Wednesday, 26 February 2014
Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Táim an-bhuíoch dó as teacht isteach. I am grateful that the Minister of State has come into the House to take this Adjournment matter. I had actually tabled the Adjournment question before reading this morning's edition of the Irish Examiner which had a banner headline stating, "Full-scale war over Galway fish farm". It refers to the issue of the proposed farm off the island of Inis Oírr in Galway Bay, which would be a mega-fish farm. The proposal is being advanced by Bord Iascaigh Mhara, BIM, to build what would be the biggest ever fish farm, perhaps in the world but certainly in Europe, and it has met with much disquiet from different sectors, ranging from those who are involved in the fishing industry, through local people with concerns regarding the impact on tourism, to those involved in ecology and so on. Obviously, there are concerns regarding the viability and sustainability of such a project, as well as in respect of the science underlying the project and from where that has come.
The full-scale war over the Galway fish farm to which the Irish Examiner alluded pertains to an ongoing interdepartmental debate in which one is told a full-scale war is under way between the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Inland Fisheries Ireland, which is likely to determine the fate of this proposed fish farm. It is reported the European Commission is investigating the reason it did not receive a scientific report from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine that showed the amount of sea lice likely to come from such a farm could devastate much of the country's wild salmon and trout. This report was drawn up by Inland Fisheries Ireland, which is responsible for protecting and developing inland fisheries and sea angling, as well as protecting wild salmon under the European Union's habitats directive. What the Department did instead was to send a different study from another State agency, namely, the Marine Institute, which stated the danger would be small, at approximately 1%, compared with the 39% suggested by the report from Inland Fisheries Ireland.
The Irish Examiner also reported that the Ombudsman is investigating this issue and was told by the Department that the Inland Fisheries Ireland report had many inaccuracies and fundamental errors and, had it been sent to the Commission, would have had a disastrous result for Ireland's reputation. A number of questions arise from this report. First, two State agencies are completely at odds with each other's findings on scientific issues on which one would imagine they could find common ground. One must be wrong and the other right and if this is the case and one is completely wrong, is there a question mark hanging over the competence of the agencies that have drawn up the scientific reports?
I note that the Marine Institute report also has been questioned by four independent scientists when published in the Journal of Fish Diseases and as a result, Ireland has a huge issue on the European stage in this regard. In addition, I note a meeting took place recently between the Taoiseach, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and a man named Alf-Helge Aarskog, who runs the company Marine Harvest. Many players in the industry would imagine that Marine Harvest is one of the prime suspects that might run the BIM-sponsored project. While the licence proposal for the project is being developed by BIM, the intention is to license this mega-fish farm to a company to operate it. There are probably only a small number of players globally who have the capacity to run such a project and one certainly would imagine that Marine Harvest would be in the running in this respect. The aforementioned company already has a track record in Ireland of running quite a number of fish farms.
My issue in this regard is there is an ongoing process seeking to have the licence either granted or not granted in respect of the fish farm off Inis Oirr in Galway Bay. The project is being proposed by BIM, which falls under the remit of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Other Members of the Houses have questioned whether the Minister, who will sanction or not sanction a licence, should be in the position whereby he essentially is the proposer, on foot of being in charge of BIM, as well as being the adjudicator on the application at the same time. While this certainly is an issue, during such a process one would imagine the Minister would refrain from meeting any of the key players in the process. He certainly has refrained from meeting some of the detractors who are opposed to the project. However, it appears quite strange that he and the Taoiseach could have a meeting with the head of Marine Harvest, who potentially could be the licenceholder in this case. I question the efficacy of that meeting because, as the report that appeared in Irish Examiner stated, "Aarskog, chief executive of Norwegian fish-farming giant Marine Harvest, jetted in especially for the Government face-time and is optimistic that it will bear fruit in the form of some new licences for Irish salmon farms". Consequently, there is a question of interest in this regard and I hope the Minister of State will be able to clarify this point.
In addition, there appears to be opposition from many fronts. It appears to me there will be a major spat over this project and that people who are opposed to the fish farm, for all their different reasons, will fight this tooth and nail and it will end up before the European courts. Therefore, we will have a major case on our hands in Europe and the State will end up fighting that case as far as the European Union courts, much money will be wasted and the people's concerns are quite genuine in many cases. I am not completely opposed to the development of aquaculture but there are ways and means of doing this that are sustainable and which will create jobs. While one certainly must consider the possibilities for the industry, the general consensus being reached around Galway Bay in particular is to the effect that this is the wrong project in the wrong place. It is thought it will not work and will not have the full support of the local community and that at this point, the Minister should kick to touch and blow the project out of the water. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine who is unable to attend. I perceive aquaculture to be a crucial component of the Government's Food Harvest 2020 strategy. To expand the production of Irish organic farmed salmon, I tasked BIM to investigate the creation of new fish farming production areas in deeper waters. The placement of farms in deep waters is designed to ensure that there is no impact on Natura 2000 sites, no significant environmental or visual impact and no interference with migratory salmonids, wild sea fisheries, navigation or tourism interests. BIM has estimated that just one of these production areas could generate more than €100 million in exports per annum and create 350 direct jobs. A further 150 jobs will be created indirectly in the service sector, supplying fish feed, netting, transportation and other services.
There always is a strict separation between the duty of the Minister to promote sustainable development of the industry, as evidenced by a wide range of initiatives he has taken in the last two years, including deep sea aquaculture, and his ministerial role as a decision-maker in respect of aquaculture licence applications.
I regard this separation of duties as extremely serious and it is strictly observed at all times.
In 2012 BIM submitted an application to my Department for an aquaculture licence for the cultivation of finfish near Inis Oírr in Galway Bay. The application and its accompanying environmental impact statement are being considered under the provisions of the 1997 Fisheries (Amendment) Act and the 1933 Foreshore Act, which provide for extensive consultation with stakeholders and also for a period of general public consultation. The public consultation stage of the assessment process in respect of the application is closed and a total of 410 valid submissions were received by my Department.
All aspects of the Galway Bay application are currently being examined by my Department in conjunction with its scientific, engineering, technical and legal advisers . All submissions received as part of both the statutory consultation stage of the process and the general public consultation stage will form an integral part of my Department's consideration of the application. It is important to note that the legislation provides for extensive consultation with stakeholders, including Inland Fisheries Ireland, which has responsibility for wild salmon stocks. It is important for all parties to understand that, as the application is under active consideration as part of the statutory process, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the merits or otherwise of the application pending the completion of the formal assessment process by my Department. The application process is governed by legislation and must not be subject to parallel discussions by me as Minister of State or my Department which could be misconstrued as indicating a predisposition by my Department in respect of the application. No such predisposition exists and the formal assessment process will take into account and evaluate all observations received from stakeholders and the general public in respect of the application. It must also be borne in mind that any person submitting a licence application to my Department has an entitlement in accordance with fair procedures to have the application fully considered in accordance with legislation.
The legislation also provides for appeal of the ministerial decision to the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board, an independent authority for the determination of appeals against decisions of the Minister. I assure the Senator that the public interest is well protected under the provisions of the relevant legislation and I am conscious of the importance of proceeding fully in line with statutory requirements.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply on behalf of the Minister and I take on board all that he has said. Could he ask the Minister to issue a statement that at the meeting between Alf-Helge Aarskog, which runs Marine Harvest, the Taoiseach and the Minister, no reference was made to this fish farm project? That would contravene everything stated in the Minister of State's reply. It would have been inappropriate, as this is one of the companies that could become the prime mover and shaker in the project. This would be important if this process is to be seen as open, transparent, fair, etc., and the preconception that there would not be any predisposition on the Minister's part needs to be upheld. The Minister needs to make a clear statement that he and the Taoiseach did not discuss the BIM Inis Oírr project with the man who runs Marine Harvest during their meeting.
It is clear from my reply that due process has at all times been adhered to, which is most important from everybody's point of view. This is a statutory and legal process and I have no doubt that in discussions between the Taoiseach and the Minister they were well aware of that and they would not do anything that would infringe legislation or proper procedures. I will ask the Minister as soon as I meet him and report back on what the Senator said. There is significant potential in this industry. Two weeks ago I attended an organic trade fair in Germany and the opportunity to export organic fish all over Europe - and, in particular, to Germany - from Ireland stood out a mile. The Senator is from the west and Senators regularly refer to job creation. A total of 500 jobs could be created through this project - 350 initially and 150 more downstream. If they were on the way for my constituency, I would welcome them. We have to be mindful of job creation in taking decisions. That is why it is important that we do everything properly and I have no doubt that contacts between the Minister and the Taoiseach are always above board. I will report back to the Senator regarding the questions he posed.