Seanad debates

Wednesday, 28 February 2024

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Inshore Fisheries

10:30 am

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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With the agreement of the House, we will now take Senator Ahearn's Commencement matter. We will take Senator Chambers's matter when she arrives.

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State is very welcome to the Chamber. I thank him for taking this very important question, which relates to inland fisheries, particularly fishermen and clubs in Tipperary. The River Suir is regarded as one of the best rivers in the country for salmon fishing. About a third of the salmon are in the rivers Suir, Nore and Barrow. The stock has been depleting over many years, but since 1995 there has been a catch-and-release policy. Essentially, this is to protect the fish, which is very important. There are a significant number of clubs in Tipperary. The angling club in Clonmel has been going since the 1950s and has more than 150 members. The club in Carrick-on-Suir has been going since the 1920s, which is more than 100 years, and has well in excess of 100 members. There are also clubs in Ardfinnan and Golden. Therefore, there is a strong fishing community that loves fishing. It loves the river and wants to protect it. It is genuinely feared that it is not being protected and that it is essentially being left to the clubs to do so. Particularly from the fishing clubs' perspective, it seems Inland Fisheries Ireland is not patrolling the river to the extent it should. Many people are poaching fish from the river and essentially getting away with it. The fishermen who fish in it every week, who catch and release, feel like they have to manage the river themselves. They ask that Inland Fisheries Ireland do its job and patrol the rivers.

With this in mind, I have several questions I would like the Minister of State to answer on the River Suir and fishing in the area. How often does Inland Fisheries Ireland patrol the River Suir? Why does it not engage with the fishing clubs? How many calls does the Inland Fisheries Ireland's helpline receive? How much money does the organisation raise each year in the conservation fund? What is the breakdown of expenditure through that fund per region? What projects are funded through it? Most important, how many prosecutions for illegal fishing on the River Suir have there been in each of the past ten years, and how many nets have been seized? There is certainly a feeling within the community that protection is not happening to the extent it should. I realise people will start talking about the Covid years, but that is why I am asking for figures on what has been done in the past ten years, especially the past two.

Inland Fisheries Ireland is based in Clonmel. There should be, and I would have thought there would have been, a good relationship between the fishermen and the organisation because they should all have the same goal. However, this does not seem to be the case. These questions need to be asked to ensure the organisation is doing the job it is required to do.

Photo of Martin HeydonMartin Heydon (Kildare South, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising what is a really important issue. I am responding on behalf of the Minster, who is unable to be here.

As the Senator will be aware, Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI, is the State body with responsibility for the protection, management, conservation, promotion, marketing and development of the inland fisheries resource. Officials in the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications have liaised with IFl on the matters the Senator has raised relating to the River Suir. I am happy to update him accordingly.

Currently, four permanent IFI staff are operating in the west Waterford district, protecting the River Suir catchment, the Nore catchment, the Waterford coastline, including the Tay, Colligan and Mahon rivers, and the Waterford Estuary. With specific reference to the River Suir catchment, I can advise the Senator that in excess of 40 tributaries must be policed along with the main channel as far as the estuary in Cheekpoint, County Waterford. A broad range of vehicles and watercraft are used for patrolling the River Suir catchment, including all-terrain vehicles, kayaks, bicycles and boats. Patrol boats are deployed on the Suir Estuary more than 30 times per annum, and in excess of 20 sea patrols are carried out on the Waterford coast and Waterford Estuary per annum. In carrying out protection work in the region, IFl protection teams review the previous week's activities in catchments, take account of meteorological and tidal data, and examine fishery risks identified in the annual protection plan as well as pressures in the area, such as water levels, fish movements, intelligence or reports received, known hotspots and relevant hotline reports.

Vehicle, bike, and mobile patrols, including at night and on weekends, are carried out weekly. Patrols may be overt – they include high-visibility, daytime patrols using logoed apparel and vehicles to engage stakeholders or deter illegal activity – or covert, utilising either unlogoed or plain-clothes and unmarked vehicles. IFl conducts these patrols using various modern technologies, including drones, binocular long-range spotting scopes, covert cameras, night sights and thermal imagers. You would expect these more in the Defence Forces than the IFI. Obviously, it indicates the scale of the work the team is doing in the area. In addition to its receiving the 24-hour hotline reports, the local IFI office receives calls weekly, and the officers receive calls and messages from concerned members of the public with regard to fishing activity. All reports are examined and responded to in a timely manner.

In the time available, IFl was not in a position to provide me with the requested information on the number of calls but I will ask it to follow up with the Senator in providing it. IFl maintains a presence every week on the 20 km Suir Blueway between Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel, along with other hotspot areas in the catchment, through bike, foot and vehicle mobile patrols.

Since 2016, the salmon and sea trout rehabilitation, conservation and protection fund, formerly the salmon conservation fund, has awarded more than €4.4 million to 113 projects in Ireland. The projects are distributed among the IFI river basin districts. I will share relevant tabular information with a breakdown of the expenditure across regions with the Senator separately in written form. Moreover, IFl has also provided me with a breakdown of the number of prosecutions, fixed-charge penalty notices and seizures that were made in relation to the River Suir over the ten-year year period 2014 to 2023. Again, I will share this information with the Senator in written form for ease of reference. In summary, over the period, 143 nets, one cage, four boats and 22 rods were seized on the Suir catchment. Forty-three fixed-charge penalty notices were issued and seven prosecutions were taken.

It is important to emphasise that the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications and IFI take most seriously the matter of illegal fishing in Ireland's inland fisheries, including the River Suir. Dedicated efforts and resources continue to be concentrated on combating such illegal fishing. Patrol boats, covert cameras, drone patrols and other forms of surveillance continue to be used by IFI to tackle illegal fishing. IFI encourages the public to report illegal fishing incidents or those related to water pollution or fish kills using its 24-7 confidential phone number.

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply, which was appreciated. It is the detail I am looking for. I acknowledge that the response states IFI will provide the detail.I am referring to the simple things. The IFI says it gets weekly calls to the hotline and that it responds to them in a timely manner, but there is no information about how many calls it gets per week. It would be good to get detailed information on the number of nets that have been seized per year for the last ten years. That would be extremely helpful, as would information on the fixed charging. If it reviews each week's activities, surely it will have detailed information about that review. Could it provide that detailed information as well?

At the end of the day, poaching is happening on a weekly basis. There are safety and intimidation concerns for fishermen. Their fear is that they have to manage it. People are giving up fishing in Tipperary because of what is happening with poaching by people who are coming from outside our county and taking the fish. That is not acceptable. The last thing I will say is that there is a concern - and I hope this is not the case - that members of the upper management are too busy firefighting issues at a higher level to deal with the bread-and-butter issues of day-to-day work that effects people in my county.

Photo of Martin HeydonMartin Heydon (Kildare South, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Ahearn again for raising this really important issue. I regret IFI was not in a position, from the time that elapsed since the Senator tabled this important topic, to provide that requested information on the number of calls. However, we will follow up on that and get back to the Senator.

Also, I have a detailed breakdown of the number of prosecutions, penalty notices and seizures that were made on the River Suir over the ten-year period and expenditure across regions. We have that in tabular form and we will share it with the Senator.

The River Suir is patrolled intensively by the IFI with an operational four-person unit in the west Waterford district. It strikes me as a lot of strain on that four-person unit, given the area it has to cover, as well as the covert and overt elements of that. The catchment is policed during daylight, at night and weekend hours. There are irregular instances of successful protection work in this catchment. As recently as 30 January, the IFI secured a conviction for illegal angling on the river, resulting in a fine of €1,000 and €500 towards legal costs.