Thursday, 21 October 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
2. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the actions he is taking to address the programme for Government commitment to ensure that inshore waters continue to be protected for smaller fishing vessels and recreational fishers and that pair trawling will be prohibited inside the six-mile limit. [51910/21]
I ask the Minister to provide an update on the status of the ban on large trawlers of more than 18 m operating in inshore waters. Last month, the Court of Appeal refused the Minister's application to continue a stay on the ban. I realise it is a matter the Minister inherited, but it is a very important issue for many fishers, the marine sector and coastal ecosystems.
I thank the Deputy for her question. As she is aware, the programme for Government commits to ensuring "that inshore waters continue to be protected for smaller fishing vessels and recreational fishers and that pair trawling will be prohibited inside the six-mile limit". I am fully supportive of this objective, as is the Deputy.
As she may be aware, in December 2018, the then Minister, Deputy Creed, who demonstrated very strong commitment in issuing this direction, announced that vessels over 18 m would be excluded from trawling in inshore waters inside six nautical miles from 1 January 2020. A transition period of three years for vessels over 18 m targeting sprat was allowed to enable adjustment for these vessels as the sprat fishery is concentrated inside this area.
Policy directive 1 of 2019 was introduced in March 2019 to give effect to the changes. A judicial review was taken by two applicant fishers challenging the validity of the policy directive. On 6 October 2020, the High Court judgment held that the policy directive was made in breach of fair procedures and is void and-or of no legal effect. I appealed the decision to the Court of Appeal and a full hearing took place on 22 June 2021. Judgment on the case is reserved.
I also sought an extension on the stay on the order of the High Court, which was granted by the Court of Appeal on 19 March 2021, reinstating the policy directive. On 23 September 2021, the Court of Appeal refused my application to continue the stay further. This refusal means that vessels over 18 m have resumed trawling in the waters inside six nautical miles.
I am currently awaiting the decision of the Court of Appeal to inform my next steps. As the matter is sub judice, I cannot comment further until the matter is resolved before the courts.
I thank the Minister for the clarification and his ongoing work to protect our inshore waters. The reality is that within a few days, or even a day, of the recent court decision, I was receiving reports of large vessels operating by the coast, often within Bantry Bay in west Cork. It is a major concern for local professions and organisations. The issue has now been going back and forth for over a year. The uncertainty around the ban will probably continue for some time.
I ask the Minister to explain why the Department has not begun a new consultation process as a back-up if the eventual court ruling finds definitively against the directive, which we know is a possibility. Groups are rightly concerned that at the end of the legal proceedings the process might have to start all over again, with all that time lost. Why not have a fresh consultation as a redundancy, given that the policy directive was overturned in the first place because the consultation was not adequate?
These matters are always complex and, as we know, very much subject to legal challenge. Therefore, because I do not have the decision from the Court of Appeal on the previous process, it would be premature to commence a new consultation in advance of that. I must be informed and have all the information to hand in respect of the legal judgment on the previous process. I must await that judgment.
My commitment is clear, given that I appealed the previous decision on the strength of legal advice that I sought, and I want to deliver on this issue. I will await the judgment of the court, which really is the only option available to me. The judgment should be published soon and as soon as I have it, I will give it my full consideration and plot out how I will proceed.
I am sure the Minister can see why groups are calling for a new consultation process. The situation is difficult to unravel for people. While the Minister does not have the decision from the court, he knows that the consultation process was the reason the directive was overturned in the first place. My point is that this may not work out and if we had started a new consultation process already, less time would be lost. Another potential solution suggested to me is the introduction of a statutory instrument to restrict inshore pair trawling or activities by large vessels. Is that something the Minister is considering? As I said, the matter is likely to go on for some time and I am not sure if the Minister has a timeframe for its conclusion.
This issue directly affects the inshore fishing sector, a substantial cohort of coastal and island communities which are often overshadowed by the bigger players. Their representative groups need producer organisation, PO, status. While I recognise the Minister's work to date in granting some PO status, additional support and guidance which can be given to the remaining organisations to secure such status is vital. Inshore fishing is a sustainable practice and part of our coastal heritage that supports the livelihoods of hundreds of families and entire communities.
I value the inshore sector; it is important to the communities right along the coast. It has been great to see how they have strengthened in terms of their organisational capacity in recent months and years. I am fully supportive of that. I am aware that there is an application under consideration for PO status. I was glad to be able to award PO status to the Irish Islands Marine Resource Organisation, IIMRO, which represents the islands, a few months ago. That strengthening of the organisation has served the inshore sector very well. I can see that coming through in the meetings I have with the organisation, in the coherence and strength with which it makes representations.
This issue of particular importance to it. There was a lot of merit-----