Wednesday, 11 November 2020
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
It is not an exaggeration to say there is a crisis in fishing. This week, as expected, saw an increase in overfishing for sprat at Rossaveal. I have been contacted by local fishers in Galway and environmental organisations in recent days, asking me to call on the Minister to act urgently on the hollowing out of marine life along the west coast, and I thank him for coming to the House to address it.
The step taken to ban trawlers of more than 18 m in length from fishing within six nautical miles of the coast has been called one of the most important fisheries policy shifts in the history of the State. It was very much welcomed in a letter sent 13 days ago to the Minister from BirdWatch Ireland, the National Inshore Fishermen's Association, An Taisce, the Cork Environmental Forum, the Cork Nature Network, the Coomhola Salmon Trust, Environmental Pillar, Friends of the Irish Environment, the Irish Seal Sanctuary, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Trust, Irish Wildlife Trust, Oceana, Seas at Risk, the Sustainable Water Network and Our Fish. I name all these groups to emphasise the importance of the ban to the public we represent. As the Minister will be aware, it was, devastatingly, overturned on a technicality last summer.
The impact of this has been felt particularly in respect of sprat. Sprat is a keystone species in our bays, vital to the ocean food chain. It is intrinsic to the very ecosystem of the seas around us, feeding fish from herring, mackerel and whitefish to dolphin and porpoise. When pods of dolphins are in the bay, one can be sure they are feeding on sprat. Now, the future of all these species hangs in the balance due to intensive overfishing of their prey. Fishing communities have been left devastated by this intensive trawling, as their stock dries up with nothing to feed on. While it has been found to be legal, that is the issue. It is up to the Minister to legislate and issue policy directives to protect fishing communities and marine life, and to reimplement the ban. Bays act as nurseries for juvenile fish, and with sprat now being used for meal and not for human consumption, there is nothing to stop the very youngest being fished, ground up and sold to farms, including fish, mink and pig farms.
The additional difficulty is that no quotas or total allowable catch exist for sprat fishing, unlike for other pelagic fish such as herring and mackerel. I have heard reports of up to 200 tonnes coming from an area in a single day per fishing pier, the equivalent of 52 million fish. We must act now, when fishing and nature hang in the balance. What is new is that it has reached fever pitch at Rossaveal in Galway over the past week, with more boats arriving than ever before as the season gets going. It is simply not fair or just that our local fishing communities have quotas when there are no quotas or jobs in respect of sprat. Fishers and environmental NGOs have joined together to call for action on this important issue for marine biodiversity, a sustainable industry and the social benefits for life along the west coast, from west Cork to Donegal.
What emergency action can the Minister take to address this urgent issue? The ban is a commitment in the programme for Government. It appears that the justification in the courts for overruling it was based on issues with the public consultation and not with the ban itself. Will the Minister commit to addressing this to reinstate the ban? In the long term, what actions is he taking to stabilise sustainable stocks for our fishing community and nature itself?
I thank the Senator for bringing this matter to the notice of the House and for ensuring it would be addressed. I welcome the opportunity to come to the House to respond to her and to outline the circumstances as they stand. Sprat, as she will be aware, is a short-lived species that occurs in shore and is an important prey fish for many marine species. It is vital to the ocean food chain, as well as an important source of income for inshore fishermen. The four main fishing grounds for sprat in Ireland are Donegal bay, the Shannon estuary, Kerry bays and Dunmore East. Available scientific information suggests that sprat in Ireland spawn from January to June, with fishing normally taking place from October to Christmas. Sprat is fished mainly for human consumption but the catch may also go into fishmeal. The data available indicate that the percentage of the landings that went into fishmeal was 40% in 2019 and 36% in 2020.
Sprat in Irish waters is not a species subject to fishing quotas or total allowable catches established under EU regulation. Scientifically, relatively little is known about the species. The International Council for Exploration of the Sea, ICES, considers sprat a data-limited stock, which means more detailed data are required to form a full understanding of the nature of the stock. The central objective of the Common Fisheries Policy is to ensure that fishing and aquaculture activities are environmentally sustainable long term through the conservation and sustainable exploration of marine biological resources and the management of fisheries and fleets exploiting such resources. In addition, Ireland is committed to the conservation of our marine ecosystems, including the seaboards and marine life around our coasts through the birds and habitats directive, among other instruments.
In December 2018, following a public consultation process in which more than 900 submissions were received, the then Minister announced that vessels of more than 18 m would be excluded from trawling in inshore waters inside the six nautical mile zone and baselines from 1 January 2020. A transition period of three years for vessels of more than 18 m targeting sprat was allowed in order to enable adjustment for these vessels, as the sprat fishery is concentrated within the six nautical mile zone. A policy directive was issued by the then Minister, Deputy Creed, to the independent licensing authority for sea-fishing boats under statute and was intended to give effect to the measures announced by the Minister at that time.As stated, this policy directive provided that vessels over 18 m will be excluded from trawling activity inside six nautical miles, including inside the baselines, from 1 January 2020. The policy directive directed the licensing authority to insert a condition to this effect into the licences of affected vessels.
Two applicant fishermen took a judicial review challenging the validity of the policy. On 6 October 2020, the judge held in summary that the court's final order should be, among other matters, a declaration that policy directive 1 of 2019 was made in breach of fair procedures and is void and-or of no legal effect. The breach of fair procedures as referenced above related to a failure with obligations to consult with the applicants in accordance with, and to the extent required by, the consultation process and in particular by failing to consult with them once a preferred option had been identified.
In the past week the High Court's ruling of judicial review proceedings which relate to policy directive 1 of 2019 has been appealed by the State to the Court of Appeal and a stay is being sought on the orders granted therein. As this matter is sub judice, I am not in a position to comment on the policy until the matter can be resolved before the courts.
I am committed to the sustainability of fishing in Irish waters and the commitment made in our programme for Government that inshore waters continue to be protected for smaller fishing vessels and pair trawling be prohibited inside the six-mile limit.
I thank the Minister for the update. I welcome that he has sought a stay. We know that more data are required on sprat. From a local perspective, we have seen fishing closed down along Galway Bay and industry lost there as a result of this overfishing. Even though the Minister's reply does not mention Galway, it very much impacts on our communities in Galway, particularly around Rossaveal. What is the Minister doing to collect more data so that we can ascertain the importance of sprat to our local fishing? What steps is he taking for the long-term sustainability of fishing stock? I welcome his actions on the case itself.
As I outlined in my initial reply, a key measure I am taking is to appeal the ruling to give the courts the opportunity to reflect on the appeal. I am closely monitoring the situation regarding fishing activity. I am working with the Department to ensure that further efforts are made on gathering data. We need to avail of all the resources and capabilities at our disposal to ensure we fully assess and get a better understanding of the sprat fishery and their life cycle. That will inform how we approach the matter and future policy.
I thank the Senator for bringing this to the attention of the Seanad and I look forward to continuing to engage with her and the Oireachtas on the matter.