Wednesday, 7 March 2018
Sustainable Seaweed Harvesting: Motion [Private Members]
It might be opportune for the Business Committee to consider changing the rules for Private Members' debates so that Ministers who provide an opening statement and stay to listen can answer personally the questions put to them. I will endeavour to answer as many of the questions that have been raised as I can. I thank the Deputies who contributed, particularly Deputies Connolly and Pringle in whose names the motion was submitted. The Minister of State, Deputy English, is acutely aware of the questions that have been raised. I was taken aback by the contribution of Deputy Michael Healy-Rae who has been absent from the Chamber for virtually the entire debate. He criticised the Minister of State who was attempting to refer me to some of the questions raised by the Deputy and others in order to inform my response to the House.
As Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy English, is responsible under the Foreshore Act for seaweed licensing. A seaweed licence is a temporary arrangement and at all times the ownership of both the right and the foreshore vests in the State. The Minister of State does not have the statutory power to sell either the foreshore or seaweed rights. As he stated, seaweed is a valuable natural resource used in a wide range of products. As such, we need to look at the range of high-value, high-technology products in which seaweed can be used. The motion tabled by Deputies Connolly and Pringle calls for growth within the seaweed industry. As the Minister of State pointed out, there has been significant investment in recent years by high-tech companies utilising new processing methods to produce high-value products and compete in global markets. An approach which includes not only traditional harvesters but also these companies is necessary to achieve the growth referred to. A number of speakers have said the Minister of State should revoke the licence. They will all be acutely aware of the fact that any revocation would open the taxpayer to a liability which no Minister could impose lightly if, as I suspect, at all. The rules relating to licensing, which have been referred to by various speakers, have changed since the then Minister, Mr. John Gormley, made his decision in 2011. It is interesting to hear him and members of the parties involved in the original granting of the licence sing what appears to be a completely different tune from the decisions made seven and four years ago, respectively.
Sustainability was discussed at length by Deputy Boyd Barrett. Sustainability is at the heart of the seaweed licence process and the conditions which underpin it. It is included in the terms of the licence. Certainly, the Minister of State has the power to revoke a licence if those conditions are broken. Deputy Boyd Barrett spoke also of the requirement to carry out an environmental impact assessment and referred to the Aarhus Convention. The licence originally granted in respect of Bantry Bay is not in breach of that convention as it did not apply in Ireland until after the date on which the former Minister, Mr. Gormley, issued the licence. Deputy Connolly said the Department had stumbled on the rights issue by accident, but it was in fact in the normal course of examining the applications that officials noted the issue and took the logical step of engaging in further consideration. The particular issue in the Galway cases did not arise in respect of the Bantry Bay application, which was processed a number of years earlier.
I note to Deputy Murphy O'Mahony that we are not aware of any licence refusal in the Bantry Bay area. However, it may be a matter for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine who regulates seaweed aquaculture. BioAtlantis is an indigenous Irish company, albeit based in Tralee not Bantry. It is important to remember that the licence was approved in principle by the then Minister, Mr. John Gormley, in 2011 and that the Minister of State, Deputy English, simply approved the monetary conditions required after consultation with the Department and relevant State agencies.
I note Deputy Ó Cuív's suggestion regarding a discussion document, but the Minister of State has indicated that he will meet all sides involved. Despite what Deputy Michael Healy-Rae said, there is an open door to a meeting with representatives of the Bantry Bay group. The Minister of State is not prepared to meet everyone in Bantry on the same night but, as is reasonable, he is prepared to meet the group and it should be prepared to send some of its people to meet him, whether in Bantry, Meath or Dublin.
The officials in the Department had a number of discussions with the Attorney General's office on the complex legal issues involved in foreshore licensing.
In response to Deputy Pringle, the Minister of State, Deputy English, is not aware of any agreement in regard to the sale of Arramara Teoranta that guarantees ongoing access to this valuable natural resource. There is certainly no intention of sacrificing the traditional harvester to the interests of companies. As the Minister of State, Deputy English, noted earlier, he does not have the power to sell the harvesting rights under the Foreshore Act and neither is he going to grant licences at will to companies. He reiterated that the work is ongoing on this complex issue and the need to develop the seaweed sector while protecting the sea environment.
The activity to which Deputy Murphy O’Mahony referred is not of a class that requires an environmental impact assessment. This was confirmed by the European Commission through its own parliamentary questions system. The harvest system is a rotational one whereby one fifth of the licence area can be harvested in any one year. Kelp grows in deeper water that is not possible to reach by boat. The species covered by this license should not be confused with the Ascophyllum harvested by traditional harvesters. It in no way impinges on the rights of traditional harvesters who may be harvesting Ascophyllum in the Bantry Bay area.
Deputy Tóibín made reference to an NUIG report that estimates that up to 70,000 tonnes of Ascophyllum in Irish waters may be harvested every year sustainably. Approximately 40,000 tonnes are harvested at present. Therefore, while there is room for growth, it has to be managed correctly. Contrary to several assumptions made here today, there is no intention on the part of the Government, the Minister of State or his officials to give carte blancheto companies to harvest at will around the country. The harvest in the Bantry Bay area is not in a special area of conservation, as Deputy Tóibín mentioned, and nor is it in a special protection area. In fact, the company originally applied for a licence to harvest in Kenmare Bay but was advised that, to harvest kelp, it would need to apply in respect of an area that did not fall under either of those categories.
I must confess this is a subject that is new to me in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. In one sense, there is an argument to be made that it is not the most suitable Department for discussing this matter. What is proposed and what the Minister of State has done by way of changing the rules regarding the granting of licences and ensuring a system can be put in place whereby licences may be revoked if their conditions are broken is correct.
In this Chamber, however, we have far too many debates in which people grandstand. I am not accusing those who proposed the motion of doing so. They are present and did not do any grandstanding. There was a lot of grandstanding from Members opposite who are now gone and who were not here for most of the debate. They knowingly proposed in this Chamber the revocation of a licence in a manner that could expose the taxpayer to a potentially massive liability. That is grossly negligent politics. It is also deeply misleading to suggest to the people from Bantry who are here tonight that this can be done at the drop of a hat. If any of the Deputies in question were in government, they would note it could not be done. What they are doing is the cheapest form of politics. That is not to say their concerns are not valid and that we should not have a proper debate such as this on this issue. It is not to say that the Minister of State's invitation to meet some of the people from Bantry does not still stand, the objective being to ensure that the conditions of the licence granted by former Minister John Gormley seven years ago will be enforced if and when the harvesting in Bantry Bay takes place.