Thursday, 3 June 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving us the opportunity to debate this very serious matter, which I tried to do during the week in other fora. I really appreciate this matter being bought before the Dáil.
On Friday morning last, a Castletownbere trawler, the Lours De Mers, was fishing ten miles outside of Castletownbere. At approximately 8 o'clock in the morning, a Spanish trawler three times the size of the Castletownbere fishing trawler attempted to ram the Irish vessel. Bear in mind that the Spanish trawler was three times bigger than the Irish trawler and was fishing ten miles west of Castletownbere. It was stealing Irish fish as it was two miles inside Irish seas. It was illegally fishing inside Irish seas. The Spanish boat continued not alone to fish but to attempt to ram the Irish trawler.
Before 8 o'clock, the owners of the Lours De Mersfishing boat contacted Valentia for help, expecting the normal procedure that the navy would be dispatched. I do not want to be overcritical of the navy because it might be under-resourced, which is what I have been told. These are the facts of what happened, however: number one, a Spanish fishing boat was illegally fishing in Irish waters, and number two, it was attempting to ram an Irish boat.
I was contacted at approximately 10 o'clock in the morning on the same issue. At 10:37 a.m. I found out that nobody was coming to the aid of the Irish boat. Remember, four Castletownbere fisherman were on this boat. They needed their lives to be protected.
What I cannot understand for the life of me is that if a foreign registered car went up on the footpath on O’Connell Street and attempted to kill people, it would be an international incident. This is an international incident. It was an act of piracy off our Irish coastline and nobody was willing to act on it immediately. It needed immediate action.
I contacted the Taoiseach's office at 10.37 a.m., a record of which I have on my telephone. I also, thankfully, emailed him because he is now denying any communication was made. The emails are proof in themselves, however. That was 10.56 a.m. when I emailed him. I emailed the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, at 10.56 a.m., which came back to me and said it would look into the matter. At 8 o'clock that night, it came back saying there were further investigations into the matter.
At 8 o'clock at night, however, there was still nobody out at sea to protect the west Cork Castletownbere fishermen. There was no assistance to the Irish boat for approximately ten or 12 hours that day. They desperately needed assistance. We need an independent investigation into this matter. It is the only way we can clear up how there was no protection for the Irish fisherman out at sea last Friday.
Again, I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing this Topical Issue matter. If somebody, God forbid, falls overboard in the seas off Ireland, a helicopter can be deployed and can be there within ten or 15 minutes. Four fishermen were in dread of their lives from a foreign vessel trying to ram them in Irish waters. The Taoiseach ignored a call and emails from Deputy Collins. I saw the paperwork and the telephone files, which the Taoiseach said on public record, on the floor of this House, he did not get. I saw them. If he prefers to do petty things like that rather than dealing with an issue of people's lives, that says it all for me.
In the first instance, I know this must be very distressing for the four families involved. I acknowledge that in terms of the incident described by the Deputies. Obviously, I know this probably straddles a few Departments in terms of defence and foreign affairs.
It is, however, down as being a matter for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
The Irish Naval Service is aware of the incident in question. It has issued a statement that its vessel, the LÉ Róisín, detained a Spanish-registered fishing vessel approximately 95 nautical miles south of Mizen Head. The statement notes that the detention was in respect of alleged breaches of fishing regulations. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has no direct knowledge of the incident, nor would it be appropriate for him to have any involvement directly in the matter.
For the record, the strict legal position is that the monitoring and control of fishing vessels within Ireland's fisheries zones are matters for the Irish control authorities. Under the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006, all operational issues of this nature are matters exclusively for the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, and the Naval Service. The Minister is expressly precluded from getting involved in operational matters such as this. As the regulator, the SFPA is responsible for monitoring and enforcing compliance with the EU's Common Fisheries Policy, CFP, and ensuring equality and fairness for all fishers and the continuing sustainability of Ireland's marine resources. The authority electronically monitors all vessels operating within the Irish exclusive economic zone, EEZ, with the support of the Naval Service, which conducts at-sea fisheries inspections. Where instances of non-compliance are found by control authorities, prosecutions may follow, as would any incident of non-compliance with Irish law. Under the CFP, EU fishing fleets are given equal access to EU waters and fishing grounds, subject to allocated fish quotas and the derogations set down in respect of waters up to 12 nautical miles from baselines. Fishing vessels, irrespective of size, must comply with the rules of the CFP, including rules on access and technical rules for fishing and catch reporting.
Regarding access to Ireland's coastal waters, access inside our 6 nautical miles zone is restricted to Irish fishing vessels and reciprocal fishing vessels under the voisinagearrangements between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Those arrangements allow Northern Ireland vessels to fish within the 0 to 6 nautical miles zone of Ireland. In the 6 to 12 nautical miles zone, access is restricted as set down in European Council Regulation No. 1380/2013. Spanish fishing vessels do not have any access to Ireland's 6 to 12 nautical miles zone. A derogation for limiting access to the 6 to 12 nautical miles zones under the CFP will be reviewed as part of an upcoming review of the functioning of the CFP under which the Commission must report to the European Parliament and Council by the end of 2022. However, the Minister has advised that he does not expect the Commission report to recommend that the derogation restricting fishing vessels to the 12 nautical miles zones of member states will be ended.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. He said a Spanish boat was detained by the navy. In fact, it was not detained until last Monday, even though this incident took place the Friday before. The report to Valentia Island went in at 8 o'clock on the Friday morning. What would have happened if the Spanish fishers had decided to ram the Irish boat and sink our fishermen? Is there any protection for Irish fishermen when a foreign vessel is illegally fishing in our waters and attempting to ram them? Is there any protection under the Irish flag for the Irish fishing fleet? It seems to me that such protection is not in place at this time, and this particular incident confirms that.
It is not good enough to say the Spanish boat was detained. It should have been detained on the Friday morning. It should have been brought in for engaging in massive infringements, footage of which can be seen on social media, and terrifying the local fishermen from Castletownbere. Those fishermen have worked hard all their lives and invested their money in their livelihoods. They want to fish and fish fair. That is all they want to do. However, it seems to them that foreign vessels are protected first and Irish vessels are considered secondarily.
Will the Minister of State agree to launch an independent investigation into the actions of the SFPA, why the navy was not dispatched immediately, what happened when the call went in at 8 o'clock in the morning, and why it took three to four days to detain the Spanish vessel? I want answers and the people of Castletownbere and west Cork want answers. Every person who is fishing out of Ireland wants answers because their lives are at risk in the current situation. If the Government will not stand over and protect them when they are out at sea, who will protect them? That is the question we need answered but there has been no answer yet. I would appreciate if the Minister of State could furnish the answers to the points I have raised. I want to go back to the people who were terrified on that morning and the others who are worried about their livelihoods and their lives and assure them they are at least protected under the Irish flag and by the Irish Government.
First, I want to say to the people involved and their families that they have protection under the law. That is very clear. All Deputies will appreciate that when an investigation is ongoing into an incident, I, as Minister of State, cannot comment on it or offer any view on what the determination of that investigation might be. I must be independent and I am precluded from getting involved in any such commentary. It is the same in regard to any incident that happens onshore, involving the Garda Síochána, the Director of Public Prosecutions or other independent actors in the State. As I said, this is a matter for the Irish control authorities under the Sea-Fisheries Maritime Jurisdiction Act. I gave details in terms of the actions of the Naval Service in detaining the boat for alleged breaches of fishing regulations. An investigation into the incident will take place, as I indicated.
I will raise the Deputy's points regarding resources with the Minister. However, I must be very clear that there is an area into which we, as the Houses of the Oireachtas, cannot stray in respect of specific incidents and making determinations on them. I cannot get involved in any such determinations. I hear the Deputy's frustration. I want to say to the families involved that I acknowledge that an incident like this is hugely distressing. It is their livelihood we are talking about and we, as a State, have a duty to protect them. I absolutely acknowledge that. The law is robust and I assure the Deputy the matter will be investigated.
I thank the Minister of State. For the information of the Deputy, which he may avail of after the appropriate investigations to which the Minister of State alluded are completed, if a Member is unhappy with the performance of a State agency, it is always open to him or her to ask that agency to come before the relevant Oireachtas committee and give account of what happened or did not happen, as the case may be.