Tuesday, 25 October 2011
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, to the Seanad to address this Adjournment matter. I also welcome and pay tribute to Ms Karen Dubsky and members of Coastwatch who supplied me with background to this issue.
Regarding the recent opening of shellfish harvesting in Dundalk Bay, a Natura 2000 site, can the Minister of State provide detail on any quality issues encountered in exporting cockles from that site this season? The first batch exported apparently was black, and was rejected. This does not look favourable for us when we are trying to build up a good reputation. It raises questions about quality control. The general public and those fishing should be made aware of such matters. I ask that full records on the amount of cockles taken per week so far this season be made available to us. This is needed to keep the public informed on the number of boats and the fishing effort in the bay, a Natura 2000 site, which take from what is a commonage resource.
I urge the Minister of State to control razorshell dredging in this protected site, in particular because the Marine Institute's annual stockbook of 2010 highlighted the fact razorshell dredging has had a high impact and should be controlled. The largest razorshell beds in the country lie off the coast between counties Dublin and Louth and into Dundalk Bay. Razorshell fishing, as now carried out, is highly damaging because it hoovers up the seabed. The traditional alternative of hand-raking and diving, which has minimal impact, is not seen as worthwhile as there is no eco-label to highlight sustainable fishing. However, with the reform of fisheries, that should eventually happen. We should not wreck the stocks, therefore, but should seek to build up local markets and tourism for high-value mixed fisheries that can be fished in a sustainable manner. As with cockles, the public has a right to know about its commonage and how same is being managed by our Government.
On the halting of the hand-picking of cockles for home consumption, I ask the Minister of State to consider the wording of the regulation, which states that only people with a licence are entitled to pick cockles for home consumption. However, only 20 licences are available. Furthermore, these licences were available only until 30 September. From that date, no member of the public has been entitled to pick cockles for home consumption, a fact concerning which the majority of the public is not aware.
I thank the Senator for bringing up this matter. I live not too far from Dundalk and have had one representation on this matter. If there are questions I cannot answer today I shall reply in writing to the Senator.
The European Communities (Habitats and Birds) (Sea-Fisheries) Regulations 2009 - SI 346 of 2009 as amended by SI No. 397 of 2010 - were enacted to provide a statutory process for the assessment of fishing activities in areas protected by the EU birds and habitats directives. Dundalk Bay is the subject of a Natura 2000 designation under these directives and as a result its cockle dredging activities underwent appropriate assessment. A draft five year fishing plan for Dundalk Bay, prepared by Bord Iascaigh Mhara on behalf of the Dundalk Bay fishing industry, was submitted to my Department on 9 June 2011. In keeping with the aforementioned regulations, the plan was appropriately assessed by the Marine Institute in accordance with the requirements of the EU birds and habitats directives and with guidance from the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The appropriate assessment concluded that brown shrimp, scallop, lobster and crab fisheries can proceed as proposed in the plan while cockle and razor clam fisheries can proceed under certain conditions. It concluded that fishing for mussels should not proceed as there was insufficient information available to conclude that it would not have an impact on the site.
A one-month statutory consultation was undertaken with views received from environmental non-governmental organisations, the general public and statutory consultees. Following on from this, the ad hoc, non-statutory, technical advisory committee was convened on 17 August 2011 to advise the Minister on the fishery Natura plan, the appropriate assessment and submissions received during the consultation period. The committee comprised representatives from the environmental pillar and representatives of the local fishing sector. It also included representatives from the Department, the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, the Marine Institute and BIM. The committee did not reach a consensus. However, the views of the committee were submitted to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, together with the draft plan, the appropriate assessment and the results of the consultation process on 31 August 2011.
Having considered all of the information provided, the Minister finalised the fishery Natura plan for Dundalk Bay on 2 September 2011, confirming a total allowable catch, TAC, of 510 tonnes of cockles in 2011. Going on the experience of previous years and the current market price for cockles, it was clear that demand for access to the cockle fishing in 2011 would be high. The biomass of cockles in Dundalk Bay is quite variable from year to year, so the TAC, which is set at 33% of the biomass, also varies from year to year. The Minister also signed Fisheries Natura Declaration No. 2 of 2011 (Dundalk Bay) on 2 September 2011, restricting cockle fishing in Dundalk Bay to permit holders only. The plan and declaration were made for the purpose of ensuring that the cockle fishery is consistent with the conservation objectives for these protected Natura 2000 sites. This is absolutely necessary for Ireland to comply with its obligations under the EU habitats and birds directives and to comply with a judgment of the European Court of Justice against Ireland.
The restriction on fishing for cockles by permit only, accompanied by a call for applications for permits, was advertised nationally in the Irish Independent on Tuesday, 6 September 2011. The call for applications applied to vessel owners and hand gatherers. The call was also published online at the website fishingnet.ie. Fishing under permits for hand gathering ended on 30 September. This restriction was adopted on the advice of the Marine Institute. The restriction is intended to protect migratory wading birds from disturbance by the hand gathering activities on shore as the migratory wading birds arrive on our shores at this time of year. The hand gathering activities took place during low tide on the shoreline and the protection of migratory wading birds is required for this site under the terms of the birds directive.
The harvesting figures for cockles, which have been collected to date by BIM in compliance with the declaration, are as follows: for the period 15 to 16 September, it was 7.3 tonnes; for the period 23 to 30 September, it was 72.4 tonnes; for the period 1 to 7 October, it was 66.56 tonnes; and for the period 8 to 14 October, it was 41.15 tonnes. Figures have not been compiled to date for the period 15 to 21 October. Regarding the Senator's question on the quality of the cockles, I draw to the Senator's attention that Ireland has a shellfish safety monitoring programme in place to protect consumers' health. The programme ensures that shellfish containing biotoxins are not harvested and placed on the market. Biotoxins are naturally produced by phytoplankton in seawater. I am advised by the Marine Institute that samples from Dundalk Bay have tested negative for biotoxins, the most recent sample having been taken on 13 October.
In addition, the institute tests samples to monitor the bacteriological and viral contamination of bivalve shellfish as part of the routine monitoring programme to classify shellfish harvesting areas. Sampling and classification is conducted by the SFPA based on the analysis provided by the Marine Institute's laboratory. Dundalk Bay is classified as category B for cockles. Areas classified as such are those areas from which live bivalve molluscs may be collected and placed on the market for human consumption only after treatment in a purification centre or after relaying so as to meet required health standards.
With regard to razor clam fishing, as for all fisheries, a decision on a fisheries plan can only be made on each site based on the appropriate assessment for that site. For Dundalk Bay, the appropriate assessment concluded that the present level of razor fishing will not have significant impacts on the conservation objectives for the site. The assessment was based on a substantive body of scientific data. The assessment recommended that the level of razor fishing should be monitored and if a significant escalation is observed, that further appropriate assessment be conducted. Through the Natura declaration, long-term arrangements have been put in place for the ongoing monitoring of razor fishing activity. Similar arrangements are also in place for brown shrimp. I am satisfied that the fishing activities in Dundalk Bay have been subject to full and appropriate assessment and are being undertaken in an environmentally sensitive manner, fully in compliance with the EU birds and habitat directives.
I thank the Minister of State for taking this debate. Will the Minister of State ask the Minister, Deputy Coveney, to draft a new policy of inshore shellfish harvesting? The Dutch and Spanish have led the way in this area and this should be prioritised for protected sites such as that in Dundalk Bay. Will the Minister consider inviting representatives of the Dutch and Spanish Governments to explain their new policy of inshore shellfish harvesting in protected sites as I understand that this sets out to maximise employment and cause minimum environmental impact?
I will revert to the Minister and ask him to have a look at this. I know how beautiful Dundalk bay is and nobody would like to see anything going wrong in the area. I will revert to the Deputy in writing with answers to the questions.