Thursday, 30 January 2014
For the record, Senator David Cullinane indicated that he was postponing his matter.
Táim an-buíoch den Aire a theacht isteach agus an ábhar seo a thógáil ar an Athló, mar tuigim to bhfuil sé an-ghnóthach. I refer to the aquaculture sector in Ireland. As we know from many studies, some 83% of all employment in Irish aquaculture is along the western seaboard. Aquaculture is of great importance to coastal communities along the west coast. I have been very critical of the concept of all eggs in one basket being proposed by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, in respect of the massive fish farm planned off Inis Óirr in the Aran Islands. I do not think it is the right development but we recognise the potential to increase production and create employment along the west coast. We need to have an open and honest debate about its efficacy.
In many policy documents, the Government states it is in favour of developing the aquaculture sector through Harvest 2020, which talks about the potential for aquaculture production. One of the national policy goals for agriculture involves the significant scope to expand Ireland’s aquaculture industry, with increases expected from both conventional aquaculture and a new deep sea salmon farming initiative, amounting to a 78% increase in volume of production by 2020. An effective licensing system was viewed by many submissions as the single most important contribution the public sector can make to the development of the marine sector. Numerous submissions regarded the current licensing systems as a barrier to growth, for example, foreshore and aquaculture licensing and planning permission. It was felt that such systems must be fit-for-purpose, quick, consistent, efficient and transparent in order to attract investment.
I do not agree with the potential in the massive farm off the Aran Islands and more progressive growth of small farms along the western seaboard would be a better way to go but I do not want to focus on that issue. The frustration in the industry is the major backlog in the processing and renewal of licences. I would like the Minister to clarify why there is such a backlog. Why are people in the aquaculture industry finding it so hard to make ends meet, battling against storms, competitors in other areas and being held up when they apply for licences to be renewed or for new licences to be issued? The IFA estimates that, over the past five years, at least €60 million in public and private investment has been lost to coastal areas because producers awaiting licence decisions were barred by our national policy from accessing the equivalent public funding of 40% of capital expenditure allowed in every other EU member state under the European fisheries fund regulations. The backlog is not allowing farms to fish new species as opposed to the licence they have had for a number of years, such as moving from trout to a more lucrative species. In cases where people are fearful of storm damage coming to our shores over the weekend, a licence decision has made it impossible under Irish national rules to access capital expenditure funding or raise bank loans to secure their farms against bad weather with the best available equipment. It is a serious issue and is totally at the behest of the Department. Perhaps the Minister can clarify the backlog. Is it a staffing issue? Is it a policy issue and why is the Government not acting more quickly?
I am responding on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd. Aquaculture licensing is governed by the Fisheries (Amendment) Act 1997, as amended, and regulations including, in particular, the Aquaculture (Licence Application) Regulations 1998, SI 236 of 1998 as amended. The 1997 Act obliges the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to determine any application for a licence by either deciding to grant the licence or vary the licence, or deciding to refuse to grant the licence. The licensing process involves consultation with a range of scientific and technical advisers as well as various statutory consultees and a period of public consultation. Decisions on applications are published and are open to appeal to the independent Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board, ALAB.
A backlog has built up over a long period of time and arises primarily due to the absolute need to achieve full compliance with EU and national legislation on environmental protection. The European Court of Justice judgment against Ireland in 2007 has largely determined what can be done since that time about aquaculture licensing in most of the bays around Ireland, the Natura 2000 sites. The low number of licences issued since 2007 - with the exception of 2012 and 2013 where 115 and 137 determinations were made respectively - largely arises from the need for full compliance with the terms of the European Court judgment, with particular reference to the EU birds and habitats directives. The majority of areas for which these licences are sought are designated special areas of conservation and-or special protection areas under the EU birds directive and Natura 2000 sites. The specific numbers over the last six years are as follows: there were 137 licences in 2013; 115 in 2012; six in 2011; three in 2010; four in 2009; and two in 2008.
In accordance with these EU directives, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is constrained by law from issuing or renewing aquaculture licences for sites located within Natura 2000 areas until such time as an appropriate assessment has been conducted to assess the potential of the proposed aquaculture and fishery activities within that area to impact negatively on the conservation objectives for that Natura site. The licensing process must take full account of the outcome of that assessment in reaching a determination on any particular licence application.
An additional factor is that under the EIA directives all aquaculture applications now undergo an environmental impact pre-screening assessment which requires significant input from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine scientific and technical advisors. The Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, which has responsibility for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, together with the relevant State agencies put in place structures, procedures and arrangements to address the Natura licensing challenge. These are intended to enable progressive delivery by Ireland in a multi-year plan of its obligations for compliance in respect to sea fisheries and aquaculture under the EU habitats and birds directives.
Arrangements were put in place for the following measures: the progressive collection of necessary benthic, ornithological and other data in relevant marine Natura sites; the progressive development of conservation objectives in those sites; the progressive completion of appropriate assessments; and the establishment of fisheries Natura plans and other arrangements to enable a progressive roll-out of consent determinations in line with the Natura obligations once all the requested conditions are met. As seen from the numbers cited, the licensing process has begun to achieve meaningful results in the context of Natura areas and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, expects that licence determinations in the order of 200-250 will be achieved in 2014. This will give a cumulative total in the order of 500 licences over the last two years, which will have a significant impact on the backlog.
The very detailed measures the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine negotiated with the EU Commission, which I have outlined, are clearly yielding positive results. The elimination of the licensing backlog has been a key priority for the Minister and will continue to be kept under review to ensure that the progress made to date will be maintained and, if possible, accelerated.
I welcome the clarification. Some 58 bays are to be inspected under the regime and only two of them have been completed by the Marine Institute to date. Perhaps the Minister can ask the Minister of State to forward information on the bays that will be finished in 2014 so that the licences in those bays will be issued and when it is expected to finish surveys of the bays. What is the timeline so that producers in the bays know where they stand in respect of renewal of licences? The Minister might ask the Minister of State to come back with detailed information.