Wednesday, 13 February 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Early last week, concern was expressed regarding two fishing vessels that were in difficulty off the west coast. One of them was an Irish vessel and the other was a Russian trawler. What was most striking was when it became apparent that the Russian vessel, described as a trawler, had a crew of 91 on board meaning that, effectively, it was a factory ship. Over the weekend, a number of fishermen drew my attention to the marine traffic with the tracking of these trawlers fishing off the coast. Approximately 57 factory ships work west of County Galway and of Loop Head in County Clare in the vicinity of the Porcupine Bank. Their daily take would vary between 200 tonnes and 400 tonnes of blue whiting. On a good day, they would have 14,800 tonnes if they caught the maximum number of fish for the day. The consequences of that primarily for fish stocks and ultimately for the environment are drastic. I am informed that there is no policing of it in that there is nobody on board to determine if they are declaring what they are catching and whether they are caught within or outside European or Irish waters.
Obviously, this leads to many difficulties for the Irish fishing fleet. Before commenting further, I commend the Minister on his decision to exclude vessels of or greater than 18 m in length from fishing within 6 nautical miles of the Irish shore. That was a very positive step to take. However, many fishing vessels are short of quota or have no quota. These would have an historical track record but maybe not updated such that they would qualify for it.
I have been told that Norway has done a deal with the EU under which Norwegian factory ships have access to European waters. It is my understanding that it has negotiated for 250,000 tonnes of blue whiting and the trade-off for that works out at around 30 tonnes of cod for the Irish fishing fleet.
The SFPA will claim that it is monitoring the situation but how can it monitor factory ships that are working at between 150 and 200 miles off the coast? Staff of the SFPA are sitting in an office in Clonakilty, watching the sea on television. That is effectively the only monitoring I know about.
Factory ships are seriously detrimental to fish stocks, particularly in the context of 14,800 tonnes of whiting being taken from the sea per day. This needs to be investigated. I have suggested in the past that the large boats working within Irish and European territorial waters should have a member of the SFPA on board permanently to monitor them properly. If that is not done, and I see that the Minister is smiling at me now-----
If that is not done, essentially there will be no monitoring or policing as such. We do not know what these boats are taking on board or the damage they are doing to fish stocks in general. We also do not know what environmental damage they are doing. Factory ships should be obliged to have a member of the SFPA on board at all times.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Under the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP, non-EU vessels are precluded from fishing in the waters around Ireland up to the 200-mile limit, other than under an EU agreement. For example, limited access is provided for Norwegian and Faroese fishing vessels under reciprocal access agreements. The Russian and Icelandic vessels referred to by the Deputy are not allowed to fish inside the waters of the Irish 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone or any waters of the European Union.
Waters outside the 200-mile exclusive economic zone are considered to be the high seas and are open to all under international law, subject to certain regional management regimes between coastal states, for example, the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission, NEAFC. Up until our accession to the then European Economic Community, EEC, and our declaration of the 200 nautical mile exclusive fisheries zone in the 1970s, factory ships from Russia and other countries were a common sight just 12 miles off our shore. At that time, the waters outside the 12-mile zone were high seas and we had no legal means of restricting the activity of those large ships. Our membership of the EU and the CFP ensured that we were able to put in place a strong policy and legal framework to manage fishing sustainably. This provides protection such that vessels from third countries such as Russia and Iceland have no access to our 200-mile zone. Our waters and their fishing resources are protected from any reoccurrence of the effective free-for-all which existed prior to our accession and the establishment of the CFP.
Fishing access to the Irish exclusive economic zone is strictly controlled and monitored by the Naval Service and the SFPA in co-operation with our EU partners. At a wider EU level, there is limited fishing access granted to some non-EU countries, including Norway, as part of reciprocal fishing agreements but no such arrangements exist in respect of fishing vessels from either the Russian Federation or Iceland. Vessels from all countries are free to use our port facilities in cases of force majeureand normal freedom of navigation rules apply.
As the Deputy may be aware from media reports, a Russian vessel is currently in Castletownbere for repairs. I have been informed that this particular vessel, while operating outside our exclusive zone, reported a damaged propeller and was towed to the south side of Bere Island by another Russian trawler, where tug boats brought it into the bay. The vessel is under the supervision of personnel of the Marine Survey Office pending completion of repairs to free the propeller and follow-up procedures and it is expected that this work will take some time.
I wish to refer briefly to the issue of factory ships more generally. Quota in Ireland are a public asset and are not privately owned. Had we privatised that asset many years ago, we would have far fewer trawlers now and the smaller number of vessels would be large factory ships. We decided to keep the quota as a public asset and to allocate it on the basis of fishing effort on an annual basis. Others have chosen an entirely different approach and they have fewer and larger boats or factory ships. Those factory ships, insofar as they are under the flag of EU member states, operate under the CFP and fish under the quota regimes of that policy which are negotiated on an annual basis. While I appreciate that there are emotive arguments around factory ships, which are large, they fish only in accordance with CFP rules and regulations and quotas allocated to them.
Icelandic and Russian vessels have no legal entitlement to fish within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone. That zone is a creation of our membership of the EU and the CFP.
I do not know where the Minister is getting his information but the information I have is that these Russian and Icelandic factory ships are operating inside the 200-mile territorial limit. How is the exclusion zone is being policed? The SFPA is not policing it because it does not go out that far. Is the Department depending on the Naval Service to police the area?
On the Norwegian agreement, will the Minister to confirm that 250,000 tonnes of blue whiting was given to Norway in return for 30 tonnes of cod for the Irish fleet?
On the SFPA and monitoring, the Minister will tell me that the authority can monitor the area by way of satellite and so forth. That is the answer that we get all of the time but, in reality, that is not the case. If vessels enter Irish territorial waters but there is nobody within 100 miles to police them, they can fish those waters and leave again.
Was the Russian boat currently in Castletownbere inspected by the SFPA? Did inspectors board her and check the type of fish that she had on board? She was fishing for a significant time before she broke down. I understand that she lost a propeller. Did the SFPA board the Russian vessel that towed her in to determine the type of species on board and whether any of the catch came from Irish or European territorial waters?
For the Deputy's information, the regulation and policing of this area is determined under the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006. It is interesting to note in the context of that legislation that I am specifically mentioned and prohibited from any involvement in the day-to-day management, supervision and operation of the enforcement regime, which is only right and proper. Under the Act, day-to-day operations are the job of the SFPA and the Naval Service. I invite the Deputy to visit Clonakilty where the SFPA has an active capacity to monitor the movement of all ships within our 200 nautical mile zone. My information is that the fishing endeavours of the trawler that was towed into Castletownbere were outside of our zone.
There is a tendency never to let the truth get in the way of a good story and the Deputy has told a good story here today-----
-----but his information is at variance with the facts as conveyed to me by officials in my Department. We are adamant that our fishing resource is adequately policed and monitored to maintain sustainability, and to ensure that our waters are not over-fished and that people fish only in accordance with the quotas that are allocated to them on an annual basis.
There is some access for Norwegians on the basis of coastal state negotiations in respect of certain species on an annual basis - the pelagic sector in particular. This is a reciprocal arrangement. The Norwegians have access to area 6 west of Scotland but north of 56olatitude, which is roughly in line with Edinburgh. These are reciprocal arrangements in terms of EU negotiations and EU member states having access to Norwegian waters and Faroese waters in those circumstances. Access is governed by international negotiations where issues between coastal states and the European Union are at play.
To return to the core point which the Deputy raised, there is no access to Russian or Icelandic vessels in EU waters. It has been sought in the negotiations but resisted on all occasions.