Thursday, 10 April 2014
Seaweed Harvesting Licences
This issue relates to the cutting of seaweed along the coasts of Ireland, particularly the west coast, a tradition that has been going on for many years. Traditionally, people who cut seaweed do so on a particular strip of the foreshore, which is not then cut by any other person. The old Irish saying, "spite feamainne" was used when rows broke out because some people had cut into other people's strips on the foreshore, etc.
I am aware of recent media reports of letters being sent by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to people who are cutting seaweed indicating that in future they will require licences to do so.
This is a new occurrence and seaweed cutters are wondering why this has begun to happen. In addition, people have been examining the issue and they noticed that a number of companies have applied to the Department for licences. According to my research, four different applications are in train at the moment: one in Donegal; one from Arramara Teoranta, which covers the shoreline from Belmullet in County Mayo down to Clare; and two others, one of which affects Clew Bay and the other affects some limited seaweed cutting in Connemara.
In the last week, the seaweed cutters have organised two public meetings in Connemara which were attended by big crowds. Quite a few elected representatives were also there. The seaweed cutters are concerned that their livelihoods will be affected by any changes that may come forward. There have been questions over the legality of cutting. We know that the foreshore itself is in the ownership of the State, so where do people stand who may have a folio stating that they own part of the foreshore? Does the latter group have different rights to those who only cut and sell seaweed to the factories? People were seeking clarification of those issues.
In a broader scenario, people are also concerned that Arramara Teoranta, which is a State-owned company under the auspices of Údarás na Gaeltachta, is being sold off as a State asset. We understand that negotiations are going on with a Canadian company that wishes to by it. The seaweed cutters are concerned that a licence regime is being introduced whereby Arramara Teoranta will get the licence which will then be sold on to the private Canadian company. We will therefore be selling off seaweed cutting rights to a private entity. The cutters are worried that in those circumstances they will not have much control over when, where and how the seaweed can be cut, as well as the price involved.
There are genuine concerns about this matter all along the west coast, so I would welcome any clarification the Minister can give us on the legal situation. Where do people stand legally if they own a folio which says they have a legal right to the foreshore vis-à-visthose who do not have such a right but cut generally on the foreshore?
I thank the Senator for raising this matter which I am taking on behalf of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. The Department plays a role in regulating the harvesting of wild seaweed and it is necessary to ensure that this valuable resource is managed appropriately both to ensure it remains sustainable and that the marine environment is protected.
The Foreshore Act 1933 prohibits the removal of beach material from any area of the foreshore. The definition of "beach material" in the Act includes seaweed whether growing or rooted on the seashore, or deposited or washed up by the action of tides, winds or waves. Seaweed that has been washed above the high water mark no longer belongs to the State. Under the Act, individuals or companies seeking to harvest wild seaweed from the foreshore require a foreshore licence from the Department. The legislative requirement to hold a foreshore licence for seaweed harvesting has existed since the enactment of the Foreshore Act in 1933.
I understand, however, that folio rights also may exist in certain cases and that deeds to privately-owned land adjacent to the foreshore may in some instances grant limited harvesting rights. The Department is seeking advice on how such rights interact with the legislation. It is worth clarifying, however, that the vast majority of foreshore is owned by the State and that continuing access to the foreshore by individuals does not lead to any ownership rights. While private individuals may have been taking seaweed in small quantities for personal use, harvesting large quantities which might damage the seaweed crop in a particular area or have adverse effects on the marine environment, is something that Ireland needs to avoid.
Seaweed is a valuable resource and, in recent years, has become a growth industry. Seaweed is now also being used as an ingredient in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, fertilisers, organic food and animal health supplements. A number of foreshore licence applications for seaweed harvesting have been received by the Department and are currently under assessment. These applications vary considerably and are made by both individual and commercial harvesters. All foreshore licence applications are subject to a public consultation process and any person may submit comments to the Department.
As well as being an economic resource, it should be remembered that living seaweed acts as an important habitat for marine and coastal species, and can provide spawning and nursery grounds for many species.
Applications are therefore assessed in the context of the relevant regulatory framework, including any nature conservation obligations. The Minister is acutely aware of the need to prevent the over-exploitation of this valuable resource. The regulation of seaweed harvesting under the Foreshore Act facilitates the sustainable management of the resource.
Ireland's foreshore is a national asset and it is essential that seaweed harvesting on the foreshore is cognisant of the need to protect the foreshore for present and future generations. The sustainable management of Ireland's wild seaweed resources is the focus of the Department's efforts in licensing this activity.
The specific issue of seaweed harvesting licensing is currently under review in the context of the forthcoming marine area and foreshore (amendment) Bill. The issues raised today will form part of that review. While I have provided some answers for the Senator, there are also a few things about which we will need to get further information in order to have them clarified.
I thank the Minister of State for her reply and I appreciate that it is a work in progress. I ask her to relay to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government our desire to be updated on the legal advice he is getting. It is an emotive issue for the people involved. Can the Minister, Deputy Hogan, also take on board the wishes of the local community as expressed by 200 people at two local meetings in Connemara at the weekend? They want to maintain a fair trade role if possible whereby cutters will have a role in the industry and the selling rights, be it through a co-operative or otherwise. Those rights should not be given over to a private company which could dictate to the cutters who will, thus, have no control over their own industry. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State could pass those comments on to the Minister.