Seanad debates

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

10:00 am

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to raise the issue of the predicament facing a group of fishermen that has emerged in recent days in the Lough Foyle area, which is administered by the Loughs Agency. A number of drift net fishermen, commercial salmon fishermen, fish in this river but there are also ten draft net salmon fishermen who fish in the river who have been in touch with me about letters they have received, dated 4 June, from the chief executive officer of the Loughs Agency in Derry, which is a North-South body. The letter refers to the fact that the Loughs Agency was preparing the Foyle Area (Control of Fishing) Regulations 2010. These regulations were subsequently made on 2 June 2010 and will come into force ahead of the commercial salmon fishing season, which would have commenced already, now that we are past the 15 June deadline. The rationale behind the decision, according to the letter that has been sent to the draft net fishermen, is that the River Finn, which feeds into the Foyle system, has not achieved the conservation limit for salmon in two of the past five years. The agency therefore outlined that it is required to suspend the killing of salmon returning to the river until such time as the management target is achieved.

This has come as major surprise and shock to the fishermen. The ten fishermen, I represent and who I met over the weekend, are deeply concerned that their livelihood has now effectively been taken from them. These fishermen would have had the opportunity in 2007 to avail of the salmon hardship compensation package but they declined the offer at the time. I have one of the letters of offer made to one of the fishermen. The fishermen declined the offer because they had no other form of employment. They were highly dependent on commercial salmon fishing, the draft net fishing, at the time.

Their grievance is that no consultation took place with them prior to they receiving a letter from the Loughs Agency to the effect that cessation of fishing was commencing this year. If the salmon stocks are dwindling, it is a cause of concern to us all. I walked along the River Finn and the River Foyle over the weekend and noticed the water levels were very low and that there was a great deal of dirt and muck on the river beds. While I am not an expert on fishing a number of anglers and fishermen have pointed out to me that the migration of salmon up the river would be very difficult due to the fact the water level is very low and there is murky residue on the river bed.

Perhaps that issue should be addressed, as conservation is a matter for the agency, with the funding provided in 2007.

Has the declaration been signed by the Northern and Southern Ministers, given that it is a North-South body? If the ten draft net salmon fishermen are prevented from engaging in commercial activity this year, can they obtain some of the hardship money that was available until now? Can somebody meet them to discuss the implications for their livelihoods?

I wanted to bring these matters to the attention of the Minister of State and I am delighted he is present to respond.

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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Salmon stocks exploited in the Foyle by the commercial interceptory fishery up to 2006 had been achieving their conservation limits. However, the scientific advice for 2006 indicated that a rationalisation of the fishery was necessary to protect stock levels and the future viability of the commercial fishery. In May 2007 approval was given by the North-South Ministerial Council for the introduction of salmon conservation measures to be administered by the Loughs Agency of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission. The agency, under the co-sponsorship of the Department of Communications Energy and Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland, is a North-South body established under the British Irish Agreement Acts, responsible for, among other things, the protection and conservation of inland fisheries in the Foyle and Carlingford areas. Regulations agreed by the North-South Ministerial Council provided the agency with the necessary powers to manage wild salmon stocks in the Foyle and Carlingford areas, in compliance with the EU habitats directive and the recommendations of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation.

Recognising the impact that cessation of the mixed stock fishery at sea would have on traditional salmon fishermen, approval was also given for a hardship scheme to be offered to former drift and draft net licence holders who had been active between 2002 and 2006. The Loughs Agency, in conjunction with its sponsor Departments in the North and the South, introduced a hardship package for salmon fishermen no longer able to fish in the drift net fishery. The scheme was extended, on a voluntary basis, to the existing draft net fishery operators who had fished their licences in 2006. The scheme was intended to provide a measure of relief for individual licence holders in line with the degree of hardship likely to be experienced on foot of the cessation of fishing for salmon arising from the closure of the interceptory fishery seaward of Lough Foyle. The scheme was jointly funded by the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. The total cost was €3.8 million. The number of drift nets that operated in the Foyle area was reduced from 112 to 18, while the number of draft nets which operated within the lough and River Foyle decreased from 50 to ten. It must be stressed that the commercial nets men who have not been issued with licences in 2010 were made aware, when the salmon hardship package was offered in 2007, that if they did not accept the package, any future suspension or closure of the fishery would not attract hardship payments.

There has been a worrying decline in salmon stocks in recent years. In 2009 they were only meeting 40% of their management targets, based on conservation limits. Salmon stocks in the River Finn which has been designated as a special area of conservation for Atlantic salmon under the habitats directive are no longer meeting sustainability targets. There was a particular concern about the impact on the remaining stocks where commercial drift and draft nets were continuing to operate. In order to reach the River Finn, salmon have to pass through Lough Foyle where the drift fishery operates and the River Foyle where the draft net fishery operates.

Following a long period of consultation and development, the Foyle Area (Control of Fishing) Regulations 2010 were made to

take account of the agency's national and international obligations, including the requirements of the habitats directive. The regulations provide for a practical and equitable response to falling salmon numbers in the Foyle system. In particular, they provide for the suspension of angling or the use of nets to take salmon or sea trout, or the restriction of angling to catch and release in specified waters in the Foyle area for the purpose of conservation of Atlantic salmon if the number of migrating salmon counted going upstream in the rivers Mourne, Faughan, Roe and Finn are below stock level targets or, in the case of the rivers Mourne and Roe, if the rivers were in flood or, in the case of the River Mourne, in times of drought. The regulations specify the target numbers for stock levels of migrating salmon in the rivers Mourne, Faughan, Roe and Finn and water levels for the rivers Mourne and Roe. In addition, they stipulate the conditions under which netting in the River Foyle, Lough Foyle and seaward of Lough Foyle will be suspended if the number of migrating salmon counted going upstream in the rivers Mourne, Faughan, Roe and Finn are below the specified stock level target numbers.

The issue of declining stocks was also the subject of a formal complaint to the European Commission in May. The complaint maintains that the continued use of 18 drift and ten draft nets within the Foyle system is not consistent with the requirements of the habitats directive in that it is indiscriminate in its nature, as it does not just target salmon from rivers within the Foyle system that are healthy and meeting their conservation targets but will also catch salmon from the weakest river within the system.

In the circumstances, there is no question of the suspended commercial interceptory fishery being reopened until stock levels allow. While there can be understandable sympathy for those impacted upon by the necessary suspension, there can be no question of introducing a new hardship scheme for fishermen who decided not to avail of the scheme previously introduced. These fishermen made a choice to continue fishing rather than avail of the hardship scheme at a time when there were serious concerns about the

scale of the decline in salmon numbers in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Commercial fishermen who chose to continue fishing were fully aware of the risks they were taking in declining to avail of the scheme. However, if stock levels improve to a point where there is a harvestable surplus, the regulations allow for the reopening of the fishery.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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I appreciate the position and the reason the restrictions are in place. I note that there was €3.8 million available under the salmon hardship scheme. Perhaps the Minister of State might consider whether any of the surplus moneys available could be used to provide some compensation for the 28 fishermen involved.

Photo of Conor LenihanConor Lenihan (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources; Minister of State, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I will look into the matter, as requested by the Senator, but I would not hold out much hope in that regard.