Tuesday, 11 May 2010
Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction (Fixed Penalty Notice) (Amendment) Bill 2009: Second Stage
This is an island nation with more than 2,000 vessels on the sea fishing boat register. About 5,000 fishermen are employed in the fishing fleet with a further 4,000 employed in fish processing and ancillary activities. Our coastal communities are very dependent on the fishing sector.
The sea fisheries (amendment) Bill, which I circulated last year, remained on the Order Paper for quite a while on foot of consultation and discussion. It is one that I hope the Government will support. It is designed to deal with a long-standing grievance of the fishing community where Ireland is now the only maritime jurisdiction within the European Union without a system of administrative sanctions for some fishery offences. The Bill is designed to change that and establish a much improved enforcement mechanism in relation to less serious fisheries infractions, promote a greater culture of compliance and reduce administrative and other costs for the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority and fishermen alike.
I want to make it clear that neither I nor Fine Gael has any interest in introducing a pirate's charter in relation to serious quota and environmental breaches. These are, and will continue to be, dealt with by the courts. Those involved in cowboy activities can face the full rigours of the law as far as I am concerned and I have no sympathy for them. However, it has been the experience of every maritime power in Europe that criminal sanctions are not an efficient or effective way of encouraging compliance with the myriad of technical regulations that govern every aspect of life at sea. I recall when I launched this Bill with the party leader, Deputy Enda Kenny, in Castletownbere, a point made by local councillor, Noel Harrington, which I thought was very apt. He said that nowadays many fishermen believed they should have a barrister with them in the wheel house when they put to sea to enable them to comply with all the technical regulations or to advise them thereon.
The scheme of this Bill is to preserve the ability of the Naval Service to issue warning notices for suspect behaviour at one end of the spectrum and to retain the jurisdiction of the courts at the other, while, in the meantime, introducing a median level of administrative sanctions to deal with the vast majority of fisheries offences that fall between these two extremes. The Bill introduces sanctions in the form of fixed penalty notices, up to a maximum of €1,000 for any one offence, for infractions of sea fisheries legislation which do not warrant or justify the very serious penalties envisaged in section 28 of the Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006. It provides that the Minister may introduce regulations which allow for the provision of fixed penalties for certain offences under the Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006. This provision is modelled on section 47(2) of the Maritime Safety Act 2005. The Bill in no way supplants the 2006 legislation. The fixed penalty notice system will thus complement rather than replace the system provided in the 2006 Act.
The response of the Government in the past to earlier proposals for administrative sanctions in relation to sea fisheries offences has always been that it would be unconstitutional to introduce such a regime. The Bill answers the constitutional argument by providing for an Irish system of administrative sanctions using precedents that have withstood constitutional challenge over the years. It will be difficult for a fisherman or indeed anybody else to understand or accept that a fixed penalty notice regime can apply on land but not at sea. I cannot see how it could possibly apply on the land but not on our coastal waters and I am interested in any argument that may be put forward in support of that. Quite frankly, I cannot believe such an argument exists.
It is clear from precedents that on the spot fines have a long and hallowed history in the Irish legislative armoury. Legislation and secondary legislation can impose administrative sanctions on misusers of quad bikes in the Wicklow mountains, boat captains on the Shannon, restaurant owners the length and breadth of the country and every single man and woman with a driving licence. They were provided for almost 50 years ago in the Road Traffic Act 1961 and as recently as 2005 in the Safety Health and Welfare at Work Act. What I am now proposing is a system which is well within the four corners of what has been ratified by the Supreme Court and constitutionally upheld time and again. It seems extraordinary that the Government can consistently state that administrative sanctions are unconstitutional when fishing is involved, yet encourage their use in relation to road traffic offences at the same time.
A regime of administrative sanctions which utilises monetary fines with a residual right of appeal to the District Court has consistently been held to be within the ambit of the derogation allowed under Article 37.1 of the Constitution. If Article 34 of the Constitution is quoted, which provides that justice must be administered in a court, the answer in relation to the system I am proposing is Article 37, which provides for precisely this type of system and regime. With regard to the maximum allowable amount, the Safety Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 provides a legislative example of a €1,000 fine that is imposed as an administrative penalty. Once that figure is not breached for any one fine, the precedents of the High Court indicate that it is constitutionally irrelevant that a vessel is fined for several different offences. A number of notices for certain minor technical offences could be issued at the same time and each would carry the fine as laid down in the regulation.
Once the principle is established and accepted, it is my belief that one could go further and introduce a penalty point regime as has been introduced under the Road Traffic Act. This is particularly relevant at present in relation to changes that are on the way at European Union level. Essentially, therefore, there does not appear to be anything unique to fisheries legislation that would make it so constitutionally distinct as to preclude the possibility of a scheme of on the spot fines bulwarked by the eventual imposition of a temporary suspension of fishing licence arising from a penalty point regime. That can happen to any of us if we are foolish or imprudent regularly on the roads. I understand from the Scottish authority, Marine Scotland, that this is the approach it intends to adopt in dealing with the new EU regulations when finalised. It intends that the fixed penalty notice regime will take on board the new EU approach.
The other argument used in the past was that somehow there was a European obligation that would make a system of administrative sanctions a legal impossibility. The argument was made in 2005, during discussions on the Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Bill, which eventually became law in 2006, that Ireland was precluded from introducing administrative sanctions by the European Commission as they would not contain the dissuasive element necessary to enforce the goals of the Common Fisheries Policy.
Such an argument conveniently ignores the views of the European Commission and is simply answered. The European Commission and the Parliament have consistently called for administrative sanctions to be introduced to enforce fisheries compliance, most recently in November 2009. As of 1 January 2010, Ireland is bound by a fisheries enforcement regulation drafted by the European Commission, which introduces a nascent system of Europe-wide administrative sanctions. It seems curious that the EU has, we are told, counselled against the introduction of administrative sanctions in Irish fisheries while at the same time drafting its own scheme. This Bill provides the State with the opportunity to draft an administrative scheme that will act in tandem with our coming European obligations. However, the main point regarding Europe and our inhibition about introducing a scheme of administrative sanctions in the fishing sector is that Ireland is the only member state that does not use such a scheme. In recent years, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England and Wales have all introduced systems of administrative sanctions. Again, it seems unlikely that these schemes, which are working successfully as we speak, are being operated in defiance of European policy. That is not and has never been the case, and it is high time we stopped hiding behind non-existent European objections.
If the proposals in my Bill are not accepted we will be isolated as the odd man out in Europe. The aim of the amending Bill is to provide an improved enforcement mechanism which will allow for an appropriate fine to be imposed to punish less serious infractions. Such an approach will reduce the costs and uncertainty for both fishermen and sea fishery protection services. It will lead to faster conclusion of cases and the avoidance by fishermen of criminal records, with the associated stigma, for minor offences. Above all, it will promote a greater culture of compliance by allowing sea fisheries protection officers to levy on-the-spot fines for a wide variety of minor and technical fishery offences.
I am indebted to the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, particularly its senior law researcher, John Kenny BL, for the extensive examination it conducted on my behalf on the feasibility of introducing administrative sanctions into Irish fisheries legislation. What is clear from this research is that while the Common Fisheries Policy does indeed require a dissuasive national scheme, there is no reason this should exclude a complementary layer of administrative sanctions to control minor or technical infractions.
The attitude of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, which I am glad to see represented here, is also very interesting. At the moment the SFPA is armed with a legislative blunderbuss and nothing else. It can prosecute or do nothing. When it prosecutes, even for minor offences, the fishing boat skipper must tie up his boat, sometimes for weeks on end. He faces loss of income, court costs, fines, possible suspension of his fishing licence, and even forfeiture of his catch and gear, which is mandatory for a conviction on indictment and for a second summary conviction. The deck-hands face loss of earnings and eventual loss of their jobs.
We should recall the evidence given last July by a representative of the SFPA to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It states:
We have an enforcement strategy because we are empowered to enforce the legislation. If we had more powers, such as giving warning letters and administrative sanctions, we would start as we do in the area of food safety, by issuing advice, guidance, warning letters, administrative sanctions and prosecutions through the court. The compliance strategy would look at graded steps towards prosecution and the barriers to compliance on the other side of the equation and try to deal with them. That is where we are in terms of enforcement with our compliance strategy. At present we do not have the gift to issue administrative sanctions.
I would like to give the SFPA this gift.
Fishermen want administrative sanctions; those who are charged with enforcement - that is, the SFPA - want administrative sanctions; the European Union wants administrative sanctions; and the Supreme Court has clearly ratified the administrative sanction approach involved in a regime of fixed penalty notices. It is my belief that virtually all members of this House, particularly those from our coastal communities, are in favour of this approach. I therefore strongly urge the acceptance of the Fine Gael Bill, an empowering Bill which will allow the Minister - by the way, I congratulate the new Minister of State, Deputy Connick, on his appointment - to introduce regulations.
If we pass this Bill, as I believe we should, this will allow the various stakeholders, including Department officials, the SFPA, the fishing organisations and anyone else with an interest in this area, to work out a system of regulations to implement the Bill, as has happened successfully in England and Wales, Scotland and, most recently, Northern Ireland. There is absolutely no reason this cannot happen here. To make it happen, all I ask is for all parties to support this Bill.
I commend the Bill to the House.
-----I saw three Spanish boats, which looked like double-decker buses, in the harbour. Given that I had time on my side, I waited to see whether those three boats would be inspected, but they were not. Meanwhile, it was brought to my attention that a file had been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions about an Irish boat in Killybegs that was found to be 4 kg over its quota. That is why we are here. Something needs to be done.
As outlined by Deputy O'Keeffe, and from the evidence given to us by the SFPA, we are hammering our own fishermen. In 2008 the SFPA carried out 2,232 inspections of Irish vessels and only 746 of foreign vessels. Up to June 2009 there were 832 inspections of Irish vessels and 311 of foreign vessels. I put it to the Minister that our fishing industry has been brought to its knees, not only by what has happened over the years regarding quotas and time at sea, but also by the regime of criminal sanctions.
When this Bill was launched in Castletownbere, I commented on the number of boats that were tied up there and the large crowd that attended. It was sad that there was such a crowd of fishermen there; they should have been out fishing, but for various reasons, one of which was the possibility of criminal sanctions, they could not. The argument has been put forward that the Department is hiding behind the Attorney General. Deputy O'Keeffe has investigated this, with a lot of help, and he has found there is no constitutional problem with the provisions of the Bill.
While I was in Dingle I sought out a member of the SFPA and asked him why those three Spanish boats had not been boarded or checked. He told me there was no need to board or check them because they had everything in order. If this is the kind of regulation going on, when a file on an Irish fisherman with 4 kg over the allowance has been sent to the DPP, the Minister should get involved and sort the issue out.
In the Fishing News International of November 2009, Mr. Harm Koster, the executive director of the European Union's Community Fisheries Control Agency, stated, to my shock, that the EU member states have a budget of approximately €592 million for fisheries inspections and that some EU countries, for example, Ireland, spend almost as much money on fishery controls as their fish landings are worth. Can the Minister of State tell me it is right to be spending as much on our fishery controls as our fish landings are worth? It is wrong to spend so much on inspections of Irish vessels rather than foreign vessels.
Fishermen have a tough life. Fishing is an industry that comes down from generation to generation. Our fishermen have fished all their lives, as did their fathers and grandfathers. They work in dangerous and compromising weather because of the restrictions on them. If the Minister accepted this Bill and allowed the implementation of administrative sanctions, that would do a great service for the fishing community. The boats would not be tied up, gear would not be confiscated, the catch would not be confiscated and we would not be clogging up the court system. It is a win-win situation. We are not setting out a charter for rogues or for people involved in breaking the law, but for dealing with minor indiscretions. We believe these should be dealt with through a penalty point system and fines.
The Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, has said it is not within its gift to issue administrative sanctions. Why do the Government and Department object to administrative sanctions? We have these sanctions in all other areas. We should be using any chance we have to help our fishermen rather to criminalise them. In the context of what Harm Koster said with regard to Ireland spending as much on fishery controls as its fish landings are worth, I suggest the Minister make it his remit to amalgamate the SFPA, the Naval Service, the Coastguard and customs. If we could do that, we would get rid of significant bureaucracy. If we did that in line with allowing administrative sanctions, we would protect our waters in all aspects and like the US and Australia would have a real handle on what is going on in our waters.
I commend the Bill and urge the Minister of State to take it on board. He should also, perhaps, listen to some of his own Fianna Fáil coastal colleagues.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Connick, to the House. It is unfortunate he was not here when the 2005 Bill went through the Dáil because at that time we had a Public Gallery packed with fishermen from every port in Ireland. They were so concerned about the effects the proposed legislation would have on them and their families that they came here in large numbers to protest against the Bill going through the Dáil.
The purpose of this Fine Gael sponsored Bill, Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction (Fixed Penalty Notice) (Amendment) Bill, is to correct a serious anomaly included in the Sea Fisheries Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006. I compliment Deputy Jim O'Keeffe on bringing this Bill before the Dáil to correct the serious anomaly in the 2005 Bill. The essence of the Bill is that we want to change the system of sanctions for minor fisheries offences from a criminal system to a mixed system of criminal and fixed penalty notices or on-the-spot fines for minor fishery offences. This is a sensible proposal and objective. I do not know what attitude the Government will take to this Bill, but I hope the Minister of State will accept it on behalf of the Government in the good faith in which it is being brought before the Dáíl.
We want to achieve a reasonable rebalance of the way breaches of the sea fisheries law can be dealt with. I hope the Government will accept this reasonable Bill and that it will not have any hang-ups about acknowledging that it may have made a mistake with regard to the criminal aspects of the 2005 Bill. That Bill was brought before the Dáil by the then Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, but it was the Minister of State, Pat the Cope Gallagher, who was here the night the Bill was discussed. We put it to him strongly at the time, and he had agreed, outside the Chamber in his constituency in the fishing villages of Killybegs and elsewhere, that the Bill was not what it should be. Unfortunately, the Bill still went through the Dáil. The aspect of the 2005 Bill that left fishermen with a criminal record for relatively minor offences under the current law was the major concern of the fishing communities with regard to the Bill at the time.
When the 2006 Act was going through the Dáil, there was significant opposition from fishing groups and their families. Significant concern was also expressed by many Government Deputies from coastal or fishing port areas with regard to the Bill. This was expressed both in the Dáil and outside of it. Perhaps the Deputy after Deputy on the benches opposite who condemned aspects of the Bill on the night were playing to the packed Public Gallery. Those in the Public Gallery were pleased by that, but the fishermen were very much disappointed when the same Deputies supported the Bill in the vote despite the reservations they expressed earlier. None of the Deputies on that side of the House who expressed their concerns at that time, particularly with regard to the aspect of the Bill we are trying to correct now, the criminal offence aspect, is here now, but I hope they have all expressed their view to the Minister or Government that this is a reasonable Bill which tries to amend that aspect of the Bill.
When the 2005 Bill was introduced by the Minister, it included some crazy provisions. I recall speaking in the Dáil at the time on one section of the Bill which included a crazy provision which would have allowed the Naval Service to engage in fire action with shipping vessels. Fortunately, owing to opposition from these benches, among public opinion and from some Government Deputies, the provision was withdrawn. However, the provision which deemed minor breaches to be criminal offences was not withdrawn but remained in the Bill. We are trying to correct this. What makes being found guilty of a criminal offence serious is that it goes on a person's record. It is a very serious matter to be convicted of a criminal offence. It would debar a person from serving in the Defence Forces or the Garda and legally entering the United States. It is a very serious provision in a Bill and we are seeking to correct it in the case of minor breaches of the provisions of the fisheries Act.
Members of Fine Gael have spoken against the high level of fines imposed on Irish fishermen when compared with the EU average. Deputy Sheahan dealt with one aspect of this. We must not criminalise minor offences. That would be in line with the position in other EU member states, in which 86% of all EU fishery offences are dealt with by way of administrative sanctions. Why must Ireland be so different from other member states? Are we trying to impress them at a cost to our fishermen? The 2006 Bill was pushed through the Dáil just before Christmas. It was rushed legislation. As we pointed out at the time, rushed legislation is never good legislation. However, we now have an opportunity to amend it with this Bill. Rossaveal Harbour is located in my constituency. Ten or 11 years ago there were 40 trawlers based there; now there are less than 15. However, that appears to be irrelevant to the Government. I urge the Minister not to allow the last straw to break the camel's back by accepting the Bill.
I carried out some research when I spoke on the 2006 Bill. There was a total of 3,595 fishing offences in Spain in 2001, only four of which went before the courts. Why must Ireland always be the good boy in the European Union at the expense of its fishermen and their families by the inclusion of this criminal sanction in the legislation? I appeal to the Minister to accept this Bill in the good faith with which it is brought before the Dáil.
I welcome the Minister of State. No doubt he will be joined at some stage during the debate by his colleagues who are conspicuous by their absence and spoke with forked tongues on the 2006 Bill, as my colleague, Deputy McCormack, might have described their contributions. I am aware that the Minister of State has a particular interest in fishing, quite apart from it being his ministerial responsibility. I read with interest the comments on his website prior to his elevation to the office of Minister of State. I know he will not allow himself to become hidebound by officialdom and hope his free thinking will prevail in his consideration of this Bill.
I congratulate Deputy Jim O'Keeffe who has taken a great interest in this area since before the 2006 legislation was passed and followed its implementation. He has consistently argued on a legal basis that this is a flaw in the earlier legislation and, with his professional training, he is better equipped that many to do this. That view was shared by those with forked tongues. It is worth noting the comment of the Minister of State's predecessor, Deputy Killeen, on the new regime that will be implemented by the European Union. He welcomed it on the basis that we had "already moved substantially to a culture of compliance." That is important. It might not always have been the case, but it is the case now and that is the context in which to place this debate.
It is right and proper to remedy the defects in the 2006 legislation. The point has been well made by Deputy O'Keeffe that whatever the previous Attorney General's or even the current Attorney General's reservations might have been about adopting a similar regime as that in place elsewhere in Europe with regard to administrative sanctions, the proposals made in Deputy O'Keeffe's legislation are rooted in the Irish legislative experience and precedent. Under the penalty points system, there are fixed notice penalties, with a right of appeal to the District Court. That is an established principle. If one parks one's car on a double yellow line and is given a ticket, one can either pay the fine or take one's chances and go to court. That is the essence of what is contained in this Bill.
Deputy O'Keeffe's presentation was as non-confrontational as is possible in these Chambers. To an extent, the Oireachtas is on trial. Can we rise above the knee-jerk, traditional party political positioning and posturing, allow the Bill to be debated in committee and deal with it in the context of what is happening at European level? That also appears to expose a weakness in the Government's argument. The new regime which has come into being, the detail of which must still be worked out but which was provided for in law on 1 January this year, appears to suggest we can move to a system of administrative sanctions. Therefore, why not remove minor administrative misdemeanours from the criminal code and deal with them in an administrative fashion? That is the essence of this Bill. It would be welcome if we could rise above the knee-jerk reaction, whereby this side of the House can do no right and the Government side of the House can do not wrong until we get onto the Government side when we will have the monopoly of wisdom and the Government parties will be fools sitting on this side of the House. Regrettably, that is how the system works. With the collective wisdom of Members, we should be in a position to deliver a better law.
We are in no way advocating a charter for law breakers, cheats and those who put the livelihoods of their fellow fishermen at risk by driving a coach and four through laws, be they administrative or criminal, and fish illegally, plunder stocks, take no cognisance of conservation measures and undermine the entitlement of their fellow fishermen to make a reasonable living. That is not our objective. Our aim, as Deputy McCormack said, is to remove the fear for fishermen that if they go out in their boat and are a couple of kilograms above their allowed quota in a given month, they will find themselves facing a criminal sanction, with significant and punitive financial consequences.
This is about having a level playing pitch. For the benefit of those who might now be so aware, I will highlight the lack of a level playing pitch. Deputy O'Keeffe outlined how out of step we were with the rest of Europe in this regard. The average fine in Portugal for using and keeping on board prohibited fishing gear was €450, while it was €9,000 in the Netherlands. The average fine for unauthorised fishing in Belgium was €375 but €19,255 in the United Kingdom. The average fine for directed fishing of species subject to a prohibition was €20 in Denmark but €8,379 in Spain. The average fine for falsifying data required in the control of documents was €98 in Germany and €132,056 in the United Kingdom. In general, the average fine applied in Finland was €282 and in the United Kingdom was €77,922.
There is not a large number of alternative employment opportunities in these coastal areas. There are 10,000 people presently gainfully employed, both onshore and offshore in the processing and catching. As I travel around these areas, I hear the clarion call, "Give us a level playing pitch. Give us equity and fairness". That is what is at the heart of Deputy O'Keeffe's Bill. I would urge the Minister of State, Deputy Connick to be true to the spirit that was reflected on his own website prior to his elevation. He has a good grasp of the fishing issues. He comes from a coastal community that will watch will interest what he will say in this debate.
I welcome the opportunity to consider the issues involved in this Bill and to outline clearly the implications if the Bill was accepted and adopted.
I accept that in bringing forward this Bill, Deputy Jim O'Keeffe and Fine Gael's thinking was based on best intentions. However, the potential impacts, if it were introduced, are in my estimation not positive for the conservation of fish stocks or for the coastal communities dependent on fishing.
I believe that all in this House want to see a strong and vibrant fishing industry that supports employment in our fishing fleet, fish handling, processing and ancillary activities in our coastal communities. I am fully committed to supporting this industry which delivers employment and economic activity to many of the regions where there are few alternative income generation activities. The Irish sea fisheries sector is almost totally dependent on healthy fish stocks in Ireland's 200 mile exclusive fisheries zone. As set down in the explanatory memorandum to the Bill, fish stocks in our zone are at historically low levels. It is, therefore, imperative that actions taken focus on measures to stop the decline and rebuild these fish stocks.
I am not convinced, unfortunately, that this Bill would contribute positively to the rebuilding of fish stocks. Quite the opposite, in fact, my belief is that it could result in increasing the level of illegal fishing and further drive down the biomass of fish stocks leading to a collapse of many of the key commercial stocks around the coast on which our fishing industry is so dependent. In this regard, I consider that the Bill could have two possible outcomes, neither of which would protect fish stocks. The first possibility would be that this new Bill could introduce low fines for significant offences which would not be dissuasive and would promote illegal activity. The other option would be that it would introduce a new system for the administration of very minor errors which are currently subject to warnings and in this way distract and take the existing limited resources away from the real work of identifying and prosecuting the big offenders.
The issue of how and at what level sanctions should be applied has long been an issue with the fishing industry, particularly since the passing of the Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act in 2006. This Bill, when viewed at first glance, may look as if it could provide a viable arrangement for the control of sea fisheries. However, the Bill does not stand up to closer scrutiny. The Bill would introduce a regime that would apply to fishing activity of all fleets in Ireland's 200 mile exclusive fisheries zone. The reality is that the Bill, if it applied to the offences currently specified in Irish legislation, would remove the current deterrent arrangements in place that protect against illegal fishing and would seriously risk promoting increased illegal landings and other unacceptable fishing practices by all fishing vessels from all member states and third countries operating in the rich fishing grounds inside Ireland's 200 mile zone. The Bill does not provide the necessary measures to appropriately regulate fishing activity and would not give a reasonable level of confidence that illegal fishing will not be rewarded. If the Bill were to be accepted, a new tier of minor offences would have to be created, which, in fact, are not currently prosecuted under the existing legislation.
The Irish seafood industry makes a significant contribution to the national economy in terms of output, employment and exports. Generating approximately 11,000 jobs in rural coastal regions, it is estimated that the industry contributed approximately €780 million to the national economy in 2008. Almost 60% of the employment and added value created in the marine sector is located outside the most developed regions of the country. The Irish fishing fleet is totally dependent on the state of fish stocks in the waters around Ireland, and it is the health of these stocks which ultimately determines the economic viability of our fleet and the supply of raw material to our seafood processors.
Over the past number of years we have seen a significant decline in quotas. Scientific evidence shows that many fish stocks important to Irish fishermen have declined to dangerously low levels. The state of the cod stocks have attracted particular attention, but there are other important stocks at dangerous levels, including whiting, sole and herring. I am committed to supporting changes in the Common Fisheries Policy that strengthen that policy and deliver better management and conservation methods for our fisheries which would have a meaningful and positive impact on the goals of returning fish stocks to healthy levels. I and my predecessors have made clear at EU Council that we see the delivery of a level playing field on control across the EU as a central part of the reform. The new EU Fisheries Control Regulation adopted last October is not, I believe, a threat to Irish fishermen who have already moved significantly to a culture of compliance. As fisheries are a common resource it is vital that all operators from all EU fleets respect the rules. We must rebuild our fish stocks by implementing conservation measures and tackle illegal fishing by fleets in our waters, which is the major cause of the decline in our fish stocks and quotas.
However, the adoption of the Fine Gael Bill before us would, I believe, move us in the opposite direction. Instead of effectively addressing illegal fishing it could introduce a culture of non-compliance where those detected would be confident that any penalties imposed are lower than the economic benefit from the illegal fish retained from the fishing trip. As a coastal state with responsibility for protecting some of the richest fishing grounds in the EU and with a fishing industry almost completely dependent on sustainable fish stocks in our own waters, it is of the highest priority that there are effective control regimes in place across all member states, including Ireland.
Illegal fishing, which in many cases involves non-declaration of landings of key commercial stocks or mis-reporting of them, is not acceptable in the marketplace or with consumers, the general public or the law-makers at EU level. Since 1959, Ireland has applied its criminal law in relation to fisheries matters and, since our membership of the European Community, Ireland has applied the criminal law in the enforcement of fisheries policy. Current legalisation provides for graduated maximum penalties based on vessel size. However, it is important to understand that the larger vessels in our waters may have on board at any one time a catch with a value of several hundred thousand euros. Under the Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006 it is a matter for the individual court to decide on the level of fine appropriate on a case by case basis, taking into account the seriousness of the offence, size of vessel and its impact. These sanctions apply equally to Irish, Spanish, French or any other operator found to have infringed the rules.
In the case of most fisheries offences, the EU Common Fisheries Policy requires that the penalties must be effective, a deterrent and dissuasive and must involve depriving the wrongdoer of the benefit of his or her actions. Mandatory forfeitures are necessary to ensure that the State complies with its obligations. The potential fines and forfeitures, therefore, are at a substantial level and I am legally advised that under the Irish legal system such penalties would be viewed as criminal in nature and therefore could only be administered by the courts by virtue of Article 34 of the Constitution which provides that:
Justice shall be administered in courts established by law by judges appointed in the manner provided by this Constitution, and, save in such special and limited cases as may be prescribed by law, shall be administered in public.
In the circumstances, a defendant is entitled to have the matter dealt with in open court with the full protections of the law and a jury trial, when faced by a potential penalty above certain limits. Continental systems governed by civil law have a different approach and it must not be assumed that we could adopt the sort of system which may be in operation in much of Europe.
It is of vital national interest that an appropriate regime is in place to protect fish stocks from any illegal fishing by all the fleets operating in our waters. This is necessary to ensure that the long-term future of coastal communities is protected but also, critically, to avoid financial penalties being imposed on the State and the Irish taxpayer. All member states, including Ireland, are under close scrutiny by the Commission. In the case of France, in 2005 the European Court of Justice imposed a fine of €20 million together with a fine of €57.8 million every six months until the appropriate level of regulation was applied to the fishing industry. The EU Commission had brought forward an EU infringement case against Ireland in 2005 and 2006 on control failures. The actions taken by the State involving a new legislative framework, the establishment of the independent Sea Fisheries Protection Authority and increased staff for land based controls has resulted in the EU Commission not proceeding with the infringement case and imposing similar fines on Ireland. However, in the event that the Irish authorities are judged by the EU Commission as rowing back on the commitments made in 2005 and 2006 to deal effectively with illegal fishing, the infringement case could be reactivated.
Successive fisheries Ministers have seriously considered the imposition of administrative sanctions following representations from the Irish fishing industry. On a number of occasions the advice of successive Attorneys General has been sought on this approach. The legal advice is that imposing sanctions such as those set out in the Fine Gael Bill would undermine the existing legislative framework, allowing offenders to avoid the very serious penalties, prosecution and forfeiture of gear by payment of a fine of €1,000, or less.
The Irish legal system, in principle, permits the operation of a fixed penalty notice system in respect of minor penalties which afford the person an opportunity of paying the fixed penalty and avoiding criminal prosecution. Under such a system, fines are only imposed where they are accepted, and if a person wishes to dispute the alleged offence, then the matter is tried by a court. The Fine Gael Bill purports to follow that system. However, it proposes to provide that in the case of significant offences contained in tables 1 and 2 of section 28 of the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006, in respect of which very serious penalties can be imposed in the event of conviction, including fines and forfeiture of gear, a person can avoid prosecution by payment of a fine of €1,000 or such lesser amount as may be prescribed. In other words, under the Fine Gael Bill the potentially very significant penalties currently provided for in the fulfilment of EU law obligations that take account of the substantial financial reward possible from illegal fishing can be avoided by payment of a small sum of money on foot of a fixed penalty notice. Under the current system a judge can determine the gravity of the case and apply the level of fine which he or she deems appropriate.
The proposed fixed penalty notice system from a fisheries protection perspective is likely to be counter-productive in current circumstances. The only legally acceptable approach would involve applying the provisions of the Fine Gael Bill to minor offences which currently are not prosecuted or are dealt with by means of a warning. In effect, the acceptance of the Fine Gael Bill would require the creation of a new tier of offences which are currently not prosecuted. This will have the effect of increasing the bureaucratic burden on the industry and diverting the limited resources from the detection of serious offences to the administration of minor infringements. This can hardly be good for the Irish fishing industry.
The new EU fisheries control regulation introduces a new and common approach to fisheries regulation. The regulation will see the implementation of measures to regulate and control the process that sees fish caught, landed, brought to market and sold. These measures will harmonise standards for inspection activities, and procedures will help deliver uniform implementation across the EU.
This new approach will make use of modern technologies such as electronic log books and vessel tracking. It will introduce systematic and automated cross-checking of data collected at the catch, landing and sale stages, to make it easier to spot attempts to break the rules. Under the provisions of the new control regulation, the list of serious infringements are set down. These serious infringements include the misreporting or non-reporting of catch which cannot, therefore, be considered a minor offence.
The new control regulation introduces for the first time a penalty points system in Article 84. However, that system is completely different from what is proposed in the Fine Gael Bill. The system provided in the control regulation is a system for allocating penalty points on conviction with the consequences of automatic suspension of the fishing boat licence when a certain threshold of penalty points is reached with a certain timeframe. The penalty points introduced in the new EU law are in addition to the financial or other penalty imposed by the member state.
I am legally advised that the existing approach to the regulation of the fishing industry, together with the new EU control regulation being implemented, is the most appropriate method of regulation of the fishing industry within our legal framework. This approach is consistent with legal advice and fulfils Ireland's responsibilities under the Common Fisheries Policy. I see no merit in the passing of this Bill now presented which I believe would lead to a number of negative outcomes for our own fishing industry.
I will do my best to keep going and I will waffle on for a while. I am very pleased to have this opportunity to consider this Bill, to explore particular aspects of the draft and the likely implications of some of its provisions. Even though I am from County Kilkenny, which is an inland county, I have connections to Wexford and Waterford, Dunmore East in particular. I travelled and travailed there in my youth and often caught a few herrings and mackerel which I brought home in a bag. I have a love for the fish that comes from the sea.
At that time everything was legal. A person could sell them off the dock but not now. I fully accept the bona fides of Fine Gael in seeking to promote this Bill but I am not at all convinced it will have the desired effect. It is ill conceived and deficient in many respects. The thrust of the proposal is to provide adequate conservation measures for fish stocks. It goes without saying that we all recognise the singular value of our fishing industry and the importance of safeguarding the livelihood of all who depend on it. We have to provide robust support for the industry and ensure all those involved in it are protected from the various problems and challenges it faces. A sustainable, vibrant industry is essential and if we are to promote the industry, we must provide an environment in which the interests of fishermen are paramount. We must ensure the economic spin-offs from a successful commercial industry are harnessed properly into the country and the hinterlands in which fishermen operate.
Employment in our fishing fleet must be the primary consideration and employment in fish handling and fish processing must be sustained. There are several ancillary services which are necessary to the fishing industry and all these services are based in the local coastal communities, providing further work opportunities for local people. All have a valuable role to play in contributing to the worth and the prosperity of the local economy.
The Government is passionate and determined in its efforts to support the fishing industry. It is a traditional way of life for many families and its contribution to the economy is immense in terms of jobs, both in fishing itself and in the local economy it serves. For many people in these costal regions fishing may be the only viable source of income. It is imperative, therefore, that we are active and sincere in our endeavours to continue to support all those activities which generate real income for families.
The sea fisheries sector in this country is almost solely reliant on healthy fish stocks within its 200-mile exclusive fisheries zone. Unfortunately, we know only too well that the levels of such stocks are at an unprecedentedly low level. This is alarming. It is clear that decisive corrective action is required to stem this worrying decline and reverse it as quickly as possible. We have to restore those stocks and it is only by introducing focused, effective measures that we can arrest the trend in diminishing numbers and ensure high levels of healthy stocks are maintained into the future.
This Bill is deficient in its attempt to achieve this imperative of rebuilding stocks. It may well be that this measure would have the contrary effect and would succeed only in encouraging the incidence of illegal fishing. The obvious result of this would be to drive down the biomass of fish stocks even further. This would lead inevitably to a virtual collapse of many of the key commercial stocks around the coast. We must avoid this happening as this would be the death knell for fishermen and their families. It would be catastrophic for that community.
Two effects of this Bill are completely undesirable and would fail abysmally in protecting fish stocks. This Bill could introduce low fines or penalties for significant offences. I do not believe this is proportionate. It would not represent an adequate deterrent and might serve only to promote various forms of illegal activity in the industry. This is neither realistic nor acceptable. The Bill could introduce a new system for the administration of minor errors which, as I understand it, are currently the subject of warnings. This provision would represent nothing more than an unnecessary distraction and would place an increased burden on scarce resources. There are more than enough demands on these limited resources at present. We cannot afford to be wasteful and we have a duty to maximise the effect of these resources. To that end, our sensible priority should be to target the resources towards identifying the big offenders and prosecuting them in due course.
One of the most burning issues in the fishing industry has been how and at what level the various sanctions should be applied. This has been even more topical since the enactment of the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act in 2006. I am not convinced the Bill under discussion will provide any type of viable or effective arrangement for the control of sea fisheries. On close examination, it falls far short of achieving anything of the sort. Effectively, this Bill would impose a regime which would apply to the fishing activity of all fleets in Ireland's 200 mile exclusive fisheries zone. If it were to be applied to the offences which are currently identified in Irish law, it would remove the existing deterrent measures which protect against illegal fishing. There is also a very real and serious risk that it would promote increased illegal landings and all manner of other illegal practices by all fishing vessels from all EU member states and the third countries operating in the rich and fertile fishing grounds inside Ireland's zone.
This Bill fails to provide the very necessary measures to regulate fishing activity in any appropriate way. It certainly would not give any reasonable level of confidence that illegal fishing would not be rewarded. A new tier or layer would have to be created if we were to adopt this Bill. These are not prosecuted at present under the relevant legislation. This would be cumbersome and it would be expensive. The Fine Gael Bill does not deserve our support. It does not address illegal sea fishing effectively and instead could encourage a culture of non-compliance which is something we must avoid at all costs.
Any culture of non-compliance where anyone detected can be confident that any penalties which can attract are lower than the possible financial benefit from their illegal activity is clearly inappropriate and almost derisory. I for one cannot support that thrust.
The seafood industry in Ireland makes an immense contribution to our national economy. In the context of output, employment and exports, it generates over 11,000 jobs in rural coastal regions and it is estimated that the industry contributed a total of €780 million to the economy overall in 2008. Almost 60% of the employment and added value created in the marine sector is located outside the most developed regions of this country which are totally dependent on the conditions of fish stock in the waters around the country. It is the health of these stocks which determines, in the long run, the economic viability of our fleet and the secure supply of raw material to all our seafood processors.
I accept, and have said it at several committee meetings, that it is wrong that fishermen should be targeted as criminals if they are caught. It is one good issue in this Bill which was raised by Deputy Breen. It should be examined because the issue of any fishing family which goes about its daily life and is then caught, prosecuted and labelled as criminal is serious. I come from Kilkenny.
Yes. I had to vote and compromise. I did not think I would be standing here on my own, but it has to be done. I see the good in regulation. I recall when the monofilament nets, some of which were one or two miles long, were removed. They were taking all the salmon from this country and letting them into our rivers - I come from a very rich county of rivers, comprising the Barrow, Nore, Suir and Blackwater - resulting in a decline in rivers which have been closed for the past three years. We are trying to introduce conservation to try to increase our salmon stocks.
In the Nore last year, which is located in my county, salmon fishing resumed because the experts and scientists told us we had returned to the correct level of allocated fish. We were able to take 480 salmon out of the Nore last year, which was as a result of the removal of monofilament nets from the sea. It is to be hoped that this year we can take 4,000 salmon out of the Nore, which is above its conservation limits. It is a sign that legislation does work.
The Suir is at 96% this year. A deputation is to meet the Minister this week to ask him if fishing could be allowed on the Suir. Its argument is that, in these recessionary times, money can be made from fishing. The Minister should allow fishing to resume in order that the families involved can return to the industry.
The stocks in the Barrow are very low and its conservation levels will not be reached for years. The Slaney in Wexford is also a problem - I will let the Minister of State discuss that. I do not know what the situation is there.
We have drift net fishermen who hope to resume fishing; I do not know whether that will ever happen. At the current time the fish are not returning. Overall, it main issue is the survival of fish and keeping fish stocks-----
I wish to respond to the last two speakers. The Labour Party supports the Bill which we believe is predicated on common sense, does what it says on the tin and is unambiguous in what it seeks to do, that is, decriminalise certain transgressions under the law. For Fianna Fáil to suggest somehow that any amendment to the current position would wreak havoc on the sustainability of the future of the industry is, to be frank, patronising to the thousands of fishing families who seek to make a living from this industry. It is quite patronising to the person who has taken the time to do the research and come before this House, and, in a genuine sense, who seeks to provide a solution to a problem the House has been debating since 2005.
I have examined the historical debates and it has to be stated, as a matter of fact, that the committees dealing with this matter had a very united view. There was cross-party support for an amendment to the legislation in order that one would not criminalise a person, as Deputy Sheehan has pointed out. Such a person would not be brought before the courts if he or she was 4 kg over a quota. That is the type of ludicrous situation which Deputy O'Keeffe's Bill seeks to address. That is fair.
In examining the Commission's Green Paper on the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, it states that a minuscule amount, as I understand it, is afforded to fisheries protection. I agree the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority is needed, but there is a perception that the authority is not working in partnership or in tandem with the fishing organisations or the fishermen themselves. It is perceived, on the quay sides, as being against these people. I will speak about that in greater detail later.
I also wish to address the remarks of the Minister of State. I do not understand the logic behind the following comment:
I am not convinced, unfortunately, that this Bill would contribute positively to the rebuilding of fish stocks. Quite the opposite, in fact, my belief is that it could result in increasing the level of illegal fishing and further drive down the biomass of fish stocks leading to a collapse of many of the key commercial stocks around the coast on which our fishing industry is so dependent.
There is an assumption in that comment that if the current provisions whereby a man who over fishes by 4 kg is not subjected to the potential for administrative sanctions or sanctions before a court are changed or amended in any way, such a man will fish at a level of 200 kg over quota the following day. There is an underlying assumption that if some of the sanctions are amended or softened, the fishing industry and all those who own vessels will err on the side of criminality or will flout the law.
It is true that some have transgressed and should be subject to the full rigours of the law. However, for Fianna Fáil and the Government to suggest that any amendment would lead to a serious undermining and depletion of our fish stocks and would have an effect on sustainability is over-egging the pudding.
In his speech the Minister of State remarked in respect of France that all member states, including Ireland, were under close scrutiny by the Commission. He further remarked that in the case of France, in 2005 the European Court of Justice imposed a fine of €20 million together with a fine of €57.8 million for every month until the appropriate level of regulation was applied to its fishing industry. Did the Minister of State contextualise that statement? Did he state how much the fishing industry is worth to France? Did he state what percentage that fine was relative to the overall industry in France? Common sense dictates that fines of €20 million and €57.8 million are a drop in the ocean by comparison with what the industry is worth to France. It could not care less about sanctions. Few fishermen in France are subject to the equivalent of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority entering and confiscating their boats and bringing them up before the civil courts within two or three weeks or subject to files going to the French DPP or the Attorney General. That is simply not the case in France but if the Minister of State can prove otherwise I would be pleased to hear it. It is a matter of relativity. We are all aware there are fishermen who are no saints; it is well documented. However, if the Government is going to give us an argument against proposed legislation, at least it should give us something factual, not something out of context.
There is also the issue of proportionality to which the Minister of State referred in his speech. He stated that successive fisheries Ministers have seriously considered the imposition of administrative sanctions following representations and that on a number of occasions the advice of successive Attorneys General has been sought in relation to this approach. He further stated that the legal advice was that imposing sanctions such as those set out in the Fine Gael Bill would undermine the existing legislative framework, allowing offenders to avoid the very serious penalties, prosecution and forfeiture of gear by payment of a fine of €1,000 or less. However, the Bill clearly states there is no reason one cannot go after those persons who flout the law, who are repeat offenders and who have been in breach on successive occasions. It is still possible to impose the full rigours of the law and I do not understand why the Minister of State cannot apply the same logic here to the situation that applies to those who use quads on the mountains, to which Deputy O'Keeffe referred. I believe this point is worthy of a response by the Government.
As I understand the Bill, it allows for a scenario whereby an element of discretion is applied. If someone seriously flouts the law, one can bring that person before the court. However, where a person exceeds the limit of 4 kg, for example, which has happened, one does not apply the full rigours of the law because it is such a small administrative mistake or transgression and therefore common sense applies. I do not understand the Government's position in this regard.
We support the Bill. It has been discussed at cross-party level and at committee in the past. There has been agreement and I do not understand why the current situation prevails in the House. It speaks to the culture in this House as well, and it speaks volumes about why people outside the House are so cynical when one position is taken outside and inside the House, but then a person votes in a different way. It feeds into the cynicism about politicians when we give rich tea and sympathy to a position but then vote against it when it comes to the substance of the matter.
We agree there can be no doubt but that better enforcement is necessary for more effective fisheries management systems. Questions arise in our mind in respect of criminal sanctions and an equitable way of dealing with non-compliance of fisheries management systems. If the figures are to be believed, the marine sector yields an annual turnover of almost €3 billion and supports 44,000 jobs. These figures are supplied by the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority 2007 report. If we are to believe it, then we must examine in greater detail where sanctions should be applied.
We all agree that any illegal activity that endangers the fish stocks of this island must be punished. When speaking to the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Bill in 2005, my colleague, Deputy Tommy Broughan, stated the most effective route for implementing a workable and successful means of control seems to be to impose harsh criminal penalties only on the most persistent and extreme offenders, which corresponds with the point I made earlier. This Bill allows for such a mechanism. The Labour Party believed strongly then, as now, that other breaches should be dealt with by mechanisms such as administrative penalties, on-the-spot fines and a transparent and predictable points system on licences similar to that which applies to owners of motor vehicles found to be transgressing the law.
An amount of consternation exists among Irish fishermen about the role of the SFPA. There is a perception among fishermen that they come under greater scrutiny from the authority's officers and that non-Irish vessels are left off the hook. We should examine this in greater detail. On page 27 of the authority's 2007 report there is a reference to the number of instances where legal action is taken by the SFPA against Irish vessels. Of the 99 cases in which legal action was required, some 23 were referred to the Attorney General's office, 52 written warnings were issued and 24 detention orders were made. There were 99 cases from 19,174 landings in 2007. These figures may have been updated since. Let us compare this to the figures for non-Irish vessels. In 2007, there were 1,465 landings and 1,351 inspections whereupon enforcement was taken in 42 cases. Of the 42 cases, some 18 resulted in detention orders, warning letters accounted for 23 cases and one file was sent to the Attorney General. We must speak to relativity because when we compare the number of inspections of Irish to non-Irish vessels we must factor in the number of landings as well. Perhaps this addresses Deputy Sheahan's earlier point. In essence, based on these figures it could be argued there is no evidence to suggest Irish owners are scrutinised more. However, I am certain that the fishermen's organisations would have a strong view on the matter and such data should be scrutinised independently. The essential point is that of the legal actions taken, the vast bulk are administrative in nature. However, there is little or no analysis provided by the SFPA as to the nature of those administrative and detention-related sanctions. The Bill, rightly, points out that "the sea fishing community in Ireland has been aggrieved at the use of onerous criminal penalties to control even minor breaches of technical regulations". This is the essence of the Bill and it is on this basis we support it.
I thank the Labour Party for allocating us time to contribute to the debate on this Bill, which Sinn Féin supports. As the explanatory memorandum states, there is an issue regarding fish stocks. Everyone involved in the fishing sector in this country recognises that. However, it is also the case, as stated, that the punitive measures that were introduced to penalise Irish fishermen are not only inefficient but have caused a great deal of resentment within fishing communities. The current measures mean that a fisherman found to be in breach of certain regulations may end up with a criminal record rather than having to pay a fine as would be the case in legislation covering any other economic sector, such as farming. This means that anybody fishing even a little over quota will end up in court and with a criminal conviction. Such persons will be unable subsequently to travel to the United States or Australia, for example. This is a disgraceful provision which would not be imposed on any other sector in our community.
The explanatory memorandum refers to stocks being low, but there is an issue regarding the scientific evidence cited in support of some restrictions and a view that the research carried out is not always accurate. Even apart from that, many people in the sector are of the view that the management of the Irish fishery should primarily be a domestic responsibility rather than the current situation where almost everything to do with the sector is at the whim of diktats from the fisheries directorate in Brussels. The Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority is in effect enforcing those diktats rather than any logically arrived at measures decided in this House. That is a legacy of the surrender of our fishery not only to the bureaucrats who determine quotas and sanctions but also to an entirely unfair distribution of quota allocation within Irish waters which, since 1973, has meant that Irish fishermen have been at an extreme disadvantage in terms of access to quota and has led to the taking of as much as €200 billion worth of fish from our waters. If that figure is accurate it represents a criminal waste of a potentially valuable natural resource that could have been developed in a way that made fishing a significant contributor to economic growth and exports.
When the entire European Union quota for all fishing waters in 2008 and for all European Union fleets was taken into account, the Irish quota was a mere 9% of the overall total. Even within Irish waters, where almost all of the Irish sector's catch originates, the disparities were glaring. For example, France had 42% of whitefish quota in Irish waters in 2008 compared with just 15% for Irish fishermen. That is, by any reckoning, a glaring disparity and a completely unfair distribution of quota. It is difficult to imagine that any other sovereign European Government would agree to that type of surrender of such a valuable natural resource, but that seems to have been lost on those who negotiated the disastrous deal prior to accession. The current reform of the Common Fisheries Policy presents an opportunity for the State to insist on a radical reform of the system to address these issues. It has also been pointed out that the European Union flouts its own principle of subsidiarity in regard to the governance of the fishing sector. In place of this rigid and unfair centralised management of the fishery, individual states - including Ireland - need to reclaim the primary responsibility for fisheries within the national 200-mile limit under the principle of "applied subsidiarity". All vessels operating within that limit would then become subject to the full force of Irish law.
This is the background to the criminal sanctions that were introduced several years ago in the face of almost unanimous opposition from everyone involved in the fishing sector as well as from within the Fianna Fáil Party, including those Members who were members of the Oireachtas committee when the legislation was debated. Despite this opposition, the Government chose to proceed with measures that have caused a great deal of resentment among coastal communities throughout the country. One need only recall the two referenda on the Lisbon treaty to gauge the degree of resentment. In the first referendum, up to 90% of voters in coastal communities rejected the proposal in a show of protest against these provisions.
The legislative measures were accompanied by the establishment of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority which was empowered by the legislation to police the fishing community in a manner which, to many fishermen, effectively placed them on the same level as criminals involved in drug dealing. As I recall, the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr. Michael McDowell, made an insinuation at the time the legislation was going through that this was indeed how he viewed fishermen who were in breach of regulations. That was a disgraceful comment which hurt many people, particularly those in rural and coastal communities. Nobody would attempt to defend anyone involved in illegal practices that impact negatively on the rest of the fishing community or which represent a serious threat to fish stocks. However, there is a widespread perception that the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority acts in a heavy handed manner and concentrates to a massive extent on Irish fishermen, which is not reflective of the level of illegal fishing in our waters by non-Irish vessels. Many fishermen find the authorities in this country completely impotent or even uninterested in tackling this reality, even though it has been estimated that the illegal catch by foreign vessels from Irish waters could be one third or perhaps even more of the declared catch.
There is a strong belief among fishermen that illegal fishing by non-Irish boats is underestimated. On that basis, there are proposals that fishery control and surveillance should be related to quota so that vessels from bigger fleets are given proportionate attention rather than the current situation where Irish vessels are paid a greater level of attention by the protection agencies than is warranted by the share of the quota in Irish waters enjoyed by the Irish fleet. The Kerry County Development Board made a similar point in this regard in a report I presented to the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food two years ago, indicating that the regulations governing stock management were not being applied equally across the different national fleets.
I support the proposal to replace the existing criminal sanctions with the administrative sanctions and fines set out in this Bill. That change undoubtedly reflects the view within the fishing sector and would ensure that fishermen in breach of regulations are dealt with in the same way as other businesses found to be in breach of regulations pertaining to their sector. This is far preferable to the heavy handed powers contained in the most recent legislation. I urge the Government to recognise the sentiment that exists within the fishing community towards the existing legislation and the manner in which the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority executes its remit. The replacement of criminal sanction provisions with administrative measures and fines would go a long way to reducing some of the negativity that exists within coastal communities.
Deputy Aylward spoke about the number of salmon in the rivers Barrow, Nore and Suir last year and how he expects to see more salmon this year. The implication of this is that it was drift salmon fishermen who were responsible for fish not getting up the rivers. I made a living from drift fishing at one time, both legally and illegally. I do not deny it.
At that time we were fishing off the coast of Clare and Kerry and were refused licences, so we fished and made a living out of it. I assure the Deputy, as sure as night follows day, that under no circumstances were drift fishermen responsible for the decline in fish stock in rivers. It goes far deeper than that and is to do with the far greater power exercised by other sectors in our society. Pollution of the rivers killed salmon spawn and the non-replacement of hatcheries contributed to the problem. That river pollution was caused by large industries, local authorities and other sectors.
I assure Deputy Aylward, from my experience on the ground, that in the year salmon drift net fishing was outlawed, there was a huge run of salmon. Deputy Dooley would know from his contacts in west Clare - people who continue to do a small bit of fishing illegally, if that is the word one wants to use - that the salmon are running as well as they were back in the 1970s and 1980s. It is inaccurate to say the drift fishermen were responsible. When drift nets were taken out of Irish waters, it was the end of their livelihood for a sector of the fishing fleet and this contributed to the pressure on other sectors. No consideration was given to the fact that people were being made redundant. Those people moved into potting of lobster and crayfish, gill netting and so forth, which put pressure on those sectors.
The legislation that introduced the criminal sanctions against coastal communities and fishermen has led to great resentment and animosity between the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority and entire communities. We must do the right thing now by removing criminal sanctions against decent, honourable people trying to make a living.