Seanad debates

Wednesday, 15 October 2003

10:30 am

Photo of John BrowneJohn Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the invitation to address the Seanad on the subject of aquaculture. I wish to avail of the opportunity to advise the House of the current state of the industry, its prospects for the years ahead and the action required if we are to ensure that its potential for further sustainable growth and development is to be achieved.

Aquaculture worldwide has undergone considerable expansion and development over recent decades. Growth since 1990 has been of the order of 10% per annum and the Food and Agriculture Organisation's 2002 report, State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, indicates that aquaculture is growing more rapidly than any other animal food sector. Production, including aquatic plants, is estimated by the FAO to have reached over 45 million tonnes in 2000.

Like the industry worldwide, Irish aquaculture has undergone extensive change and expansion over recent decades. If we look back to 1979, production in that year is estimated to have been of the order of 4,000 tonnes and was made up in large part of native oysters, bottom-cultivated mussels and trout. By 2002, however, production had increased to some 62,000 tonnes, valued at €117 million. Some 90% of this production was exported. This is equivalent to 1,600 full-time jobs in the industry.

In 2002, production comprised 38,000 tonnes of shellfish, valued at €30 million, and 24,000 tonnes of finfish valued at €82 million. Shellfish production has seen the emergence of new areas of production, including rope cultivation of mussels as well as Pacific oysters. Finfish production now consists primarily of the farming of Atlantic salmon.

We have now reached a stage where the industry plays a central role in the economic life of many periphery coastal communities, where there may be few, if any, alternative employment opportunities. The Operational Programme for Fisheries, 1994-99, played a key role in supporting its development in the last decade through the provision of €15 million in EU and Exchequer funding. Over the lifetime of the operational programme, the value of the industry's output rose from €51 million to over €87 million. Notwithstanding the considerable growth that has taken place, the industry is widely accepted as having the potential for further growth and development. For example, a report prepared by consultants engaged by the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, CIRCA, predicted that output could grow very substantially over the next decade.

Recognising this further potential, the national development plan provided over €30 million in EU and Exchequer grant assistance for the industry over the period of the plan. This assistance is carefully focused on the achievement of a number of core objectives, including the attainment of critical mass in the production of key species, the implementation of quality improvement programmes, the promotion of diversification and the introduction of new technology.

Achievement of the industry's potential will require a committed approach on the part of the industry to seizing the available opportunities, as well as the effective discharge by the State bodies concerned of their specific regulatory and developmental responsibilities. The industry must be market-driven, focused on producing top quality output that meets demanding consumer requirements and is capable of holding its own in highly competitive international marketplaces. It must also show itself to be responsive to changing circumstances. This means, for example, that it must be open to possibilities such as new production methods or diversification.

Rather than relying on a straight-line expansion of existing means and areas of production, the industry must be prepared to consider possibilities such as the farming of new species and the adoption of innovative farming techniques and practices. In the case of finfish farming, this could mean looking to species such as cod or sea bass and to the possibilities of offshore production. The State will, through IBM, Údarás na Gaeltachta and the Marine Institute, continue to play an active role in supporting and assisting the industry as it grows and develops.

It is clear also that the industry's potential can only be realised, and the future of existing operations secured, if it develops and operates on a sustainable basis and in accordance with high standards of environmental and ecological protection. As a natural resources based enterprise that is itself crucially dependent on a high quality environment, the industry has a particular responsibility to ensure that its operations are conducted in accordance with appropriate environmental standards and the relevant statutory requirements. Failure to do so could, apart from the serious legal issues involved, damage the reputation, competitive position and future prospects of the industry.

The State, for its part, has an important role to play in determining where aquaculture should be allowed and in ensuring that appropriate management and operational conditions are specified and enforced in respect of any operations that are permitted. These responsibilities fall to be discharged primarily through licensing of aquaculture operations and monitoring and control of licensed operations.

Aquaculture is regulated under the Fisheries (Amendment) Act 1997, which established a modern and effective licensing system for the industry. Applications for licences are made to the Department in the first instance and are determined by reference to considerations specified in the 1997 Act. These include the likely environmental and economic impacts of the proposal and the suitability of the waters concerned for the activity proposed. It is open to any person to make submissions on a licence application and anybody may appeal to the independent Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board against a licensing decision.

There is, therefore, an open and transparent process that ensures full account is taken of all considerations and points of view before a decision is made on the granting of a licence. Where a licence is granted, it is subject to specified terms and conditions. In the case of shellfish farming, for example, the conditions may include requirements as to the layout of trestles or longlines in the interests of visual amenity. Licences for finfish farms include conditions dealing with matters such as permitted production levels, site management, sea lice control, preparation of emergency plans and reporting of specified events.

Marine finfish farms must also comply with the terms of protocols promulgated by the Department, following consultation, in 2000. These cover matters including benthic and environmental monitoring, fallowing of sites and lice control. Monitoring and control of aquaculture operation is carried out by the Department, with the advice and assistance of the Marine Institute, to ensure that fish farming is conducted in accordance with the applicable standards and requirements. Marine Institute staff visit each finfish farm 14 times a year for the purpose of sea lice monitoring and control. They also carry out fish health inspections and operate a residues monitoring programme.

Fish farm inspections are also carried out by officials of the Department. For example, its engineering division has carried out inspections of 35 marine finfish sites to date this year. Farm operations are, in addition, monitored through reports and returns that operators must make to the Department, including the results of benthic monitoring.

I emphasised earlier the importance for the industry and for the marine environment of ensuring that aquaculture is conducted in full compliance with licence terms and conditions and other applicable requirements and standards. I am, therefore, concerned by recent reports of instances of alleged departures from the high standards required of aquaculture operations. The House may be assured that any such case will be fully and rigorously investigated and that appropriate action, up to and including revocation of aquaculture licences, where justified, will be taken in the light of the results of the investigation.

While it would not be appropriate to comment in detail on specific cases, I can inform the House, by way of example, that a specific instance of alleged inappropriate disposal of fish mortalities has been investigated and that the advice of legal services has been sought as to the further action that should be taken. A further major case of the apparent inappropriate disposal of fish mortalities and apparent breaches of aquaculture licence terms is currently under investigation and will be referred, as appropriate, for the advice of the legal services on appropriate action. I am determined that any other cases of this nature will be similarly investigated and followed up.

In addition to the investigation of specific cases, I have instructed the Department to initiate a comprehensive review of the procedures in place for monitoring and control of aquaculture and marine finfish farming in particular. The objective of this exercise will be to ensure that appropriate monitoring, control and enforcement processes are in place in respect of all aspects of the industry and that they operate as efficiently and effectively as possible. The review will be carried out by a unit established for the purpose and will be completed as a matter of priority.

The Department is also, in parallel with this review of monitoring and control arrangements, examining overall structures for the delivery of regulatory services in respect of the aquaculture industry. This review is fully in accordance with the commitment in the programme for Government to develop new devolved service structures to support the sustainable management, development and protection of the marine coastal zone and seafood resources. Proposals in this regard will be brought forward in the near future.

Voluntary initiatives such as quality schemes, management plans and codes of practice can play a significant role as a complement to formal monitoring and control and can also assist the industry by offering assurance to customers about operational practices and product quality. Third party accredited food quality assurance schemes, such as the Irish quality salmon, trout and mussel schemes, are already showing their worth. The aim should be to implement certification to EN 45001 standards right across the range of the industry's products.

The co-ordinated local aquaculture management systems, CLAMS, process involves the drawing up on an open and consultative basis of management plans for aquaculture in particular bays or regions. CLAMS groups are in operation in 15 areas and nine plans have been published to date. More recently, an environmental code of practice, ECOPACT, has been developed specifically to assist the industry to conduct its operations in accordance with best environmental practice. The code of practice will be implemented through CLAMS groups in the first instance and will be extended from there to the industry generally.

As Senators will be aware, some aspects of the aquaculture industry and its operations have been the subject of public comment recently. I wish to take this opportunity to clarify the position in respect of three of these matters, namely, sea lice at marine salmon farms, escapes of fish from those farms and the disposal of waste from them.

The complaints made against marine finfish farming include the alleged effects of sea lice from salmon farms on sea trout. This is an issue that has been hotly contested for many years, with the aquaculture industry and wild fishery interests taking fundamentally different positions as to the effects sea lice from salmon farms have had on sea trout numbers. While wild fishery interests have ascribed the decline in sea trout numbers primarily to infestation by sea lice from fish farms, the aquaculture industry has contended that no causal linkage has been demonstrated and that the sea trout problem is multifactorial in nature.

The Government, for its part, acted on a precautionary basis in accordance with environmental best practice and established a national programme for monitoring and controlling sea lice numbers at salmon farms. This system requires that action be taken at farm level when lice levels are much lower than the lice levels that would be tolerated without treatment in Norway or other countries. This programme involves 14 visits a year by Marine Institute personnel to each fish farm. If sea lice are detected at levels in excess of the very strict trigger levels that have been set in Ireland, the farm in question is required to administer appropriate approved treatment to the fish.

The monitoring and control system is well developed and allows remedial action to be prescribed at an early stage if it appears that problems are emerging with lice levels. I intend, however, to have the systems and procedures reviewed as part of the wider review of enforcement and control that has been initiated, with a view to ensuring that we have the best possible means of detection and control for the coming years.

Objections are also made against finfish farms on the grounds of the alleged effects of escapes from these farms on wild fisheries. Complainants argue, for example, that escaped fish interbreed with wild fish and contaminate the gene pool. There is an onus on fish farmers to take all appropriate measures to avoid escapes from their operations and to have plans in place for dealing with the containment of any escape that may occur. In the event of an escape, the fish farmer must notify the authorities and all possible steps must be taken to capture the escaped fish. The arrangements for preventing escapes, and for dealing with any that may occur, will also be examined in the overall review of enforcement and control arrangements.

In regard to waste arising from fish farm operations, I emphasise that there is an unequivocal obligation on all fish farmers to have appropriate arrangements in place for dealing with the waste generated by their businesses. Furthermore, these arrangements must be such as to ensure compliance with the EU regulation on disposal of animal by-products and the related Irish legal provisions. This means, for example, that fish waste must, depending on its precise nature and how it arose, be disposed of by specified methods that include ensilement, composting and rendering. Any departure from the appropriate standards and requirements for waste disposal is a very serious matter and will be dealt with accordingly.

The Department is currently working with industry representatives and other public bodies in a group established to examine all issues relating to disposal of waste from fish farms. Key objectives from the Department's point of view will be to ensure that the group's work progresses as quickly as possible and that any recommendations it may make are aimed at maximising practicality and efficiency while also ensuring full compliance with the legal provisions governing the disposal of fish farm waste.

I wish to inform the House of the position in regard to fish mortalities in Donegal Bay. Reports were received in July that significant levels of fish mortalities were being experienced by salmon farms in Inver Bay, County Donegal. The Marine Institute was mandated immediately to carry out a comprehensive investigation of the situation, with a view to determining the cause of the mortalities. An extensive process of investigation and analysis has been undertaken since then by staff of the Marine Institute and other experts engaged by the institute. The investigation was widened to include McSwyne's Bay in August when it became apparent that significant mortalities were also occurring in that bay.

Despite the considerable time and resources that have been devoted to the process, it has not been possible to date to establish what caused the mortalities. The Marine Institute has held a number of meetings in connection with the investigation and issued a statement on 29 September to outline progress with this work.

During September, it came to light that significant unreported mortality levels have also been experienced over recent months by other fish farms along the western seaboard. The Marine Institute was, therefore, asked during September to broaden the scope of its investigation to look also at what has happened at other locations and to seek to draw overall conclusions in regard to the increased mortalities generally. As the investigation is ongoing, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further at this stage.

The aquaculture industry has experienced remarkable change and growth over the recent past and undoubtedly has the potential for further expansion and development. The challenge facing the industry is to select the development options that will best serve the achievement of this potential. Whichever options are chosen, it is clear that any development must be on a sustainable basis, have a clear focus on market opportunities and requirements and be able to meet exacting environmental and ecological standards.

The Government, for its part, will continue to ensure that appropriate assistance and advice is available to the industry through the relevant State agencies. We will see to it also that there are efficient and effective systems and processes of licensing, monitoring and control, capable of ensuring the orderly development and operation of the industry in the years ahead.

If it is apparent, following the various reviews and investigations that I have outlined, that changes are required to legislation or procedures or practices for monitoring or regulating the fish farming industry, these changes will be introduced without delay. Our objective is to ensure an environmentally friendly and sustainable fish farming industry, operating in harmony with other marine interests and providing long-term employment in coastal communities.

Michael Finucane (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive statement. Shellfish farming and fish farming were first established about 25 years ago and the whole aquaculture field has been successful. The greatest success is that about 19,000 people depend to some degree on aquaculture. Many of these are in peripheral communities into which it would be difficult to attract industrial employment. The aquaculture industry supplies sustainable jobs and is worth about €40 million annually, a substantial amount. A recent report said that every euro of public funds invested in aquaculture yields €2.8. The recent CIRCA report on aquaculture predicted that by 2015 the industry would be worth €362 million at first point of sale and €625 million at processed output value. The National Development Plan 2000-2006 urges the salmon producers to raise the level to 40,000 tonnes per annum. The Norway-EU agreement on licensing helped to create stability in the market. Last December, however, an EU disclosure document found that it was wrong, anti-competitive, unworkable and an impediment to fair trade. As a result, in May of this year the Norway-EU agreement was abolished. Norway is the largest producer of farmed salmon in the world and a significant exporter. That agreement insisted that salmon could not be sold at EU level for less than €3.25 per kilogramme but that is gone now. The market is opening up to Norwegian and Scottish salmon with the result that prices are low. There is concern for salmon prices in the future. In a recent comment, Johnny Carroll, a prominent fish farmer, said that if prices remain chronically low into 2004 it will lead to a revenue blockage for most producers in the long term.

The Irish Salmon Growers Association has been asking the Minister and his Department for labelling in accordance with EU directives. The Minister of State may correct me if I am wrong but this has not happened yet. The consumer is entitled to transparency and to know from where the salmon has come. A knowledgeable person in Norway was asked recently if the marketplace opened up to Norwegian salmon how one could identify the salmon as such. He said it was labelled at first source but there was no guarantee that label would proceed all the way through. One can interpret that statement however one wishes.

The introduction of the Q label was important for the salmon industry. It was created between BIM, the Food Safety Authority and the Consumers Association of Ireland. There is a 90% participation rate in this quality mark which is important because it lets the consumer know that he or she is buying quality salmon. The Minister of State launched a voluntary environmental code of practice for aquaculture companies and traders, ECOPACT, on behalf of BIM, which is important because one of our great assets is a clean environment. He made the point that an industry dependent on a high quality environment

has a particular responsibility to ensure that its operations are conducted in accordance with appropriate environmental standards and the relevant statutory requirements. Failure to do so could, apart from the serious legal issues involved, damage the reputation, competitive position and future prospects of the industry.

At a recent meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, on which many of us here present sit, several members expressed concern and some alarm about a recent "Prime Time" programme on television. Many people approached me about this because such a programme can damage the fish farming industry. There are certain questions to be asked about that programme. While I respect that there are ongoing inquiries, I note a comment, made at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis in Killarney and quoted in the Sunday papers about cowboys in the aquaculture industry. I would like to see the full text of the Minister's words. I do not know to whom he referred or what he meant by that but many people are concerned. Johnny Carroll, whom I already mentioned, was identified in that programme. I respect the fact that in August Galway County Council visited that site near Casla where salmon were buried. We all know the bog can preserve butter for a long time so everyone would know that salmon buried in a bog would not necessarily decompose. If, for example, economic returns for salmon production are low there may be a tendency to take short cuts. The Minister of State said that as far as he is concerned people will conform to aquaculture regulations or pay the penalty. That sends out a very bad message. I respect the Minister's recent statement about An Post, the ESB and companies under his control, to the effect that in future he would lay the onus on their boards of directors to make sure they concern themselves with the profitability of their companies and to ensure that as directors they would furnish whatever tax clearance certificates are required. He spoke about greater responsibility. However, it will give a very bad impression if directors found to be involved in malpractice remain in place. Subsequent to the Minister's inquiries, if he discovers that, as stated in "Prime Time", Mr. Carroll was guilty of a serious offence will he take the decision or does he have codes of ethics that apply to boards of directors on his other semi-State companies? I am referring to the Marine Institute in this case and to BIM in Mr. Gallagher's case.

If the Minister is to have credibility, and whatever his investigations reveal, it would be very wrong that as flag bearer for an organisation such as the Marine Institute, people who have been engaged in wrongdoing retain directorships. The Marine Institute's new headquarters are being established in Oranmore and by 2004 a total of 1,400 people will relocate there. The Marine Institute works at the forefront of the business, being involved in research. The organisation which represents people working in aquaculture would contend that I am perfectly correct in saying that this would not be good for the industry in the long term. I appreciate that may be concerns about profitability or taking short cuts. I look forward to a thorough investigation of what happened in Donegal and Connemara. When the committee comes to discuss this it will hear from various representative organisations and will ask them pertinent questions and invite responses. Following that "Prime Time" programme the industry needs to respond in a positive fashion and the measures which the Minister of State has articulated in his speech should be taken into account. People do not deserve to be directors of semi-State boards if they are identified as being involved in any untoward activity such as the programme exposed.

When I was in the Dáil I was spokesman on the marine and I always took an interest in the subject, especially in the development of aquaculture. This industry goes through turbulent phases and moves in cycles when prices are up or down but the arrangement with Norway gave us a good break on prices. People have to survive now in an open market.

When the Minister of State mentions 14 visits a year to identify sea lice I am not sure what sanctions are imposed if the Department finds that sea lice are present in excessive quantities. This argument has raged for many years in relation to sea trout, particularly during migration in estuaries, usually between January and May. That is a critical time for the survival of this species, including the effects of sea lice. In such a situation the Department should invoke whatever sanctions are required. It is good husbandry practice to ensure proper treatment for sea lice infestation. I would be concerned with short cuts being taken for economic reasons. I am not saying that is happening but it could arise.

Regional fisheries boards are sometimes maligned by the organisations representing fin fish farming or farmed salmon. Usually they are asked for observations in relation to developments. In areas where there has been an excessive level of aquaculture, those involved in wild fishing contend that the number of sea trout has greatly diminished. Their comments are sometimes regarded as being negative and anti-jobs. In fairness, when they are asked for observations, they put forward their position as professionally as possible. It is necessary to ensure the survival of wild fish stocks in tandem with fish farming.

A few years ago, I participated in a most interesting visit to Norway in connection with that country's aquaculture and fish farming operation, which I considered highly impressive. Despite its professionalism, Norway has also had incidents similar to those in Ireland, involving the escape of farmed salmon from their cages. That also gives rise to genetic concerns with regard to inter-breeding with wild fish stocks.

It is important to have a combined approach by all organisations concerned, including the Central Fisheries Board, the Irish Farmed Salmon Growers Association and so on. They must work together. In the final analysis, the environment is the important consideration. The wild salmon and farmed salmon sectors must be able to live in tandem. All of us recognise the importance of aquaculture and wish it to be a sustainable industry.

I referred earlier to positive developments in relation to the Q mark. As the Minister of State is probably aware, there is a matter of some concern within the Central Fisheries Board as it is understood that three laboratory people may be reassigned to the new research laboratory being established by the Marine Research Institute at Oranmore, County Galway. The board also has development personnel at various locations around the country – I understand the total number is 15 – who do a very valuable job, understand what is happening in communities and have long service in the Central Fisheries Board. There is concern with regard to these people being lost by that board to the Marine Research Institute in Galway, as I understand may be proposed. Any such decision should be looked at very closely in terms of the long-term interests of the industry.

The Minister of State and I have a common interest in securing a vibrant aquaculture industry and we also wish to have good environmental practices in operation. This is not an industry which can tolerate short cuts and I do not believe the representatives of the industry should or will do so. The end result would be a loss of credibility in the product on the part of consumers, with serious consequences for the aquaculture industry. I wish the Minister of State well in the investigations and I hope there will be a successful conclusion and no smokescreen or withholding of information. If people are found to have been wrong, it behoves the Minister to remove them from positions as directors of the relevant institutions on the grounds they are not conforming to best practice in the industry.

Photo of Brendan KenneallyBrendan Kenneally (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on the fishing industry in general and the salmon farming industry in particular. Unfortunately, my allotted ten minutes will not allow me to cover all the ground I would like in relation to a complex issue and an industry of particular importance to this country.

I congratulate the Minister on his great success in the negotiations in the European Council meeting last Monday in regard to the Irish Box. Before this meeting, people were very fearful of what the outcome might be in regard to Spanish access to our waters. We knew the devastating blow it would be to our industry if we were not able to maintain, in some fashion, the integrity of the Irish Box which has been so important to Irish fishermen over the years. From the media reports, it is quite obvious that the Minister played a very successful tactical game in the negotiations. When the fishing interests are able to acknowledge that the Minister gained a reasonably good deal, we can take it that he came home with the very best that was on offer. For those with such an interest and dependency on the fishing industry and the Irish Box in particular, this must mean they are aware of the tremendous success he has had. In contrast, the annoyance of the Spanish Minister, as displayed on television news reports, might be taken as a sign of our success, given the polarity of our positions on the subject.

I do not agree with the criticism by a Fine Gael MEP, who stated that no fishing whatsoever should be allowed in the Irish Box. It is generally agreed that we must control the fishing activities of this region and the fishermen are in full agreement with that. They have a vested interest in controlling and preserving the industry into the future and a responsible attitude to the problem of dwindling stocks. I was also disappointed by the comments of the Labour Party spokesperson on marine issues, who appeared to side with the Spanish view. It was important that Spanish access to this resource did not increase and I am extremely happy this was achieved by the Minister.

I now wish to address the salmon industry. One cannot discuss salmon farming without also referring to the wild fish sector. This has been the subject of a very extensive debate over the years. Salmon fishing in the wild is almost as old as Ireland itself. It is part of our culture and folklore and has been a way of life for many centuries. It is essential for us to retain as much of our traditional salmon fishing industry as possible, not least because much of it is based in those relatively remote areas of our country where our traditions and language are strongest. In many cases, it is the only employment available and, if fishing goes from these areas, there will be nothing left to sustain them and they will become a burden on the State. More importantly, their quality of life will deteriorate significantly. We must maintain our coastal communities where at all possible.

It appears that if the officials of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources got their way in the morning, drift netting for salmon would be eliminated altogether. This would be devastating for those communities dependent on the industry and an unnecessarily harsh solution in the light of the relatively light catches which this element of the industry takes each year. I accept it must be closely monitored and reasonable quotas must be applied based on accurate data. The fishermen would be in agreement with this sensible approach, because they realise at this stage that the future of their industry is at stake and stocks must be preserved. They know, too, that priority must be given to allowing the salmon free access up-river to the traditional spawning beds.

I understand there are plans in the Department to ban drift netting at sea and confine it solely to the estuaries and rivers. This may be acceptable in some areas, but it will cause huge problems elsewhere. It will mean, for instance, that some fishermen in the salmon business will have to go elsewhere to fish and that alone will cause friction among the fishermen of the area and the new arrivals. There will also be an additional cost involved, not to mention very great inconvenience and hardship for some while others will be forced to leave the industry. I would not like to see any regulation in this respect being imposed, but if it is, at least the traditional estuary limits which have been in place for hundreds of years should not be reduced in any way.

On the question of conservation, the preservation of stocks and the calculation of quotas, I would like to see proper and reasonably accurate fish counters brought into our rivers. I am aware that has been introduced in relation to the Foyle at quite a modest cost of approximately €30,000. If one of these were provided in the Suir estuary, for instance, we would establish fairly accurate data on the numbers of fish going up-river to spawn. We could then set realistic quotas for the following year which, on the basis of the evidence would be more likely to be accepted by the fishermen and as a result a reasonable number of fish would survive.

I understand the Central Fisheries Board and its consultants recently undertook to speak with fishermen in all the fishing districts and to brief them on a questionnaire which was to be completed by the people in the industry. This happened in all districts except for the Waterford area. I am extremely annoyed by this and ask why the Waterford district was singled out and neglected. It is not good enough that Waterford was the only one of the 17 districts omitted. We are at the end of the salmon run. The number of days in which people can fish is down to four per week in June and July. Why are the industrious people in the Waterford area being ignored in this way? I call on the Central Fisheries Board to immediately redress this discrimination and state clearly and publicly the reason the Waterford fishermen were not given the information available to others and given an opportunity to have a proper input into the proceedings.

It is accepted now, even by environmentalists, that properly conducted aquaculture could feed the world without polluting it. A favoured method of the environmentalists is the hard-walled pen system, which isolates the fish from the surrounding water in 40 foot deep tanks which catch their waste on the bottom. Although salmon farming has been a highly profitable industry for a number of decades and shows strong promise for the long term, profits are being squeezed today making it more difficult for operators to adopt more expensive eco-friendly methods.

There is a place for this type of farming in our society as it has been several decades since there have been enough fish in the sea to meet, on a sustainable basis, the growing worldwide demand for seafood. Approximately half the world's wild fisheries have been exhausted by over-fishing. In the north Atlantic, one of the most depleted oceans, populations of popular fish such as cod, flounder, haddock, hake and tuna are one sixth of what they were a century ago.

Another benefit of salmon farming has been that, like other areas of food production, it has put a food on people's tables which had been generally denied to them in the past by its cost. It is now one of the most reasonably priced species available.

While the principles of aquaculture are generally accepted, experts fiercely debate which types of fish farming are safe to pursue. Salmon farming can be a dirty business. A biologist who worked for 30 years for Canada's Department of Fisheries has stated that a large salmon farm can pour as much liquid waste into the sea as a small city. One can add to that the plague of destructive sea lice, which thrive in densely packed salmon pens, and the schools of farm-grown fish which inevitably escape to the open sea, spread disease and compete for food at the breeding grounds with wild stocks.

Disease is always a problem among fish which are reared at close quarters. After a 1999 outbreak of infectious salmon anaemia in fish farms in Scotland, all the farm-grown fish within 25 miles were slaughtered. A similar anaemia in Maine, in the United States, two years ago led to the destruction of more than 2.5 million fish.

We have had an incident closer to home in Donegal in the not too distant past, to which the Minister referred, when 100 tonnes of salmon died and were dumped illegally. This will inevitably cause problems in that area but worse still, nobody seems to know what killed them, which casts a cloud over the whole salmon industry. There are many who believe this is an enterprise which needs better regulation to ensure this type of incident does not occur again. I was glad to hear that the Marine Institute is continuing its investigations into what happened and I hope its findings will be published. Perhaps we should consider establishing an independent inspectorate separate from the Department, which I understand operates in some other countries, to issue licences and monitor the operation of all fish farms around our coast.

There have been some differences between the fishermen and the aquaculture farmers, which is understandable but regrettable. We need to find ways of allowing the two industries become compatible and those involved to live in peace. It is a little like the old song from Oklahoma, "The farmer and the cowman should be friends". I would very much like to see these two important elements of the fishing industry being able to live in harmony and thrive for the benefit of the communities they maintain and the wider economy.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. I speak with a slightly different interest from many of those who contributed earlier, namely from the consumer perspective.

I remember coming back on an aeroplane from a holiday in France five or six years ago and being served a nice meal containing meat, which I realised was the first meat I had eaten for two weeks. I had been away for two weeks and had eaten nothing but fish and I realised that does not happen with the customers in the supermarkets I run because the amount of fish we sell, which is perhaps large compared to others, is a small section of what is eaten. I realised this was a business opportunity and that opportunity had already been identified by the Irish fishing industry, particularly by Bord Iascaigh Mhara, because on a visit around that time to Paris I saw many fish restaurants on Boulevard St. Germain which whetted my appetite. I then discovered that the vast majority of that seafood was from Ireland. The Irish consumers did not see it in our supermarkets and were not nearly as tempted, which is the fault of our retail and fish industries and also the restaurant business.

When I talk about the food people buy in supermarkets, a small portion is fish but in many restaurants, even the restaurant in Leinster House, fish makes up a sizeable portion of the number of servings. One can walk into a restaurant and realise that people eat fish when they are away from home but not necessarily at home. That is an opportunity for the fish industry and one which has been recognised by Bord Iascaigh Mhara and those involved in the fish industry.

Three years ago I was invited by Bord Iascaigh Mhara to judge the best oysters from the oyster farms.

John Dardis (Progressive Democrats)
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A pearl of wisdom.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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It was a very pleasant task. I remember travelling to Bord Iascaigh Mhara in Dún Laoghaire and, along with one or two others – one was Derry Clarke, the owner of L'Ecrivain, the lovely restaurant in Baggot street – being asked to taste 26 oysters. It was very well done. We had to examine each oyster from the 12 or 14 farms we picked in terms of how they looked, how clean they were, how easy they were to open, how they looked inside but particularly how they tasted. I realised that Bord Iascaigh Mhara and those involved actively recognised that if they were going to continue to export and expand that export market, they had to ensure they got everything right.

Senator Finucane referred to something with which I did not quite agree. He said a certain amount of damage was done recently to the fishing industry as a result of what I call some of the scandals that were exposed. It was not a certain amount of damage. The fishing industry is a delicate plant and he was being delicate with the words he used. A huge amount of damage is in danger of being done.

I think back to what happened to the beef industry on 26 March 1996. I had been listening to customers in our supermarket some years earlier, particularly the Dublin customers who talked about their concerns about pharmaceutical companies advertising on RTE radio, directed at the farming community and the beef industry, telling them what they should be injecting into their cattle and sheep or the stock they were producing to avoid certain diseases and so on. The customers, who were not farmers, were concerned about the food they were eating from simply listening to those advertisements directed at farmers by the pharmaceutical industry. Some of us in the business took steps to make sure a traceability system was put in place. When BSE was exposed in March 1996 we realised that not only could a certain amount of damage be done to an industry, but that a huge amount of damage was being done to the beef industry, particularly in Britain. We managed to avoid a great deal of that criticism but one can see considerable dangers, particularly to the fishing industry. It is a delicate plant. When one considers how much depends on confidence in the traceability system and in quality and on the public's awareness, we must be so careful if the public is to buy fish or seafood of any type, particularly salmon.

I was interested in and impressed by the amount of information the Minister of State gave us, some of which I knew already, particularly as regards the quality seafood programme BIM has instituted and how the auditing being undertaken is to ensure it is instilling confidence in the business. I know the auditors are recognised by the industry as being independent and without bias. However, we must go out of our way to ensure that independence is guaranteed and that there is not a danger of any suggestion that there is a bias or an influence. We must make sure there is a strong wall between those on the inside and those on the outside. I am confident that there is and that the quality seafood programme and the recognised certificate that is issued are being adhered to.

I understand that yesterday two of the ten sea farms were suspended for some form of misbehaviour. It is important that is done. We should, however, be aware that in doing so there is a great temptation to bend or stretch the rules a little because of the danger of letting customers down. Last week was interesting because tides were high, gales were strong and the swell of the sea was considerable and many of the boats were not able to go out to those fish farms. I know of one case where four pallets of fish were expected but only one pallet was delivered. It is tempting for those whose livelihood depends on this business to bend the rules in some form or other rather than tell their customer they must let them down. I hope that will not happen given the controls which have been put in place and the watch being kept, particularly by those issuing certificates only on condition that there is control.

Senator Finucane and the Minister of State mentioned the danger of farmed salmon escaping into the wild, mixing with wild salmon and damaging it. I am not an opponent of genetically modified organisms and do not say we must never move in that direction. We must start a balanced debate on that issue in the years ahead. However, I am frightened by what could happen given what I hear has happened on occasions – perhaps not in Ireland but more likely in Norway where I have heard genetic modifications to salmon have taken place to enable them to grow to a larger size at a much faster rate. Some of those large fish could have escaped into the sea, and perhaps they have. As they are so powerful and large, they could infiltrate the wild salmon. There is a danger they could damage that entire industry which is worldwide rather than confined to one area. The business is a delicate plant in so much as anything could go wrong with it. We saw what happened with BSE in Britain, so we can easily appreciate what could go wrong with this industry.

I was impressed by some of the figures the Minister of State gave, of which I had no idea. He said that in 1979, four tonnes were exported while in 2002, there were 62,000 tonnes of exports. That is a huge increase and a great success. The fact that 90% of seafood is exported reminds us how much has been done and achieved. Let us make sure we are careful and do not take chances. The opportunities are there. Even with what seem to be large figures, we have only touched that market. I was in the United States last week and visited a number of supermarkets. One of the things for which I look are Irish products. When I went to the salmon department, I was delighted to see Irish salmon. I did not see much of it but I saw Norwegian salmon. Norway has a longer coastline than Ireland and it is perhaps longer in the business than we are, but its population is the same. Therefore, if Norway is able to export in such a successful manner, it is a reminder to us of what we can achieve. However, we will not achieve that by taking shortcuts. It will be a long haul and we will have to be careful and make sure confidence in quality, taste and food safety is in no way damaged. If we risk that confidence, we place all of this in danger.

This debate has been useful and welcome. I was impressed by what the Minister of State said because I realised how much was being done but I also realised how careful we must be in the future if we are to succeed. There is a huge potential which we and those in the industry recognise but we must be careful. There is a lovely seanfhocal I remember from my school days which suits this debate – Éist le fuaim na habhann agus gheobhaidh tú bradán, Listen to the sound of the river if you are going to catch a salmon. The marketplace presents a huge opportunity for us and if we listen carefully to it we can make a success of this. Let us make sure we do.

John Dardis (Progressive Democrats)
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I commend the Minister of State on the work he is doing in fisheries, both in this area and in respect of game fisheries. At the outset I must declare a vested interest because I am unashamedly an angler and have been for nearly 50 years since I started to fish on the banks of the Liffey. In the past I have bored previous Ministers, and probably the House, by going on an angling odyssey around Ireland from the time I started to fish on Lough Sheelin, which I had to leave because of pig pollution. I then went to Lough Ennell but had to leave it because there was no tertiary treatment in Mullingar. I then went to Lough Conn but had to leave it because of the phosphates going into it. The perspective I bring to this debate is an environmental one and the damage done to the environment by greedy people.

All this hogwash about maintaining rural communities, people living in depressed areas and the need for jobs and so on does not add up when one considers the jobs lost in the same communities and areas by virtue of the devastation to the environment and the millions of pounds lost to the economy from the loss of the anglers who came to Ireland. When I started to fish on Lough Corrib nearly 40 years ago, the people who came from abroad flew to Shannon, hired a car, stayed a month, hired a gilly every day and had serious money when there was no money in this country. They are now going to Russia and the Falkland Islands, with some going to New Zealand and Alaska. They have left Ireland because the sport is not here. If the sport was here, they would come here because they have the money. My sympathies are with people like Kieran Thompson running Newport House in County Mayo, Peter Mantle running Delphi Lodge – who bought a place and tried to make a go of it – and Máire O'Connor running Lough Inagh Lodge. The Zetland Country House Hotel is being sold and is on the market.

It was argued that there was no connection whatsoever between the welfare of those rural activities and what was going on at sea in the salmon fish farms. Every scientific argument put forward to show a connection between the demise of the sea trout and fish farming was repudiated, even though some very eminent scientists put forward plausible reasons. At this stage, perhaps the argument is irrelevant. We have moved on from it other than to say "if it walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is a duck".

The other point is that the High Court held in the case of Hanrahan v. Merck, Sharpe and Dohme that the only plausible reason for what happened on the Hanrahan farm was the presence of Merck, Sharpe and Dohme, even though there was no tangible empirical connection between what happened on the farm and the output of Merck, Sharpe and Dohme. The High Court found in favour of Mr. Hanrahan.

There is a connection. The salmon farming industry cannot have it both ways. It cannot tell us there is no connection between what happened to the sea trout as a result of fish farming and then tell us that bottom-dredging in Donegal bay is responsible for the fish kill there. They cannot have it both ways. Either it stands empirically in one direction or the other, or it falls in both directions.

Senator Quinn made a critical point. We must have confidence that the material that comes on to the market for human consumption from the fish farms is of high quality, traceable and produced in a sustainable way. If we have learned anything from BSE and the hormone debates in agriculture, it is that consumers must have food that they can have confidence in and that is safe. The task of the Department and the salmon growing industry is to ensure quality.

I take Senator Finucane's point regarding the dumping of salmon in a bog in Connemara. The salmon may not decompose but whether it decomposes is irrelevant because it should not be dumped in the first place. In particular, it should not be dumped in a place that is beside one of the best fisheries in the country in Costello. This fishery was written about by T. C. Kingsmill Moore in A Man May Fish which is regarded as a great piece of Irish literature. It is not just an angling book, but it is the greatest angling book and a great piece of literature.

I accept that such points do not register with people who are prepared to dump salmon in a bog near a pristine salmon fishery. However, it is appalling that somebody should be on a State board if he or she is even accused of doing it.

Michael Finucane (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

John Dardis (Progressive Democrats)
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The standard is not one of conviction under the law, but that one must be seen to be above it all. It is the same standard that would apply in politics.

Michael Finucane (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

John Dardis (Progressive Democrats)
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Many politicians who have suffered grievously were never responsible for anything in law or did anything illegal, but because there was a whiff that something wrong had happened, they had to go. This same standard applies in this particular circumstance and in other similar circumstances.

There is an onerous responsibility to ensure that the environment is protected. This responsibility falls primarily to the monitoring Department, which is responsible for ensuring that the licensing requirements are met, the procedures are correct and things are done properly. In the event that they are not done properly, the same standard that applied in agriculture in the case of hormones should apply. One should be closed down if one uses materials that are totally inimical to the environment. The standard that applies in agriculture is very rigorous. Farmers can lose their herd numbers and have to stop trading. This had happened and it is hugely difficult for the people that suffer as a result. However, that is the standard that must apply to ensure that the environment is protected and that the consumer gets the quality of food to which he or she is entitled.

I commend the work done by the Central Fisheries Board and particularly by the chief executive, Mr. John O'Connor. I echo the point made by Senator Finucane. I can accept that laboratory analysis can be done almost anywhere, but I do not accept that the biological research and development which is essential to the development of the game fishing sector can be done anywhere. My appeal to the Minister is that this part of the Central Fisheries Board and the regional fisheries boards should be maintained within the ambit of the boards and not lost outside because a hugely important issue is involved.

Game fishing is an example of where the State can do things very well. The Errif in Mayo, the Kerry Blackwater, the Galway weir, the ridgepool in the Moy and several others of that nature are managed extremely well by very competent and professional staff. They are a pleasure to visit. I stayed in Ashleigh Lodge this year, at Leenane, where Mr. Jim Stafford and his wife are doing a superb job. This facility was created and is maintained by the State. It is highly commercial and is generating revenue for the State. There is a message in that for us.

The Indecon report, a socio-economic evaluation of wild salmon in Ireland, was commissioned for the Central Fisheries Board and it is a very good report. The Minister is familiar with it and there have been consultation meetings around the country where the various stakeholders have made their cases.

I accept that the activities of drift netting and draught netting are centuries old. They lived side by side with angling for so long and there was no difficulty. However, now that drift netting has become so efficient, it has become a problem. If one has miles of monofilament, it is very easy to sweep everything in sight, particularly where fish are swimming near the surface. This is an issue and the work being done by R. E. Vickerson with the North Atlantic Salmon Trust has set a headline for us that hopefully we can follow. I accept that draught netting in the estuaries is probably not very detrimental to fish stocks, but drift netting out at sea is a problem.

I subscribe to what Senator Kenneally said about the need for statistics and to know how many fish are travelling up river systems. It is easy enough to count them on a small river system, although the counters are not that accurate because fish travel downriver as well as upriver. It is much more difficult to count in an estuary, although it can be done. The conservation of stock is the essential issue and I commend the initiatives with regard to catchment management.

However, I cannot understand how people who depend on the stock, whether they are drift, draught or anglers, can destroy it. There are examples in agriculture where people have exploited the land and found, to their cost, that one cannot do it indefinitely. That is why agricultural practices such as crop rotation and fallowing have developed. We are only at the beginning of learning those lessons both in the management of fish stocks and the intensive farming of salmon.

The Indecon report states that 24,000 overseas salmon anglers visited Ireland in each of the years from 1998 to 2000. It is a highly significant part of our economy, particularly our tourist economy. The report also refers to the capital value of the industry and the value of game angling compared to netting. It says the net socio-economic value of the commercial sector is £39.9 million while the net value of salmon angling is £91.6 million. I agree that they are both important and that salmon angling is very important as a source of revenue in areas where there have been difficulties in the past.

Senator Kenneally referred to a modern system for managing farmed salmon, whereby waste can be trapped in cages underneath the ponds. However, we cannot argue in two directions at once. We cannot say, on the one hand, that the polluter pays in one context and, on the other, that people can pollute indiscriminately just because it is being done at sea and cannot be seen. If waste was being dumped on the roadside, everyone would complain. However, because this waste is being discharged into the sea and no one sees it, there is not the same fuss there should be. The people making money from the industry should be responsible for maintaining the environment and ensuring the food which comes from the farms is of a quality that Senator Quinn can sell over his counter and be confident that the people who buy it will be safe and happy with it.

I had the privilege of fishing in New Zealand some years ago and experienced the high standards set there, which I understand also apply in Australia. If one is visiting the country to fish, one must go through what is almost a major decontamination process. One is not even allowed to bring angling gear or boots into Australia because of the possibility of a parasite being introduced. These are the standards which must apply if we are to maintain the resource.

The economic argument is the only one which washes with governments and large corporations. Nonetheless, why are we not protecting a resource which has existed since the Ice Age? Those fish travel thousands of miles at sea to return to the rivers in which they were born. I cannot understand why people are prepared to allow them be destroyed and those same people do not understand me when I talk in this manner. We have learned lessons from BSE and the use of hormones in agriculture and we must apply them with equal rigour to all food producing industries, whether they are at sea or elsewhere.

A Senator referred to the bad impression which is being created. I watched the RTE "Prime Time" programme and I obtained a recording of it in order to watch it again because of its significance, even though some people have opted to shoot the messenger. One could argue about the scale of the dramatisation of the events which took place. However, one cannot argue that nothing was going on, since that is evident from the programme.

Nonetheless, there is a solution. I accept the reality that one cannot close down the salmon farming industry and I do not suggest we do so. Our game fisheries are an important economic and environmental resource which can live side by side with salmon farming. It is up to the Department to work out how that can be done. It might be through fallowing, as is the case in agriculture, or perhaps by moving cages further out to sea where there are greater tides and scouring effect. However, I do not see the determination to come up with the answer. The attitude is that if we leave it alone, it will be all right.

I caught sea trout in Lough Beltra, Lough Inagh, the Waterville River and the River Erriff, all of which were small but were clean and did not have lice. Perhaps it is possible for the two to exist side by side and I appeal to the Minister to try and make that happen.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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I join with other Senators in welcoming the Minister to the House. I congratulate the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, the Minister of State at the Department, Deputy Browne, and the entire team negotiating on behalf of Ireland in the fisheries negotiations in Brussels. They have shown tremendous resolve, persistence and superior negotiating talent in being able to snatch an element of victory from the jaws of defeat in regard to the Irish Box.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to make some points in regard to salmon fish farming and the wider area of aquaculture in Ireland. It is appropriate we have this debate since people are substantially unaware of its contribution and potential. Aquaculture is recognised as the fastest growing food industry globally and has increased in size by 10% annually since 1990. The aquaculture industry in Ireland provides employment for more than 1,700 people. In 2002 alone, finfish production – salmon and trout – had a value of over €80 million and shellfish had a value of over €34 million, giving a total of more than €115 million. Aquaculture is of significant economic importance to coastal communities and has reversed their decline because of the significant opportunities and employment it has created. The Marine Institute's socio-economic analysis of selected areas and an Údarás na Gaeltachta study by Ernst and Young of the Kilkerrin area show the particular significance of finfish farming and aquaculture in sustaining employment and social cohesion in peripheral areas.

A recent RTE "Prime Time" programme highlighted two salmon farmers who were engaged in bad practice. The programme gave considerable profile to the poor conditions, bad management and, in particular, the illegal discarding of fish carcasses at salmon farms in Donegal and Galway. There is no doubt what we saw was particularly disturbing and did nothing to help stimulate consumer confidence in the finfish farming or aquaculture industries. However, it is important to acknowledge that the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources has already taken appropriate measures to deal with the guilty parties highlighted by the RTE broadcast.

Furthermore, it is vitally important we accept that such incidents are the absolute exception rather than the rule. Occurrences in Donegal last year and Galway earlier this year in regard to the dumping of dead fish from cages are regrettable. However, they are isolated incidents and should not reflect on the high standards and good work practices employed by aquaculturists on this island.

Irish farmed salmon is leading the entire Irish food industry on quality assurance and food safety by being the first sector to achieve EN45001 quality accreditation for its quality assurance scheme. The Food Safety Authority stated that the EN45001 series and quality assurance standard is the most appropriate means of quality assurance for the whole food sector. The Irish salmon farming industry, with the assistance of Bord Iascaigh Mhara's environment and quality section, is leading the way in this regard. There is no question the farmed salmon sector is ahead of the beef, dairy and poultry industries in so far as other sectors have only begun the process of accreditation to EN45001, which is the ultimate pan-European and Commission approved quality assurance standard.

The Irish quality salmon scheme assures buyers and consumers of Irish farmed salmon of consistently high food safety and fish welfare since the standards were written to include best practice in traceability, food safety, fish welfare and environmental care. The majority of salmon producers in Ireland are in the process of joining the scheme and over 80% of the industry are already full members.

In regard to mortalities in the Inver Bay area of County Donegal, it is important to state that no cause has been established yet by the Department. The independent co-ordinator of the investigation, experienced fish pathologist Dr. Marian McLaughlin, indicated that far from solving the problem, the investigation is unlikely to provide any conclusive answers. The investigation has already ruled out disease, pollution from land and the farm's own practices as being the cause. Farmers are alleging that the dredging of 200,000 tonnes of material from Killybegs harbour caused the problem. However, the material was dumped at an appropriate and safe distance and there is no evidence to prove a link between the dredging and the salmon deaths.

We all look forward to establishing the actual causes of the mortalities in Donegal and taking the necessary steps to remedy the situation without delay. I know the Minister and all the offices at his disposal are working tirelessly in this pursuit. However, I ask him to ensure it is given priority and renewed urgency as it is having immeasurable effects on the salmon farming industry in the north-west region. I welcome the fact the Minister is to initiate a comprehensive review of the existing procedures for the monitoring and control of aquaculture and marine finfish farming. I acknowledge that the vast majority of those engaged in this industry are operating to the highest possible EU standards, consistent with the highest product quality and in accordance with the five protocols as set down in the conditions of farm aquaculture licences. I further acknowledge there are many inspections annually but I respectfully suggest that the Minister should increase the inspections of all aquaculture operations and explore the possibilities, as Senator Kenneally pointed out, of establishing an independent audit inspection team to enforce the licensing conditions. In 99.9% of instances there are no problems but a specifically dedicated audit, inspection and enforcement team is necessary to root out the bad practices threatening this industry which is so vital to our peripheral communities and has such economic potential for the country as a whole.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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Salmon fish farming has been an economic success story in County Donegal, specifically on the Fanad peninsula where the hydro fisheries have been developed under Norwegian influence. Fish farming has made the local community vibrant, as well as helping local people to remain in the region. The fish farming sector is concerned, however, that lice is a major problem. Only two products are currently available for the treatment of lice but neither is combating it. In fact, some lice are becoming immune to both products. The Minister should investigate whoever sanctioned the use of these products – it may have been the Irish Medicines Board. A broader range of products is required to combat lice in the fish farming industry.

While much media attention has been focused on the fish kills in County Donegal, there has been a lack of co-operation between the Departments involved. Ultimately, the Department of Agriculture and Food has responsibility for investigating fish kills, so there should be more communication between it and the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources in order to deal with fish kills, such as those that occurred in County Donegal recently.

John Minihan (Progressive Democrats)
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I congratulate the Minister, the Minister of State and their officials on the results they achieved at Monday's Council of Ministers meeting in Luxembourg. It was not looking good for a while but everyone agrees that the outcome was very positive. The tactical game played was successful and no greater accolade or confirmation of the achievement can be made than the generous praise from the fishing industry itself. Despite this positive outcome, however, there is a general air of disillusionment among certain sections of the fishing industry at the moment. On several occasions during the summer, when I was on holidays in west Cork, I met fishermen who had serious issues with departmental policy. Whereas I am no expert on fishery matters, I beg the Minister of State's indulgence to pose some legitimate questions. A number of fishermen raised the delay in issuing fishing licences by the Department and I understand that some vessels that have satisfied the requirements to purchase tonnage have been tied up at piers for months. The Minister of State will appreciate that this is causing huge financial problems for owners of small and large vessels, as they still have to make loan repayments and meet other financial commitments. While I understand the licensing policy is currently being reviewed, is there any reason why run of the mill licensing transactions cannot be finalised in the short term?

I have encountered some herring fishermen who complained that their boats are outdated. Stricter market requirements on quality are forcing them out of their traditional fishery business. I fully support the need for strict quality control measures but when I inquired as to why they do not upgrade their boats, I was surprised to hear that departmental policy prevents them from doing so. The boats required are called tank boats and, while I am not an expert in this field, what I was told seems to make sense – that the market is changing and they need to change with it or they will go out of business. Will the Minister of State clarify and explain the rationale behind the non-issuance of new licences to these vessels? Are these licensing issues not being resolved because of the Minister's severe workload following the creation of the new Department? What is causing the blockage we have seen?

Some influential players in the industry feel the sector is being neglected under the current Administration and while I do not concur with that view, some issues are in need of clarification. One such issue, for example, concerns moves being made to transfer the marketing department of An Bord Iascaigh Mhara to Bord Bia. This seems to be another swipe at the industry with the overriding objective of downgrading the importance of fishing.

Michael Finucane (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

John Minihan (Progressive Democrats)
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One would hope this is not so and that the reason for the transfer is to give us a better fishing industry but clarification is required on that point. While I can see some merit in such an amalgamation, surely an integrated body like BIM, with decades of experience in developing the fishing industry from catching fish to marketing them, represents the best option for maximising jobs and profits in the sector. Will the Minister of State say whether these views are well founded or are members of the industry being overly alarmist? They point to the fact that the Government began by getting rid of their Department and now it is effectively getting rid of the fisheries development agency. Perhaps the Minister of State could shed some light on these most recent rumours.

Once again, I congratulate the Minister of State on the success of recent days. I apologise for my lack of detailed knowledge of the fishing industry but when issues such as these come to one's attention it serves everyone's interest to ask questions about them. Sometimes innocent questions from someone with no vested interest can result in greater clarity. Some people in the industry are very concerned and they would welcome the Minister of State's views on the points I have raised.

Brendan Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I compliment the Minister of State on the work the Department is doing, especially for the aquaculture industry. I acknowledge the huge contribution that industry has made in terms of generating employment and revenue. The industry is worth about €100 million annually and thousands of people are employed in the sector, particularly in coastal areas where there are few alternative employment opportunities. I fully support the development of the aquaculture business as well as the Department's plans to expand further the industry, creating more employment and revenue, and generating expanded economic prosperity, especially in coastal areas.

I have always been supportive of the aquaculture industry and I was taken aback by recent reports of incidents we have seen in the national media. I compliment RTE on its investigative work on some of the aquaculture projects, where it identified serious malpractices and indicated the necessity to take action, including legal action, to stamp them out. If such malpractices were to be continued, by what I would say is a very small minority, it would damage the good name of the aquaculture business which is recognised worldwide, undermine the prospects for further development of the sector and discourage people from becoming involved in it. It is of paramount importance to the industry that whatever has been happening in the business is remedied quickly. I am not satisfied that the Marine Institute under the current arrangement has the capability to deal with this problem. There is a necessity for further action and I strongly recommend that the Minister of State gives some direction to the regional fisheries boards who have responsibility in matters of conservation, management and development of fisheries and execution of the law.

If not already involved, the regional fisheries boards should be asked immediately to give a helping hand to the Marine Institute. It appears the Marine Institute is involved in a whole lot of other research projects and activities which are totally unrelated to the management, conservation and prosecution of breaches of fisheries regulations. There is no reason the kind of activity we saw in a recent television programme should be tolerated and those responsible should be brought before the courts and prosecuted. Otherwise they will damage the industry and put its development at risk because people will be concerned about the produce. There is an urgent need for the fisheries boards and the central authority in particular to get involved immediately with the Marine Institute and all the other agencies of State, including the Garda Síochána, to stamp out illegal activity which is damaging the industry, putting the jobs of people at risk and giving a bad name to Irish aquaculture, which it has not had up to now.

I am intervening because of the alarm felt by most people who saw the recent television programme. While these matters may have been exaggerated, they should be investigated. If the fisheries boards are not in a position to do so, and if those responsible are not capable of dealing with the illegal activities taking place in the industry, they should be asked to reconsider their position and new people appointed. If the law needs to be changed to give new powers to local authorities or someone else to enforce the law in this area then it should be considered.

The industry to some extent may have been a victim of its own success. I recall in 1982 that there was very little activity in this area. I was Minister for Fisheries at the time and I sought EU funding to develop the business, which was forthcoming. Many people recognised at that stage the huge opportunity to create employment in isolated rural and coastal communities on the western seaboard. Now the industry is on its feet, a small minority of people is willing to undermine it, put people's jobs at risk and create a situation which could be very damaging to the long-term development of the Irish aquaculture and fisheries industry. I am intervening at this stage to underline again the necessity for strict enforcement of the laws.

I am afraid I cannot get worked up about sea lice, which is part of the marine environment. It has existed as long as salmon and trout. There are recognised ways of dealing with the infestation of sea lice. This will always exist where there is salmon and trout fish farming. Sea lice is part of the maritime environment which will not go away – there are others we might wish would go away but who will not go away either. There is a recognised and established international way to control this problem. If the rules are not being implemented, someone somewhere should be in a position to enforce the law. I strongly recommend that the regional fisheries boards which have responsibility for the implementation and execution of inland fisheries legislation should be brought to bear in this regard. If there is a necessity for further legislation to be introduced by the Minister I am sure it will get a very speedy passage.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I would like to be associated with the good wishes and congratulations to the Minister on his recent negotiations in Europe.

As previous speakers have said, the growing aquaculture business is worth a lot of money to this economy. The Minister's speech, however, does not make hectic reading. The Marine Institute was put in place to deal with a number of issues. There were three occurrences in July, August and September to which we seem to have no answers. In July the Marine Institute was called in to Donegal Bay. In August it was called in again and in September its scope was widened, but there appears to be no conclusion on the issue. This is very serious because it is an important industry. As Senator Daly said, the aquaculture business in this country is getting a bad name because of a few people. Answers must be found quickly. I support the Minister in taking quick action because it is necessary in this regard.

The aquaculture business and game fishing can exist side by side. As Senator Daly said, sea lice has been in existence as long as salmon and trout has been around. There are critical months early in the year when this is a problem but there are ways of controlling it. What are these critical months? The Minister said in his speech that Marine Institute inspectors visit farms up to 14 times a year. However, if they were to visit them more often during these critical months we could get answers and get this sea lice problem under control.

Game fishing is a very important industry. I support Senator Finucane's proposal to put together research and development units from the game fishing and Marine Institute. It would be a retrograde step to take 15 people from the Central Fisheries Board and the regional boards and put them into the Marine Institute. These people have a lot of experience and have done tremendous work. There are many good fishing rivers and lakes throughout the country and we have a tremendous number of people with enormous expertise and experience. It would be a retrograde step to move people from the Central Fisheries Board and the regional authorities to the Marine Institute because there is a system in place whereby the fisheries boards can liaise with each other. Ways have been found to improve tributaries to lakes and rivers and to improve the spawning beds. We could lose some of this expertise if we put the research and development section of game fishing, which is under the control of the Central Fisheries Board and the regional boards, under the Marine Institute.

Photo of John BrowneJohn Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senators for their contributions, which reflect the interest in the subject and the concerns that have arisen in light of some of the recent reports on the industry. I have taken note of the serious concerns raised which will be dealt with in the Department. Senator Finucane suggested that in a time of changing market conditions there may be a temptation to take short cuts. There cannot be any excuses for departures from the high standards expected of the industry. There will be no acceptance or tolerance of sloppy practices. Any cases which come to light will be fully investigated and pursued and serious action will be taken against the people who step out of line in the area of aquaculture farming.

Senator Finucane referred to the member of the board of the Marine Institute. We have taken legal advice and we have been advised about due process. I assure the Deputy that if a person, regardless of who it may be, on a board or elsewhere is found to have broken the law, we will not have any problem dealing with him or her accordingly. As regards the Connemara issue, it is being investigated. The advice of the legal service has been sought. We must bear in mind the need for due process. I do not want to comment any further at present. However, we will not tolerate any law breakers and we will deal with them accordingly.

Senator Finucane and others raised the issue of sea lice. The levels specified are set and there is a trigger system if those levels are breached. The Marine Institute will serve a notice on the farms concerned requiring them to apply any appropriate anti-lice treatment. It is clearly critical to the success of the system that these treatments are applied where necessary. We do not want any short cuts taken in this area. In the review of enforcement and control arrangements now under way, we will look at ways of ensuring that this happens in all cases. If changes are needed, we will take them on board.

Senator Finucane also raised the introduction of a statutory labelling system for seafood. That was introduced recently and is now in place.

Senator Kenneally raised the issue of fish diseases. He can rest assured that structures for fish health, such as monitoring and control, are in place. Inspections are carried out regularly at fish farms. Arrangements are also in place for the control of fish farms. We are considering the possibility of reviewing the system to see how we can control it further. The regulations are already in place and we are reviewing it.

Senator MacSharry raised the issue of an independent inspectorate. We have controls and procedures in place. However, if an independent inspector is required in the future, we will seriously consider that. I know all options are being considered in the Department at present. We will take on board the Senator's suggestions in that area.

Senator Dardis referred to the need for high standards of environmental protection. I agree fully with him. That is why a number of monitoring protocols specifically for finfish farms were introduced some years ago. We will ensure that all the necessary environmental controls and monitoring are in place for the future. This issue will also be examined as a central element of the review of monitoring and control arrangements which is now under way in the Department.

I know Senator Quinn received an award recently for high standards in the fish area. He rightly highlighted the damage which can be caused to the industry by the publicity arising from unacceptable practices. I fully agree with him. Everyone concerned must ensure the business operates to the highest standards. If that does not happen, the prospects for further development will be damaged and the position of existing operators will be undermined. The State will play its part in enforcing and controlling, however, as I said at the outset, there is a considerable onus on the fish farmers involved to adhere to the high standards expected of them in conjunction with the State's involvement in monitoring practices.

Senator Minihan raised a number of issues. The Fisheries (Amendment) Act, 2003, in line with the programme for Government, has introduced a new open transparent licensing process. In line with the requirements of the Act and with a new EU fleet policy, a new open transparent licensing policy is being put in place in consultation with the fishing industry. There is general support in the fishing industry for the long awaited reform of the licensing process. There was wide cross-party support for the reform process under the Fisheries (Amendment) Act when it was discussed in both Houses of the Oireachtas.

Senator Minihan also raised the licensing of tank boats for herring and mackerel. These are large and efficient vessels which can land hundreds of tonnes of fish on each fishing trip. For more than a decade the general policy has been that the boats can be introduced to the fleet only by withdrawing a similar type of boat from the fishing fleet. The policy is a recognition that the available quotas are decreasing and a reflection of the decline of the stocks. If new vessels are introduced, old ones must be taken out. The future policy for licensing these vessels is being reviewed in light of that.

Senator MacSharry referred to the investigation of fish mortality in Donegal and the need to speed up the progress towards a solution. I agree that we must find the cause of the fish mortality. We have asked the Marine Institute to continue to deal with the matter as a top priority.

Senator Daly referred to the Marine Institute's role in the monitoring and control of fish farming. I appreciate the work done by the Marine Institute to advise and assist my Department in this area. I agree, however, that we must take a careful look at the overall arrangements for enforcement and control. This will take place as a priority and will be dealt with as quickly as possible.

Senator Dardis also referred to fallowing as a possible means of environmental control at fish farms. I am pleased to inform him that this practice is already well established. Fish farms must fallow cages in accordance with the terms and conditions of their licences and must also comply with the specific requirements laid down in the protocol adopted in 2002.

Senator McHugh expressed concern that the effectiveness of sea lice treatment may be diminishing due to resistance. While that has not been an issue to date, I would be happy to have the matter checked out by the Marine Institute to ensure we have the best means of dealing with the problem of sea lice.

As regards the Irish Box, I thank the Senators on all sides of the House for their congratulations to the Minister and myself on the outcome of the negotiations on the Irish Box and related conservation matters. As Senator MacSharry said, the Minister has, through persistence and tough negotiations, managed to stem a defeat and to work a good deal for Irish fishermen which gives a good degree of security to the island and fishing generally. I thank all the Senators for their support on this issue. I also thank Dr. Cecil Beamish who was involved in the negotiations.

I thank the Senators for their contributions to the area of aquaculture. We will not leave any stone unturned in trying to find the causes of the mortality in Inver, McSwyne's Bay and other areas of the country. More importantly, we will not tolerate law breakers in aquaculture. We want to see a thriving aquaculture industry. That is important particularly to coastal communities where approximately 1,600 or 1,700 people are in full-time employment. We all agree that the industry must reach the highest environmental standards and that it will continue to grow into the future.

I thank my officials, Mr. Joe Ryan and Dr. Cecil Beamish, for their input into today's debate, for their preparation of the documentation and for supplying some of the answers.

Sitting suspended at 5.50 p.m. and resumed at 6p.m.