Thursday, 13 July 2023
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
1. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to outline what discussions or engagements he has held with his ministerial colleagues to ensure that every effort is made to minimise the impact on traditional fishing grounds from the development of offshore renewable energy; and if he supports the principle of co-creation when designating areas for offshore renewable energy or marine protected areas. [34496/23]
What level of engagement has the Minister had with his counterparts about the shared marine space and how do we maximise the potential of our marine space for our fishing communities and renewable energy while also protecting the marine ecosystem?
I thank the Deputy for his question. This is an important issue, so we must ensure that everyone works together in progressing future offshore opportunities and that all considerations are taken into account. Commercial sea fishing and aquaculture activities are long-standing, pre-existing and traditional activities in the marine environment. The Deputy will agree that our seafood resources are an important national economic asset that generate a great benefit to the economy of €1.3 billion every year, with approximately 15,000 jobs created as a result.
In July 2021, the Government published the national marine planning framework, which was our first national framework for managing marine activities. The framework outlines the vision of how we want to use, protect and enjoy our seas in the years up to 2040 and is underpinned by the Maritime Area Planning Act 2021. The Government introduced these two important instruments to set out how Ireland would move forward in the development of new and emerging uses of maritime space in a way that acknowledged and considered existing blue economy activities, a crucial part of which is seafood production.
Any proposals for marine spatial plans that may arise from the Maritime Area Planning Act must be consistent with the national marine planning framework. The Act allows for the preparation of designated maritime area plans, DMAPs, for specific purposes and I am aware that the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications intends to prepare such DMAPs for offshore renewable energy. In fact, this plan-led approach to the future development of offshore renewable energy is essential for an orderly and stable transition to the new ocean economy activity and has been welcomed within the fishing industry in preference to the proliferation of exploratory development sites that has been taking place.
Together with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, I welcomed the establishment of the seafood-offshore renewable energy working group, which is chaired by Captain Robert McCabe. I understand that protocols on communication are soon to be published by the group.
The Deputy also asked about marine protected areas. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has not yet published the Bill that will set out the process by which these are to be developed. I am confident the Bill will reflect strong inclusive principles and the observations provided by the fisheries representative bodies during pre-legislative scrutiny.
I was motivated to put this question after meeting inshore fishermen from the east coast, where they have had a bad experience of offshore renewable energy development. They were effectively told about it after the fact. This has had a serious impact. Fishers from Dublin and Wicklow have built up a good whelk fishery, but it is under serious threat as a result of what has happened.
Will the Minister agree to meet the National Inshore Fishermen’s Association, in particular the fishers from the east coast who are on that body, and listen to their experience so as to ensure that what they have been through is not repeated anywhere on this island? This is a shared marine resource with three key stakeholders – the people who protect our ecosystem, the fishing communities and the offshore renewable energy industry. We need to ensure there is a level playing pitch for all.
I am happy to meet them further. I regularly meet the inshore fisheries forum. I would encourage our inshore fishers to become organised through the regional and national forums. Their voice has not been represented properly in our fisheries’ representative infrastructure. This has been a major weakness and has meant that, in many cases, they have not had fair representation or a fair deal. I have worked to ensure that is corrected. I know the Deputy supports me strongly in that regard.
I have discussed this matter with the National Inshore Fisheries Forum representatives and would be happy to do so again. It is important that, as we progress the significant energy opportunities in the blue economy, we work together to ensure that all interests are properly accommodated and respected and that we find the appropriate balance to the benefit of all involved, particularly our people. We must ensure the marine resource is protected, but also harnessed in a way that serves everyone’s well-being.
The inshore fishers on the east coast have had an horrific experience. It can never be repeated anywhere in Ireland. They have correspondence, which I have seen, from the Director General of the Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, DG MARE, Ms Charlina Vitcheva. She laid out very clearly the balance that needed to be struck between developing offshore renewable energy and protecting the marine ecosystems, fishing communities and traditional fishing grounds.
To be frank, Minister, we have had these exchanges before. I hope there will be changes in the culture in the Minister’s Department because I do not believe that fishing communities have been valued the way they should have been. The events on the east coast happened because there was no respect for fishing communities and fishers. The sole motivation was just one stakeholder, that being, renewable energy. I hope that culture will be brought to an end and we deal with this properly in the best interests of everyone.
To be clear, officials in my Department have worked consistently to ensure the voice of fishers is heard across the Government, which is where the challenge lies. It is always heard within the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, but some of these issues are led by other Departments. Like fishers, my Department’s officials have always sought to ensure that engagement exists. There is a constant push, as one must make one’s voice heard constantly. I am raising this matter at Cabinet level all of the time to ensure fishers and their representatives play a key part in how we step forward on this. They were on the sea and knew how to use it to everyone’s benefit long before other opportunities arose. While offshore wind now presents a great opportunity, we must respect those who have been using the sea for many years and whose livelihoods depend on it as we progress our plans.