Thursday, 7 October 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I would like discuss the unsustainable mussel dredging on Irish coasts and the operation of SI 461/2021. I am raising this matter because it is something about which I have a particular concern. SI 461/2021 states that mussel dredging opened with effect from 14 September 2021. The statutory instrument provides that persons may fish for mussels between that date and 16 December next. The concern is that this statutory instrument is facilitating about a dozen large boats working around protected Natura 2000 site sandbanks in the Irish Sea and off Irish coasts. It is enabling them to remove so-called mussel seed from our commons and relay it into aquaculture sites.
The seed then grows on the estuary with or without further dredging. It is often dredged up again for sale. The unique Irish definition of mussel seed, which, according to SI 461/2021, is mussels of any size as long as they are not intended for direct human consumption, allows big vessels to dredge up entire biogenic reefs wherever they find them. I understand from reading the statutory instrument that while a small number of sites are excluded from dredging within the terms of it, they are far few in number.
There is serious concern about the impact this dredging is having on mussel beds and the broader issue of sustainable development. There is a wider issue about the need to halt unmanaged fisheries. Coastwatch and other organisations have tried for years to ensure that this practice be regulated and halted unless we can establish that it can be done without undue environmental impact. The real concern is that there is no mussel management plan and that exploitation of commercial shellfish without a species management plan or adequate impact assessment will contravene the marine strategy framework directive, MSFD, descriptor 3 requirements and have a serious impact on our biodiversity.
Some years ago when I was newly elected to the Seanad, I raised a similar issue about cockle dredging at Passage East in Waterford. The then Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who had responsibility for it reversed the statutory instrument in response to the concerns I and environmentalists raised with him about the impact of big boats coming in and sweeping the seabed and destroying biodiversity and marine life. What is happening in this instance is quite similar.
I am asking that the practice provided for in the statutory instrument be halted. I am not convinced that it is being done sustainably. There is no data to show it is being done sustainably. There is a real concern that these large, high-carbon-footprint vessels are dredging in and out of protected marine sites and that this is impacting on the biogenic reefs formed by mussels, which are crucial for the marine food chain and which form biodiversity hotspots in the sea. There is a real concern that substantial volumes of mussels have already been dredged up and that serious damage is being done.
I do not have data on how many boats are active, but I have been told that there are 11 or 12. It should be possible to set the statutory instrument aside because of the assumptions that are being made or that it seems are being made on foot of it. These are unsubstantiated assumptions about mussel population dynamics. Specifically, the statutory instrument should be set aside because we do not have an environmental impact assessment and there is a real concern that we are damaging biodiversity at our marine sites.
I thank Deputy Bacik for raising this important issue. It is important to state from the outset that mussel seed is an essential raw material for the bottom growing mussel aquaculture industry. Mussel farmers fish for wild mussel seed for transplantation onto their licensed aquaculture sites for ongoing and later harvesting over a two-year growth cycle. The fished seed is grown to maturity on the sea floor, as distinct from what happens with rope grown mussels.
The dredge-and-relay aspect is a unique feature of the fishery, whereby the mussel seed biomass is not removed from the ecosystem but is, in fact, retained at more sheltered locations where it typically spawns three or four times during the cycle thereby creating an additional spawning biomass. The fish-and-relay process can, therefore, enhance spawning output by increasing the survival of mussel seed transferred to sheltered sites. The mussel seed fishery sector is managed on an all-island basis in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland and the cross-Border Loughs Agency.
The recommendations of the 2008 expert group report, the rising tide, on the bottom mussel industry on the island of Ireland forms the policy basis for managing the mussel seed fishery and bottom mussel culture. A fishery Natura plan for the Irish Sea mussel fisheries was adopted in 2018 following an appropriate assessment. The plan covers five years, from 2018 to 2022, inclusive, and follows on from the previous five-year plan. Fishing for mussel seed in the Irish Sea is restricted under Fisheries Natura Declaration No. 3 of 2018 (Mussel Fishing). This declaration prohibits fishing for mussels in the intertidal zone. It also prohibits fishing for mussels in a number of specific Natura 2000 sites around the Irish coast.
This declaration was amended by Fisheries Natura Declaration No. 2 of 2019 (Mussel Fishing), which modifies the boundary of an area off the Irish coast where fishing for mussels is prohibited. It is important to note that any recommendations to the Minister requesting that fishing be allowed on suggested dates is subject to the availability of adequate amounts of mussel seed being identified by surveys of mussel seed beds.
SI 461/2021 was made under section 15 of the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006. It allows fishing of mussel seed in the exclusive fishery limits of the State from 14 September to 16 December 2021, inclusive, as Deputy Bacik outlined, on suitable tides except for Natura areas closed under fisheries Natura declarations. The fisheries management measures in place for the fishery include restricted access to the fishery and seasonal controls on the periods during which fishing is permitted.
The decision to open the fishery was based on information from various sources, including Bord lascaigh Mhara, BIM, surveys, Marine Institute scientific advice and Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority advice on enforcement. Between May and August 2021, BIM carried out eight seed surveys, including some preliminary surveys, in a number of locations in the Irish Sea, including off Rosslare and Wexford, at Long Bank; off Cahore Point, Rusk Channel; off South Wicklow Head; in the Dublin Bay area; and at Glassgorman Banks.
On the basis of these surveys, BIM identified an estimated 9,293 tonnes of mussel seed in the Irish Sea. The Marine Institute provided the Department with scientific advice for the proposed 2021 mussel seed fishery. The advice notes that survey estimates for the period 2016 to 2021 varied from 3,500 tonnes to 9,293 tonnes. These estimates are substantially lower than previous highs of over 25,000 tonnes reported in catches. At 9,293 tonnes, however, the 2021 estimates are the highest in recent years.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. I am conscious that, as he said, mussel dredging is run on an all-island basis with Bord Iascaigh Mhara co-ordinating and providing a secretariat for the mussel boats, but I am told there is a difference in that in Northern Ireland mussel seed fishing grounds remain closed in 2021 as it was seen that there were not enough mussels. The mussel dredgers from Northern Ireland tend to come south to get mussel seed for NI aquaculture areas such as Belfast Lough. The Northern Ireland Government survey of summer 2021 states:
These surveys have indicated the continued reestablishment of this once large seed mussel bed .... [This was a bed at Skullmartin.] We would therefore not recommend opening this bed at this time.
Therefore, I think there remains a serious concern, despite the surveys the Minister of State has cited, that good weather has already facilitated intensive dredging over the recent neap tides and that substantial volumes of mussels have already been dredged up and damage done, both where they were dredged and where the dredged seed was dumped. Again, there is just a lack of information available on assurances about the environmental impact of dredging at this scale and this level will have. There is a concern also that the statutory instrument enables dredging based on assumptions that are not borne out by the reality, one difficulty being that mussel seed is so widely defined in the statutory instrument as to include mussels of any age or size under Irish law.
During the recent by-election campaign, one of the issues I campaigned on was climate matters, in particular protection of the uniquely brilliant environment that is Dublin Bay. I represent Dublin Bay South. When we see this sort of wide-scale dredging being allowed under statutory instruments such as this one, it is important we question them and the environmental impact they have and look for environmental impact assessments.
I agree. We should always look at our processes and make sure they are robust and are protecting our environment and the sustainability of our future stocks, as is the case. In some ways, I would argue that perhaps the survey the Deputy points to in the North that advised that there not be harvesting in those areas actually show that the system of surveying is working. This is done on an all-island basis and, therefore, certain areas under that survey were found, as the Deputy outlined, not to have been selected, it would appear.
Authorisations are provided only to those boats which are directly connected with a bottom-grown mussel aquaculture operator or which are contracted to fish on behalf of same. An authorisation to fish for mussel seed specifies various conditions, such as the quantity of seed that may be fished by the boat, or the "allocation", the aquaculture site where the seed is to be relaid and the permitted tides for fishing, together with other regulatory requirements.
The Marine Stewardship Council, MSC, issued on 27 July 2018 certification for the fishery, which is valid for five years, subject to the results of ongoing surveillance audits. The certification states that the fishery has been evaluated by SAI Global, has been found to comply with the MSC requirements and is a "Well Managed and Sustainable Fishery", in accordance with the MSC's principles and criteria for sustainable fishing.
I bring the Deputy back to the earlier point, that this harvesting leads to increased spawning levels of biomass in the process, but I thank her for raising these points.