Seanad debates

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Adjournment Matters

Seaweed Harvesting

12:10 pm

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, for coming to the House. I know it was a bit of a challenge for him to get here because the previous debate finished early. I appreciate him coming in.

I previously raised the issue I am raising when the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, held the position now held by the Minister of State. A delegation of Members of the Oireachtas from Galway West discussed the seaweed harvesting licensing regime with the then Minister at that time. There are many facets to this issue. Seaweed harvesting is an integral part of community life in Connemara and other parts of County Galway, County Mayo, County Donegal and along the west coast. Many people harvest seaweed to supplement their income. In days gone by, they would have done it to survive. Seaweed is used for agricultural reasons and is sold to certain producers. One of the largest processing companies in the State, Arramara Teoranta, which used to be owned by the State under the auspices of Údarás na Gaeltacha, was recently sold to a Canadian company, Acadian Seaplants. We hope the industry can develop and flourish under this and other companies.

New information on the licensing regime with regard to the cutting of seaweed has come to light in the past year or so. We understand the current law in this area is in place under the Foreshore Act 1933. Although people should technically have been applying for licences, that regime was not really enforced until quite recently. I was recently involved in a debate on Raidió na Gaeltachta with an eminent senior counsel, during which we discussed all the different ramifications of the legal scenario. I am sure the Department is aware of them. If there are pertinent rights on somebody's folio to the effect that they are allowed to cut seaweed, does that give them the right to continue to do so under the new regime? I understand that the officials from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government who met us previously in the company of the then Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, are working on the new foreshore legislation.

A public meeting was held in Connemara last night because the local community wanted to discuss the exact intentions of a company that is applying for a blanket licence that would extend across a large section of shore in County Galway. It is of serious concern to many seaweed harvesters that some bigger companies are applying for these blanket licences. We know that before Údarás na Gaeltacha sold Arramara Teoranta, it was beginning to apply for a licence from Loop Head in County Clare to Belmullet in County Mayo. There were concerns about the impact that would have on the local seaweed harvesters. The harvesters have organised public meetings locally to express their concerns about its implications for them. They are concerned about whether they would be able to continue to operate under the auspices of a company that might be given such a licence. Would such a company dictate the price they would receive, the times when they could cut seaweed, or the amount of seaweed they could cut? Would they have much of a say in the industry?

One of the models I have been proposing is still worth looking at. I would have proposed it to the Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, previously. Perhaps the seaweed harvesters could come together as part of some type of fair trade scenario, for example, by setting up a co-operative or something like that. Such a move would allow them to negotiate with the different processors in the industry as a group. They would not have to depend on a particular company to buy their seaweed. They would be able to negotiate a good rate and good conditions for the work they are doing. As we all know, it is very hard work. Not everybody would be able for it or is interested in doing it. Perhaps it was not clear for a little while after the Government reshuffle took place which Minister of State had been given responsibility for this area. I now understand that the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, is responsible for it. I am glad he is in this role. As a man who lives close enough to the coast, I know he will be able to clarify this. I am not familiar with the current state of the seaweed harvesting industry in County Waterford.

People might say this is not a huge issue on a national scale, but it is in Connemara and many other coastal and rural areas. It is seen very much as a traditional thing. There are issues around the legality of the licences. What rights are enjoyed by someone who has a folio and has permanent rights on their portfolio? Do those who have always cut seaweed have squatters' rights? The senior counsel with whom I discussed this issue in the media last Monday tended to think that a case could be taken by somebody who can prove they have cut and sold seaweed on a regular basis over a number of years on a particular stretch of the foreshore. It is possible that they would have rights as well. I hope the Minister of State can clarify that for us. Can he tell us when the new foreshore Bill will come forward? What are his plans for that Bill? How does he intend to make sure the seaweed harvesters, in particular, are protected during the whole process?

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Waterford, Fine Gael)
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I am happy to clarify this matter for the Senator. Ireland's foreshore is a national asset. It is essential that any activity or development on the foreshore takes account of the need to protect it. The principal legislation governing the use of foreshore is the Foreshore Act 1933. It is widely acknowledged that reform of this legislation is needed. The Government is determined to bring forward a modern regulatory regime that harnesses the potential of our marine environment while protecting the resource. To that end, last year it approved the drafting of a maritime area and foreshore (amendment) Bill and published the general scheme of the Bill. The Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht considered the general scheme in November 2013 and issued its report earlier this year.

Drafting of the Bill is ongoing with a view to its publication during the current Oireachtas session. In brief, it is intended that the Bill will streamline the consent process by aligning the foreshore system with the planning system, reducing duplication between the processes, with consequential benefits for economic activity.

The Senator is concerned about the issue of seaweed harvesting in the context of the proposed Bill. However, the foreshore consent process has a much broader reach and is used to regulate a wide variety of development, both public and private. Such development often involves important and necessary infrastructure including telecommunication cables, offshore renewable energy installations and wastewater treatment plants. Developments such as these are important both from a socio-economic and environmental perspective. It is simply not realistic to place consideration of such applications on hold pending the enactment of new legislation. The Bill has not been published yet and enactment is, therefore, some time away. While the specific issue of seaweed harvesting is currently under review in the context of the Bill, I do not consider it appropriate to single out seaweed harvesting for special treatment in this regard.

I also want to clarify that under the provisions of the legislation I am obliged to make a determination on all applications for consent that fall within my statutory responsibility. My Department will, therefore, continue to process applications under the terms of the current Foreshore Act.

Regarding the small number of applications currently with the Department for seaweed harvesting, each will be assessed in the context of the relevant regulatory framework, including obligations that arise under EU birds and habitats legislation. The process will include a public consultation phase for each application. I urge anyone with an interest to make their views known as part of those processes.

12:20 pm

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Interestingly, since 1933 we have had the Foreshore Act and the licensing regime has not been policed that quickly in the interim. In fact, in the past year or so we have seen an acceleration of applications coming through. I take on board the point made about the need to continue but at the same time surely the Minister is putting the cart before the horse. Would we not be better off waiting for the Act to be fully in place and debated, and the licensing regime overhauled, before issuing licences?

I understand that the public consultation phase is 21 days and that there are six or seven applications on the Minister's desk awaiting decision. As he has said, they could be put out to public consultation any time now. The public consultation phase allows between three to four weeks for people to make a submission. Is he telling me that the applications on his desk could be processed between now and Christmas and that people need to be on their toes if they have an issue with the licences being granted?

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Waterford, Fine Gael)
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We all acknowledge the need to reform this particular Act. There will be an indepth opportunity for the Senator and all his colleagues, when the Bill is published, to engage in debate and put forward views and, if necessary, amendments. Those views will be welcome and we can debate them at that time. For the moment, we await the Bill. The commitment has been made to bring it to the Houses of the Oireachtas in the current Oireachtas term and I think that will happen.

I shall reiterate what I said about the current number of applications with the Department. Each of them will be assessed in the context of the relevant regulatory framework. We have obligations under the EU birds and habitats legislation. All I can say to reassure the Senator is that the process will include a public consultation phase for each application and we would welcome anybody with an interest to make their views known during that process. I thank the Senator.

The Seanad adjourned at 12.35 p.m until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 21 October 2014.