the same size, the steel boat requires more tonnage.
The third issue I wish to mention is that in many of these cases, the extra tonnage that is being added is not significant. It is actually quite minuscule. The least the Minister can do is deal with the three issues we have mentioned, namely, the replacement of tonnage, the purchase of boats that are more or less the same size but might be slightly larger and the question of the changes demanded by the Marine Survey Office to comply with safety requirements - in the old days, this would have been seen as safety tonnage - making the technical size of the boat bigger. We need to be clear about the case that is being made.
I also do not follow the argument about the Minister creating the capacity. The total capacity of the fishing fleet will stay the same, because the amount of tonnage and kilowatts in the fishing fleet in its totality will stay the same.
That means there is less capacity in whitefish and more capacity in pelagic but presumably there are quotas for both pelagic and whitefish and that the quotas are there because the capacity of the fishing fleet, and most boats' capacity to catch fish, far exceeds the quota they have. The reason for quotas is that the capacity to fish far exceeds the allowed quota, so I do not consider that to be a valid argument.
To move this forward, a proposal has been made. When one looks at the MSO requirements, replacing timber boats with steel boats and so forth, there is a very valid case. It is only a small segment but that is because most people moved to steel boats in the past. Is the Minister willing to move this process forward by some means, and not wait for some PO to come forward with a proposal? I do not believe he will get agreement among the producer organisations, POs. I believe they are wishing for the Minister to take the initiative here, to be brave and say he will start the process. Would the Minister consider writing to each PO to say that he has received this document, that he is anxious to find out from them what their response would be to the document submitted and whether they would, with or without conditions, support or object to the proposal involved, which basically is bringing tonnage and kilowatts from the whitefish fleet into the polyvalent segment?
As I said, this might be very limited; it might be 10% or 20% of a polyvalent boat. It is not about bringing it in wholesale as it could be limited. I believe there is an onus on the Minister to start a process that brings this issue forward and forces the POs to say "Yes", "No" or "Yes, with amendments", to this, so at least they do not have a knock-out blow on this process before it starts.
With regard to the High Court order in the 2011 case, and Deputy Ó Cuív mentioned this, in order to satisfy that order the Minister had to break his policy, which he is precluded from doing under law.
Perhaps I could clarify that case before members comment on it. It might be helpful. To be clear, in the light of the High Court opinion, the exceptional circumstances of the case and on receipt of legal advice, the Minister was agreeable to put the individual concerned back into his 2007 position in order to give his boat the mackerel and herring track record that would currently be associated with the vessel had it been licensed in 2007. We did that on legal advice, which was sound. I am sure I have answered a parliamentary question on this issue as well.
One of the reasons I was really slow to act, even in this case and even on a court order, was because of what we are experiencing here today, which is people using it as precedent. I was warned in the Department, and correctly, that anything we do for an individual boat will be used as precedent, because this is an industry that talks. Of course it does. We only acted in this case because of a High Court opinion that required a person and his vessel to be put in a position as if they had got their licence back in 2007. They did not, but the court determined that they should have. That was the position.
I must also say that I am legally precluded from talking about individual cases and court cases. I am not even mentioning people's names here. We can get distracted by this particular case, but this only happened because of a High Court opinion. This is not precedent.
All I can clarify is that we got legal advice at the time and were able to do what we did in a manner consistent with the High Court opinion.
It is described here as a High Court opinion. I can supply the parliamentary question on it to the committee, so it has the detail of that High Court-----
We can get into a legal discussion here. Our understanding is that the High Court opinion was that this person should have been put into the position in which they would have been if they had been licensed in 2007.
It was the only way the Department could deal with it which is fair enough.
As the Minister stated, 18 vessels have requested this review of the subsegmentation. As I understand it, there are 31 or 33 vessels in the polyvalent pelagic sector, which means a majority of vessels in the sector affected is requesting this. That surely should carry some weight within the decision-making process. I understand the Department's concerns that if a vessel is allowed to increase its stability at sea and its ability to go to sea in certain weather conditions, the next step would be that it would look for additional quota. On that basis, one would never do anything and the Department would never allow anything to happen. Fishermen will look for additional quota. I do not see it as a valid reason not to do something. If somebody puts a bulbous bow on their vessel, for example, that will not all of a sudden create the capacity to catch an extra 200 tonnes of mackerel a year.
I know of situations where boats were unable to go to sea because of weather conditions and were not able to catch their mackerel quota until very late in the season. In order to make their quota, they had to steam for 17 or 18 hours from their home port. Surely that is not a good situation for those boats. It could lead to them going to sea in weather for which the vessels are not fit. We have seen tragic cases like that in the past, unfortunately, when fishermen have gone to sea in bad weather because of the need to catch quota. We should be able to find a mechanism that allows fishermen to improve the standard and accommodation of their vessels without increasing their quota demand.
From the Minister's responses, he seems to place an awful lot of faith in negotiating with the producer organisations, POs. What is essential here is that whatever submissions are made or whatever talks go on, they must be all-inclusive. The Minister should enter negotiations with an open mind and should try to find an outcome that will have the safety aspects at its centre.
There are quite a number of vessels at sea that, in modern terms, are not seaworthy. I see people going out every week. If they lack in the tonnage or kilowatts necessary, it can be the difference between life and death. It is not about extra quota; I have been assured of that in our deliberations. It is about safety and having the ability to go to sea knowing that the vessel is safe and the lives of the crew are not being jeopardised.
This carries some weight with me. The suggestion that we are just ignoring this is incorrect.
There is also an onus on the people who are putting forward this proposal to get some consensus in the industry. This is a proposal from 18 boat owners. Let me pose one or two questions that have not been asked, which I am surprised about. If we make more capacity available for the pelagic fleet, are we going to confine that capacity to people who are currently in the pelagic polyvalent fleet? If we essentially say that capacity in the whitefish fleet will now be used to allow those in the polyvalent pelagic fleet to build big bigger boats and increase their capacity, what about someone from the whitefish fleet who wants to get into catching mackerel but cannot do so? Do we exclude those people?
I raise that question in the context of making more capacity available. For example, should the RSW fleet be allowed to increase its capacity?
There are multiple issues that are consequential on this decision. I am not saying we cannot deal with these; I am just saying there is a sole focus today on the points that have been made by 18 boat owners who came in and made a presentation to the committee primarily to do with safety. There is nothing stopping somebody from replacing a wooden boat with a steel boat of roughly similar dimensions.
On that technical point, with regard to the nature of a wooden versus a steel vessel, the inner shell of the latter would be slightly bigger. Is there any provision whereby a boat can be built to the same exterior dimensions but-----
If one is replacing an old wooden vessel with a modern steel hull, the hull shape will have moved on. The boat will be a different shape for a start, and the same capacity can be obtained with a narrower hull. Primarily, what people would like here - I can understand why they are looking for it - is to build bigger boats that have the capacity to catch more fish but that are also safer and more comfortable.
The point that was raised with us over and over by the people who made the presentation, whose boat had gone down, was that this was primarily a safety issue. The Minister keeps going back to an implication that there is some sleight of hand with regard to those 18 boats, as if those people are using this as a means of getting more quota in the long run.
I have shown the Senator some latitude. On the point as to whether it is a safety and modernisation request, using the example of the replacement of a timber boat by a steel vessel with greater interior capacity, surely there is a way of adapting the boat to restrict it to the same capacity inside while making it safer. Surely skins or liners could be put inside it to deal with that issue. It seems to me - and I know nothing about fishing-----
-----but, ultimately, people want to build bigger boats. That is what the Chairman is saying. People want to build bigger boats because they are saying they are safer, and they probably are safer, but on that basis we would be allowing the whitefish capacity to be bought up and used to build bigger boats for the pelagic segment. We do not have more quota in the pelagic segment, so we would be doing it purely for safety reasons. If it were that straightforward, do the members not think we would have at least one principal officer here today supporting it? Anyone who understands the industry here knows that it is not that straightforward.
I will happily look at this, and we will go through a consultation process if the group of people who are looking for this change can at least convince some of the producer organisations, who are there to represent the industry and its interests, that this is worth serious consideration, and if we can get some traction from other stakeholders in the industry. That is not an unreasonable request for people who are looking to progress the idea.
Can the Minister come back to us to clarify whether in relation to the court case boat it was permitted to use whitefish tonnage and kilowatts on a polyvalent boat? Maybe he can come back and clarify that for once and for all.
My second point is that there is an unnecessarily high bar allowing, no doubt, that POs are hoping they will not have to come down on one side or the other. Probably, they are conflicted internally. For the Minister to say he will move forward if a PO is brought in to make the case, the upshot is that he will wind up with a new PO being founded to get around an unnecessary condition. I suggest a way to move this process forward, which it should be. The Minister now has the submission from the group and the debate here today. He should either have a consultation with the POs and ask for their response to the submission or come back to the joint committee to outline to us the issues he considers might arise if he were to go along with the proposal made. The imposition of a condition that the Minister will not look at this unless a PO asks him to is unnecessary and might be counterproductive. It is creating an unnecessarily high bar to moving forward with what is in issue.
Let us take the simplest case of all: that of the boat ordered by the Marine Survey Office to make a modification that increases the tonnage. It cannot be bought in the polyvalent sector. What is the boat owner meant to do?
If Deputy Ó Cuív is saying the reason no PO is supporting this is that they are all internally conflicted, that is the point I am making. There is more than one view here. The Deputy is only representing one view, which I find extraordinary. On the actual views within POs across the country which have concerns in relation to this and which will have some members that support it, no one seems to be willing to discuss others that may have concerns. It is as if I am being told "This is obvious thing to do, why do you not just get on with it?". Clearly, that is not the case. If it were, we would have at least one of the three POs supporting it. While I am saying we will look at this, there is also an onus on the group of boats looking to have it considered to create a bit more consensus within the industry that this is something worth looking at. That is all I am saying. It is not a pre-condition or anything like it. It is just to say that if they have a proposal that makes sense, let us get a bit more consensus on it. Otherwise, I am forcing the issue on all of the POs that are there to represent their members in consultation with me. I would be forcing the issue whereas this is a proposal that is coming from the industry. There is at least some onus on the industry not simply to lobby and put pressure on me but to get some consensus on the issues that should be considered in the sector that really matters here; the fishing sector. By all means, we will then look at that and get people's feedback. It is not too big an ask.
I apologise to Senator Comiskey for failing to respond to him earlier. If somebody has a leisure craft and is looking to get into commercial fishing, he or she will have to get some quota. He or she will need to take that step from being a leisure craft to a commercial fishing craft.
Obviously to do that involves buying into the system. We can give the Senator the details on how somebody can make that transition.
There is an opportunity to create artisan products from a pelagic fishery, such as lime mackerel, which the craft he is concerned about may find relevant.
The Marine Survey Office may have issues in regard to safety but that is ultimately the responsibility of boat owners. One cannot have a situation where somebody comes to me and asks for more capacity because the Marine Survey Office, MSO, says he or she needs to make changes. On that basis other people would be giving up capacity to facilitate changes for safety reasons. That is an issue between a boat owner and the MSO.
I do not want to come across as totally inflexible because that does not reflect my views on the issue. I am not closed but having spoken to many in the industry since the campaign for this change started, I have had mixed feedback as some people are very much opposed to it but others think we should look at it. I do not think it is too much to ask the boat owners concerned to work on getting more consensus among the existing producer organisations, POs and representative bodies in fishing. If we can get a consensus we will look to progress it.
I wish to tease out the following couple of points with the Minister. I note that the producer organisations, POs, are not in favour of the proposals that have been agreed at the North Western Waters Regional Advisory Council. Why were the reference years 2013-2014 decided on in regard to how the discarding would operate in the future? I know the POs had a proposal that they would be given advance notice of the areas in which they could fish in and they felt that would be a more manageable and workable solution in regard to discards and meeting the landing requirement.
Around the time the Common Fisheries Policy was being discussed, and as discussed by the committee, there was a great deal of talk around technical measures to ensure that juvenile fish could escape. With the emphasis on technical measures, it seemed to me that time and space would be given to allow the technical measures to develop along parallel lines before the roll out of the landing requirement would be put in place. That does not seem to have happened.
The Minister referred to the 7% or 8% de minimis rules, depending on the area and the species one is catching. As he outlined, according to his figures, some 81% of whiting that is caught in the Irish Sea is discarded and the landing obligation will be implemented from next year onwards. Even with the de minimis rules, that will lead to significant additional landings of whiting. I note that the POs have not faced the fact that additional quota will be required. It was said that it would be a minimum requirement under the negotiations of the Common Fisheries Policy that boats would get additional quota to compensate for the fact that they had to land everything they caught.
The Minister has made available €450,000 to Bord Iascaigh Mhara and the Marine Institute to carry out a study on the potential impact and will it be ready before the Minister enters the annual negotiations on the Hague Preferences at the end of the year?
It should be. It starts in July and essentially we will have people on boats so that when the fishermen hit problems with the obligation to land fish they will measure how it impacts on quota, particularly in mixed fisheries.
The Marine Institute would have observers on boats, working with fishermen to try to understand the practical complexities of the obligation to land. There will be practical complexities. I refer to the Celtic Sea, which is often used as an example because it is a good one, where fishermen are catching cod, haddock and whiting. Whiting is separate as it is a slightly different shape from cod and haddock. It will be complicated over the next three or four years to introduce an obligation to land for each of those species. We are starting with whiting, which is the easiest one to start with. There is a slightly cleaner whiting fishery in part of the Celtic Sea than for cod and haddock. The feedback from the industry and stakeholders was that whiting is the easiest of the three species to start with. That is what we are trying to do. Given what we have learned from the scientific observation this year, we will work through next year to try to do as good a job as we can on the obligation to land for whiting. We will learn lessons from that and then we will introduce another species. We will do it step by step. We will help fishermen with the cost of changing gear to become more selective. Obviously, that will impact on mesh size, the shape of nets, escape hatches and so on.
It will be quite challenging to deal with the prawn fishery, but there are known mechanisms to create a cleaner fishery, such as the Swedish grid and a number of separation systems of cod and prawns that have been used in the Irish Sea quite successfully. There are approaches that can make the problem easier to deal with. In the Celtic Sea, we increased the mesh size and we introduced technical conservation measures, which actually reduced the discard of juvenile fish by 40% in the past two years. This can be done. As a result, the stock should be healthier the following year. The whole point of this is to build up stocks.
Deputy Pringle said the de minimis rule is 7% to 8%, but to be clear, the rule is 7% at a maximum.
Policing that will be a challenge, of course. It was really important for the fishing industry that there was a de minimis figure because there needs to be a release valve. When one uses all the management tools that are available in terms of cross-species quota management, inter annual quota management and all the options of technical conservation measures are exhausted, it is important that there is ade minimis rule that can allow fishermen operate in a practical sense and allow them to make a living.
Some 18 months ago a group, which Dr. Noel Cawley chairs, was set up to consider the national discards implementation. Dr. Cawley is an experienced and wily operator in terms of finding solutions for awkward problems. He is doing a good job. It is really only now that it is getting serious and that fishermen realise that next year, they will have to change their approach to the species of cod, haddock and whiting. With buy-in, good resources and supports coming through the seafood development programme, it is doable. It will require change. There should also be a good upside in terms of quota uplift.
It is my job to ensure we deliver it in December. I do not want to be lining myself up for a fall. We have had initial conversations on it and I think the Commission is very cautious towards a quota uplift but I think fishermen need to see this working for them. If they land everything they catch, when previously they would have been dumping that fish back into the sea, that needs to be reflected within reason in the quotas they get. That needs to be negotiated with the Commission.
Let us take a hypothetical example of a vessel owner who has all the technical gear, the conservation escape hatches, has a biannual quota allowance and carries out all the de minimisrules to the letter of the law but must land fish because of being over quota, will he or she be prosecuted?
That should not happen. We must not forget that fishermen go out week after week and catch quota that gradually gets wound down. They get allocated all the time. It is not as if they catch all of their quota in the last week of the year. They will know how they are going. Most will be experienced in terms of the expectations around catch, given where they are fishing and so on. This should be managed and planned so that people can catch their full quota and any excess is predictable. We should be able to deal with much of the excess through the inter-species and inter-annual transfer arrangements. After that point, there is flexibility in respect of de minimis.
I am not in the business of trying to catch people out. We are trying to be proactive in introducing a new system that can work for everyone. If someone is deliberately breaching or trying to take advantage of the rules, we have an obligation to enforce them. The point of having regional decision making on how to implement the obligation to land for next year was to devise a practical and workable plan. The industry was involved in that plan. This is not a case of politicians and policy makers deciding how the fishing industry will do something. There has been a great deal of stakeholder involvement in the regional decision-making process.
Let us be honest. The producer organisations are cautious about this because they know it will be difficult to implement. They will have to push their members, which I hope they do. The alternative is much worse. The idea that we would not try to implement this directive and that it would become an enforcement issue for the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority - that is not a route we want to take. This is agreed policy at European level and we all have an obligation to make it work for the fishing industry as best we can. That is what I am committed to doing, and it is why we have such a large grant aid package from the Exchequer and the European Commission, linked to the Common Fisheries Policy. It is up to us all to make it work.
I have a final question on enforcement, something that will become an issue, particularly when other countries are involved. In recent days, stories have emerged of a Danish pelagic trawler to which the SFPA issued penalty points, but the Danish authorities refused to apply those points to the trawler's licence. How will enforcement, including of landing obligations, be handled in such situations? Trawlers from Spain, Belgium and other countries operate in Irish waters. Will there be enforcement for Irish and foreign vessels even if foreign governments pass it off?
If they do, the Commission is obliged to intervene, as it must ensure fair treatment for everyone. If a trawler is breaking the rules and is due penalty points, it should receive them. If the Deputy sends me the details of the case concerned, I will follow up on it.
I assure the Deputy that my job is to ensure that the Irish fleet is not treated differently from others in our waters. We will do everything we can to ensure that this is the case. Some of the SFPA's activity in detaining large pelagic vessels this year has shown a willingness in this regard. If there is a case involving a Danish vessel, I am unfamiliar with the details, so the Deputy should send them to me and I will try to follow up on the matter.
We are ahead of schedule. I thank the Minister and his officials for attending and making a presentation. Obviously, these are two interesting subjects. The landing obligations will involve a transition period. Regarding the specific proposals made by the group of 18 boat owners, I hope that an open mind can be kept on the matter and that they can be considered in context.
This concludes today's proceedings.