Seanad debates

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Commencement Matters

Seaweed Harvesting Licences

2:30 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, to the House. I now call Senator Ó Clochartaigh. Ar aghaidh leat.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Táim an-sásta gur eisean atá tagtha isteach leis an cheist seo a phlé mar tuigim gur eisean atá ag plé léi go díreach.

I am happy that the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, is dealing with this Commencement Matter because I know this is his direct area of responsibility. We have discussed this issue previously and it would be good to get an update on it. The Minister of State will be aware of the background situation. In recent years, there has been much discussion about harvesting seaweed along our coasts. In a previous scenario, a State-owned seaweed company called Arramara Teoranta was under the auspices of Údarás na Gaeltachta. In recent months, however, that company has been sold off to a private company. That is fine in one sense, but there are concerns within the industry over how the resource itself will be managed in future.

About a year ago, I attended a meeting with the then Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, on the seaweed licensing regime. Concerns were raised and we met with departmental officials who told us that a number of outstanding licence applications were pending. I am not sure if any of those have been granted or turned down in the meantime. Since then, there have been quite a number of applications for licences.I seek clarification through this mechanism on the number of applications that are with the Department. In fairness to the officials, I know that they work very well with those making applications to make sure all of the information is available and that the t's are crossed and the i's dotted before an application is formalised and posted on the Department's website.

On the number of outstanding applications to be adjudicated on, I appreciate that the Department has a mechanism whereby a vetting committee goes through applications, following which there is a final sign-off by the Minister. The Minister of State might be able to enlighten us on the number of applications outstanding and the timescale envisaged for the processing of applications, be it positive or negative.

There are concerns about some of the applications being submitted in that there may be blanket applications covering a broad spread of the coastline but along the west coast, in particular. I have been a proponent from day one of the idea that the licensing regime should recognise the rights of those who have been cutting seaweed for a very long time. I have also proposed that these seaweed cutters come together to form a co-operative or to work with a not for profit organisation in applying for licences. I understand a number of such applications have been or are in the process of being submitted.

This is still a live issue along the west coast. I am sure the Minister of State is very aware of it, but it appears we have not had much action on it on the part of the Department in the recent past in the issuing of licences. I ask him to outline where we stand on it.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Waterford, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue which I know he has raised previously. I am happy to provide clarification on some of the queries raised by him.

My Department plays a role in regulating the harvesting of wild seaweed. It is necessary to ensure this valuable resource is managed appropriately both to ensure it remains sustainable and that the marine environment is protected.

There are 13 applications for licences to harvest seaweed before my Department under section 3 of the Foreshore Act 1933. Foreshore applications, including those for seaweed harvesting, are dealt with in accordance with a scheme of prioritisation and the scale of applications varies considerably. Even within the category of seaweed harvesting the applications are quite varied, being made by both individual and commercial harvesters. The applications in hand range from very small scale harvesting of niche species to large-scale commercial harvesting.

The applications are at different stages of processing. Some were received very recently and are undergoing preliminary review, while others are at a more advanced stage. Within this overall context, it is not possible to give an accurate indication of when determinations will be made on the outstanding applications. However, I can assure the Senator that all applications are being progressed and will be finalised as soon as possible.

Each application is being assessed in the context of the relevant regulatory framework, including the obligations that arise under the European Union birds and habitats legislation. The process includes a public consultation process and any person can make his or her views known to my Department during the public consultation stage of each application. I urge anyone with an interest to make his or her views known as part of the public consultation processes. All applications, once deemed complete by my Department, will be available to view on the Department's website.

I am sure the Senator will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to comment directly on any specific application that will ultimately come before me for determination. My Department is examining the implications of legal advice received from the Attorney General's office on the interaction of appurtenant rights with the Foreshore Act and the European Communities (Birds and Habitats) Regulations 2011. It is also engaging with the Property Registration Authority to establish the extent of appurtenant or folio rights to harvest seaweed that may apply. I assure the Senator and the House that any established right in law will not be interfered with by my Department if the applications in hand are ultimately approved.

As I have stated previously, the specific issue of licensing wild seaweed harvesting is under review in the context of the forthcoming maritime area and foreshore (amendment) Bill and the advice of the Attorney General's office. Pending publication and enactment of the Bill, my Department will continue to process applications under the provisions of the current Foreshore Act.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the detail provided in the response, which is to the point. The main aspect is that the Minister has received legal advice from the Attorney General's office on the appurtenant rights. That was the outstanding issue being raised.Will the Minister of State indicate the timescale for the Department taking the advice on board and coming to a position on folios and the appurtenant rights in the harvesting of seaweed?

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Waterford, Fine Gael)
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The Department will take account of any established legal right as part of the applications process. As required, we have taken advice from the Attorney General's office. Folios on all parcels of land within one mile of the part of the foreshore that is the subject of a licence application must be identified. A folio must be examined to ascertain whether it contains an entry showing a right to take seaweed from that part of the foreshore. The process is ongoing and the Department is working with the Property Registration Authority. The process is time consuming and expected to take several months more to complete, but I assure the Senator that people's rights will not be interfered with by my Department if the applications in hand are approved.

Sitting suspended at 2.55 p.m. and resumed at 3.35 p.m.