Thursday, 21 October 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
13. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if trawlers over 18 m in length are currently permitted to carry out fishing activities in Irish waters inside of the six-nautical-mile limit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51539/21]
I am returning to a matter that was raised under a priority question earlier. I am asking about the position with boats of over 18 m. I have tried twice to get clarification from the Minister's office. I was forced into submitting this parliamentary question. A Topical Issue was ruled out of order, which I understand as the question was sub judice. There are serious implications here and I wish to return to the matter to tease out what analysis the Department has done since the ban was lifted. What tonnage of sprat is being caught?
I do not have the figures for the tonnage of sprat, but I will see if I can get that. Sprat is a non-quota species. The Marine Institute would probably have figures and may be able to do a general assessment.
As I said to Deputy Cairns earlier, I am awaiting the final judgment from the Court of Appeal at which point I will decide how I proceed. Obviously, I have outlined my commitment to the six-nautical-mile zone and the prioritisation for smaller vessels. When I get the judgment, I will need to reflect on how I will proceed.
I hope I can benefit from the time the Minister has given up. I appreciate the Minister's bona fides and that he is supportive of this. This policy was announced in 2018 and it was to come into effect in 2019 or 2020 with a three-year stay for the bigger trawlers to allow them adjust. The Minister knows more about this than I do. My difficulty is that while the judgment might have been perfected in October, the Minister has known since July 2020. Given the seriousness of this matter, I have no idea how a stay was not applied for in time, applied for months later, refused, appealed, granted for a period of time and then removed.
This policy was a game changer and was backed by almost all of the approximately 800 submissions made and by all the relevant and important organisations on the ground. Sprat may not be bound by quota, but it is a most important source of food for fish and mammals, and vital for the ecosystem. I know the Minister appreciates the importance of this, but the big trawlers are now going back in to remove sprat unsustainably.
When I appealed this in the Court of Appeal I also applied for a stay on the previous decision removing the ban on the six nautical mile zones. The Court of Appeal allowed the stay at that stage. Maybe six weeks or so ago, the Court of Appeal removed that stay but I am still waiting on its final judgment. My commitment to this is clear and it has been very much informed in the latest period by engagement with the court and the court decisions. As it stands, I must wait for the final detail on the outcome of the appeal and reflect on and decide how to proceed.
The answer to my simple question is also simple. It is that the boats are free to go in and fish unsustainably, taking out as much sprat as they possibly can and as quickly as they can. That is our current position despite a policy decision way back indicating that this was unsustainable. It is despite the rising numbers of sprat being caught in an unsustainable manner in 2021.
Why was this process not fast-tracked or explained to the court? I do not want to get into anything substantive that is sub judice. Why was it not explained to the court that the matter is extremely urgent? We fast-track commercial matters and this is absolutely essential with respect to climate change and biodiversity emergencies and the plight of local fishermen. Yet we have a complete lack of clarity in how the stay was lifted.
I wrote to the Minister's office twice. I do not want to personalise this matter but confusion was allowed to persist so we had to raise it in this manner. When will the judgment be given or what indication has been given from the court in this respect?
Deputy Connolly appreciates these are matters for the court and not for my office to decide. Only the court can give an indication in that regard. As a party to the appeal I cannot give such an indication.
I applied to the court for a stay and this was granted, meaning those large vessels were blocked from coming into the six nautical mile zone while the court was adjudicating on its decision. I applied for a further stay a number of weeks ago and the court did not grant it. That is the legal position and I am awaiting the final outcome of the appeal decision. As the Deputy can see from the court process that was undertaken, the banning of vessels over 18 m from that six nautical mile zone involves a complicated consultation process. That was undertaken under the leadership of the previous Minister, Deputy Michael Creed, who was very committed to this. This was contested in the courts and that is the position we are in today.