Common Fisheries Policy: Discussion with Minister of State.
The Joint Committee met at 3 p.m.
|Deputy Seán Connick,||Senator Paddy Burke,|
|Deputy Joe Costello,||Senator Terry Leyden.|
|Deputy Lucinda Creighton,|
|Deputy Timmy Dooley,|
|Deputy Martin Ferris,*|
|Deputy Michael Mulcahy,|
|Deputy Noel O’Flynn,|
*In the absence of Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh.
DEPUTY JOHN PERRY IN THE CHAIR.
Chairman: COM (2008) 721 is a proposal for a Council Regulation establishing a Community control system for ensuring compliance with the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy. On behalf of the committee, I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, Deputy Tony Killeen, and his departmental officials. The committee will be very interested to hear his presentation on the draft regulation which will be followed by questions by members.
I wish to advise that the committee met representatives from the Federation of Irish Fishermen on Tuesday last to hear their views on this proposal. The committee also sought written submissions from other stakeholders in the fishing industry.
I draw attention to the fact that while members of the joint committee have absolute privilege, the same privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Last week in public session there was no intention to cast aspersions on any official within this committee by a member naming the person. We certainly very much value the outstanding work carried out and the advice given to this committee. I want to correct the record on that. There was no such intention whatever. We very much value the advice given by all in the effective secretariat working for this committee.
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Tony Killeen): I am accompanied by Dr. Cecil Beamish and Ms Josephine Kelly, officials from the Department. I thank the committee for the invitation to appear before it. It is the first committee that I have attended since my appointment to this position eight months ago and I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak to the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny on this important matter.
The committee has looked closely at European matters previously and I acknowledge its work. Its report No. 19 related to Celtic Sea cod on which, fortunately, we had a good outcome at Council in November and December last. Certainly, we value the input of the committee. I very much welcome the Chairman’s remarks at the start of the meeting about officials.
As the committee will be aware, the fishing industry went through difficult times during last year. High fuel prices in the summer had an especially hard impact on the sector and while the price of oil has reduced considerably in recent times, fluctuating oil prices have the potential to undermine the profitability of the industry any time in the future.
However, in my view the most critical issue for the sector is the impact of progressively reducing quotas, which has been the pattern for a number of years. This reflects the reality whereby many important fish stocks around Ireland and elsewhere are under a great deal of pressure and some are over-fished.
The scientists have detected clear evidence of the decline to dangerously low levels of many important fish stocks, and in that respect the species that has attracted most headlines has been cod. However, many other important stocks such as whiting, sole and herring are in need of rebuilding.
The International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, ICES, has determined that stocks of haddock, cod and whiting north west of Ireland and Scotland are in poor shape and need time to recover.
The Commission came forward with proposals to ban all whitefish fishing in the area to provide breathing space for these whitefish species to recover. I was not convinced that this was necessary or appropriate and fought for a regime that would allow fishing to continue with gear that would reduce catches of the threatened stocks and allow them to rebuild.
Many of the stocks in the Irish Sea are also in very poor shape. In both areas we are implementing restrictive limits on the number of days fishing vessels will be allowed to fish each year. This is the stark reality we face today. If we do not ensure that conservation measures are respected for all fisheries of importance to Irish fishermen by all vessels fishing these stocks, we will face continued and more restrictive fishing practices in response to declining fish stocks.
I firmly believe that if we do not take strong action now and ensure that the agreed conservation measures are respected by all, we will face the closure one by one of the fisheries around the coast on which our coastal communities are so dependent. Even if this eventuality is not forced on us by EU Council decisions, depleting fish stocks will pretty quickly lead to a situation where the level of fishing effort required would not justify continued activity in view of the small catches which would result.
There is a considerable body of evidence that the conservation measures put in place at EU level are not being respected. The European Court of Auditors published a report in December 2007 which found that there are three main types of failure in the Common Fisheries Policy catch limitation system: there is widespread under-reporting of fish captured and the control systems in place in the member states fail to detect and correct these false declarations or fraud; sanction regimes in member states are of variable effectiveness and levels of sanctions are generally not dissuasive; and regulations at EU level and the inspections and other actions carried out by the Commission do not amount to the decisive action required to remedy these weaknesses.
The Court of Auditors investigations were based on how the CFP rules were actually applied in six member states — Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK and Italy. The auditors found multiple shortcomings in the systems which called into question whether the various measures for fishery resources management and the total allowable catch system, in particular, are operating effectively.
In response to the Court of Auditors report, the Commission reviewed the current system and brought forward a proposal to substantially change control and enforcement under the CFP. The Commission’s proposals for a new control system are aimed at tackling over-fishing. I will now outline the main themes of the new approach.
First, there will be a new common approach to control and inspection. This involves a strong focus on inspections on shore-based links in the supply chain whereby the owner of the fish must be able to produce documents proving that the product was caught in conformity with the rules and that it observes a principle of product traceability. It involves using best practices such as risk analysis and concentrating control on problematical fisheries and periods. It also involves the use of new technologies to ensure the maximum effective delivery.
The second theme involves the promotion of a culture of compliance with the rules. This involves a proposal for dissuasive and harmonised sanctions whereby a list of infringements is established together with a minimum fine applicable in all member states. It also involves a points-based system which may lead to the suspension of a fishing licence or its permanent withdrawal.
A third theme is the promotion of enhanced co-operation between member states involving systematic exchange of information involving a common website where all relevant information and control data is available to the control authorities of all member states, the Commission and the Community Fisheries Control Agency.
The proposal also strengthens the Commission’s powers to guarantee common implementation of the regulations and to intervene in cases of poor application of control measures on the ground.
I am, in principle, supportive of these measures. I am convinced that if we do not have a common approach to fisheries control across the EU it is grossly unfair to fishermen and will result, despite all our best efforts in Ireland, in the further decline and eventual closure of the fisheries that our fleet rely upon for their economic survival.
In Ireland we have made strong efforts to put in place strengthened control to address illegal fishing. I consider that it is grossly unfair to our fishermen if we do not take the opportunity before us to require others to also deliver effective controls.
Our fishermen have nothing to fear from the scope of this proposal. There are of course elements within it that I consider must be changed. These include the application of the VMS system and electronic logbooks to all vessels of 10 m and upwards in the fleet.
I consider that we need to focus our attention on the activities of the larger vessels in the international fleets which have the potential to do the most damage. Additionally, I would not support the reduction of the margin of tolerance in logbooks to 5%. This means that fishermen at sea must record the fish on board in their logbook and can only be outside that record by a margin of 5%. This is impractical and does not take account of the realities on board vessels. While I am supportive of the requirements for the designation of ports of landing for certain fisheries, and we implement this system in some of our fisheries, I do not accept that there must be a mandatory requirement on landing times and full inspection coverage.
There are other elements in this proposal that I will be seeking to change to take account of the impacts of the new arrangements on fishermen and I will discuss these issues with the Federation of Irish Fishermen with a view to delivering a balanced control regime that both delivers sustainable fisheries and is not overly burdensome on fishermen.
From a media perspective, the main issue that has received coverage in this proposal relates to the proposal to count catches of recreational fisheries against TACs and quotas. From a stock conservation perspective, the outtake by recreational fishermen in other member states can be significant and at present is not recorded or assessed.
I am consulting my colleagues in the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism and the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs for their views which I will take into account.
I should advise that at this point my view is that any measures in this regard must be subject to full consultation with all stakeholders and, if necessary, appropriate measures introduced. I would not support the simplistic approach taken by the Commission in this proposal and believe that it should be excluded from the regulation at this time.
I also want to address specifically the Commission’s proposals on sanctions and a penalty points system. The proposal allows for the application of administrative action or criminal proceedings in conformity with national law.
The possibility of introducing administrative sanctions for fisheries offences in Ireland was comprehensively considered, including an examination of practices in other member states, at the time of the passage of the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Bill through the Oireachtas. The position taken by the Minister at that time was based on legal advice from the Attorney General. Under this proposal, there is a possibility of introducing administrative sanctions and a penalty points system for Irish vessels and I have sought legal advice to determine if the current Commission proposal could accommodate their introduction in Ireland. It is worth noting that the proposal from the Commission envisages penalties up to a maximum of €600,000 for repeated serious infringement and, under the penalty points system, the suspension of a fishing licence for prolonged periods and even the permanent withdrawal of a licence. These penalties are substantially higher than the level provided for in Irish legislation. It is important to remember that I and my predecessors as Ministers with responsibility for fisheries pushed strongly for a level playing field on control.
As a coastal state with responsibility for protecting some of the richest fishing grounds in the EU and with a fishing industry almost completely dependent on sustainable fish stocks in our own waters, it is our highest priority that there are effective control regimes in place across all member states.
Our industry in Ireland strongly believes that it is on its own in being subject to controls and that operators in some other countries are not detected or when they are, they face low penalties. I consider that this proposal offers the best opportunity to introduce a level playing field on control.
I will be seeking certain amendments to the provisions where they are excessive or impractical. In particular, I will seek strong powers for coastal member states to effectively police waters under their control. I firmly believe that we must seize this opportunity to put a stop to illegal fishing which, if left unchecked, will destroy fish stocks and the livelihoods of coastal communities dependent on fishing.
I look forward to the input of the committee, as one of the stakeholders, in reaching final determinations in this regard.
Chairman: I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive submission. Have members any questions for the Minister of State?
Deputy Timmy Dooley: I do not have questions for the Minister of State but want to welcome him and his officials to the committee. I am pleased with the forthright presentation he gave. It shows the importance of this committee in terms of allowing the Minister of State to come before it and identify the areas that are of concern to him. It presents us with an opportunity in our deliberations to understand the perspective of the industry and that of the Department.
The Minister of State’s presentation probably short circuited, to some extent, the work we had envisaged because he has clearly identified some of the problems many of us had noted and he has set out his stall. He indicated his desire that some provisions of the directive be changed. As I probably know him better than most members around this table, I have no doubt that when he sets his mind to doing something, he will deliver. I have no doubt that when he begins his task with the Commission, we will see the changes that he proposed made. I wish him well in his efforts in that regard and look forward to a successful outcome to the negotiations.
Deputy Martin Ferris: I thank the Minister of State for his presentation. He was right in what he said about the state of the industry and the challenges it currently faces in order to survive. The committees and the Oireachtas did a terrible disservice to the fishing sector when they disregarded much of what was said by members of the then Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine when they discussed this issue at a meeting at which the chairperson was also present. We argued strongly at that time for the introduction of administrative sanctions as opposed to criminal convictions. Unfortunately, the Minister at that time decided to proceed along the road of disregarding the proposal to introduce administrative sanctions and said that they would be unsuitable or unworkable. Reference was made at one stage to their introduction being unconstitutional.
Dr. Hogan appeared before the committee last November and his legal advice on this issue was clear. He advised that the introduction of administrative sanctions could work if there was a will to ensure that they did. He outlined the possibility of introducing a penalty points system along the lines of the system in place for road traffic offences. That is on the record, if the Minister of State wishes to check it.
The harmonisation of sanctions would be a positive move, bearing in mind that many of the contributions from fishing bodies and organisations highlighted the lack of organisation and that the system operating here effectively discriminates against the industry, as this country has been stringent in enforcing the rules and regulations while fishermen from other countries fishing off our coast were able to disregard them because they were not landing their catches here. They were fishing outside their territorial waters and were able to land their catches in their own countries or in other countries and thus get away with infringing those regulations.
As I have stated on several occasions, I am concerned about the scientific evidence available. Nobody wants to engage more in consultation than the people making their living from fishing. It concerns their future livelihoods on which their families and communities depend. One will find a few people in every sector who are greedy, disregard proposals and drag the sector down for selfish reasons but, in general, the vast majority of Irish fishermen are decent, hard-working people trying to make a living for their families and communities.
An all-embracing approach to dealing with the evidence of the threat posed to the viability of any fish species is needed. The input of people at the coalface who make a living from fishing is also needed. That does not appear to have happened in the past. I am not sure if there has been a change in that respect. We suggested during the debate on that matter that their input should be taken into account.
The big problem facing the Irish fishing industry is not the issue of its security or the preservation of stocks, which is commendable and correct, but the lack of a proper quota. The Minister of State mentioned in many instances that the quota has been reduced and continues to be reduced. When the quota is reduced for one species, it puts pressure on another species. Much more needs to be done to put in place a strategy for the future to provide for the conservation of stocks, which embraces the reality that the restrictive conservation of one species results in enormous pressure on fishing of other species.
I met fishermen from Rossaveal in south Connemara yesterday. I mentioned the mackerel quota to the Minister of State last week and how its allocation has effectively alienated the polyvalent sector who are trying to make a living from it. Apparently, the majority of the quota was given to 23 boats in particular. Some 87% of the mackerel quota is in the hands of those operating 23 boats, whereas 13% resides in the polyvalent sector. That issue needs to examined on a national level.
We were told at a meeting that administrative sanctions which are operable in other countries could not be introduced here. The most recent legal advice I have seen on this matter, that of 26 November 2008, questions the political advice we were given at that time. That issue needs to be examined.
The fishing industry must be examined in terms of making it a viable industry for those involved and their communities, especially those of us who are representatives in coastal communities and have first-hand knowledge of the enormous loss that has been suffered in the industry down through the years. I spend a good part of my life fishing. The Tralee Bay oyster fishing industry is probably the best managed industry in the State and in Europe. The fishermen who were making a living out of that industry changed the approach adopted and stocks that were being robbed at one time are now being conserved. It provides a livelihood for fishermen in the area for a few weeks in the year.
Deputy Tony Killeen: I thank the two Deputies for their input. In regard to the points raised by Deputy Ferris, the Minister, Deputy Smith, raised this issue again with the Attorney General around November last year, certainly some time prior to Christmas, and the response in regard to administrative sanctions was the same as that given previously. However, it is true that this European proposal, irrespective of the shortcomings it may have or the concerns I may have about elements of it, opens up this process in a manner that may be user-friendly. We should explore it to the fullest extent possible. This proposal may be the best context in which to do that at this stage. I do not want to invest too much hope in it, but it offers some hope for harmonisation and perhaps there will be some leeway.
Chairman: Legal advice given to the committee in 2006 indicated that there was a precedent for a Minister to impose a sanction. Obviously, the administrative by-laws are part of this, but is the Minister of State saying legal opinion indicates it cannot be changed because of the 2006 Act?
Deputy Tony Killeen: Certainly, that was the opinion of the then Attorney General. There is a now a different Attorney General in place, one who has a particularly positive history as regards the fishing industry from the point of view of both fishermen and the Department. He has great knowledge of the industry. However, the advice was the same as previously. Nonetheless, we have another opportunity to look at the issue in a different context and shall explore every possibility in that regard.
The point Deputy Ferris makes about the scientific data is one that I have heard made by fishermen in almost every port I have visited. We set up the science industry partnership in the middle of last year and it is only now that it is reaping the rewards that are in store for it. To ensure this happens, I met the board members of the Marine Institute last week to let them know that we greatly value the work the scientists do. However, that interaction with fishery interests will benefit everybody and I received a very positive response. I have great hopes as regards the level of co-operation possible between the fishing industry and the Marine Institute. It is important to bear in mind, too, from our viewpoint, that international bodies have great regard for the scientific work being done at the institute. I am anxious that most of it will have to do with fisheries; there are other marine interests with which the institute is involved.
I agree with Deputy Ferris that the vast majority of fishermen have investment and mortgage commitments extending for ten, 15 or 20 years and that it is very much in their interests that fish stocks are maintained at a level that will enable them to make a living. As he rightly said, a few, for whatever reason, might have gone over the top, but generally fishermen are prepared to be responsible. What annoys them, in particular, is when control measures, mainly for cod, impinge negatively on fishing for other species. I heard a good deal about this when I was in Clogherhead this morning. Some fishermen told me they might not be able to meet their quotas because of restrictions. We are seeking ways to address this issue. This, more than any other Oireachtas committee, is aware that it took a major effort to ensure the Celtic Sea was not included in the same category as the Irish Sea. It will be an ongoing battle, on which we shall all need to keep an eye.
The quota issues underpin what it is possible to achieve for fishermen. It is fair to say we had great success at the December Council. I acknowledge the work of the two officials with me, as well as a number of others, who were at the meeting with us. The Minister, Deputy Brendan Smith, accompanied me and the negotiations were very difficult. However, the outcome was so much better than it might have been, proving that we have the capacity to negotiate a good deal. It also proves that when the Federation of Irish Fishermen and the IFO are with us and we can liaise between sessions to pool all our information and advice, we can achieve a good outcome. That is the most important message.
As regards the mackerel quota, I received representations from the two interest groups at which I looked very carefully. There was a strong view to the effect that since the 72,000 level, the base on which the 2002 decision was made, had not been reached, I should keep my nose out of the matter completely. However, I allocated 13% to south, east and western fishermen, a 22% increase, and invited their representatives to engage with me on aspects that had to be looked at. That initiative is ongoing. In current circumstances, taking the many issues and history of the matter into account, it was the fairest result I could have achieved. I am in the process of visiting the various harbours affected. I was in Castletownbere last week, Clogherhead today and will be going to Greencastle and Killybegs at the weekend. Last summer I was in Dingle and will visit Rossaveal in a few weeks. I greatly value direct input from fishermen, as well as the words of wisdom I hear informally, sometimes formally, from the representatives of the committee and in the House.
Senator Paddy Burke: I shall be brief, as there is a vote in the Seanad. I welcome the Minister of State and wish him the best with this legislation.
There are similarities with the way the European Union has moved in the food industry. There were restrictions and regulations imposed on restaurants. In some cases the temperature of a rasher had to be tested by those cooking breakfast. People who deliver to restaurants, bars and food outlets had to be inspected and then when it all collapsed, regulation and controls went out the window. There were no formulas and no real plan to deal with the issue.
Deputy Ferris said fishing should be viable for those who want to fish. I agree. It should be made easy for them, with as little red tape as possible. I note that the Minister of State is against the concept of a logbook at sea. I agree with him. What would be the point in having a logbook at sea, given the stipulation that there can only be a 5% error rate? Accountability should be imposed when a ship docks. I hope the same rigorous approach is not taken as happened in the food sector which led ultimately to there being no regulation.
Deputy Joe Costello: I welcome the Minister of State and his officials. I am sorry I was not present for his presentation, as I was otherwise detained.
This issue has been a bone of contention since Ireland joined the EEC. Many say an opportunity was missed at the time and that we have been playing catch-up ever since. Having put together a decent fishing fleet in the past few years, we now find that stocks are dwindling to such a degree that there is no future for a substantial fleet off the west coast or in the Irish Sea. At least, there is still some hope in the Celtic Sea. The overfishing has been driven, not from Irish shores, but by factory-type operations on the part of much larger countries which have bigger fleets fishing around Ireland. There has been a constant feeling of frustration in the fishing industry and among the fishermen’s bodies. It is important, therefore, to have sanctions over which one stands. In this regard, I wish the Minister of State well in dealing with the proposals made. What is not tolerable from the fishermen’s viewpoint is that the sanctions result in criminalisation. Fishermen trying to earn a living can become criminals overnight and are treated as such. That is not the way to find a happy solution. I am very anxious, therefore, that we pursue as far as possible administrative sanctions. Various legal opinions seem to indicate that we can move in that direction. I am not sure which countries in the European Union or elsewhere apply sanctions which effectively criminalise fishermen.
How is traceability effected? The Minister of State has been talking about a logbook and the product brought ashore. Is there a mechanism to deal with traceability in the economies of the various member states? The Minister of State has said there is widespread under-reporting of fish captured; there are false declarations and fraud. A combination of dwindling stocks and under-reporting will lead to a critical situation.
In member states, in terms of the landing of fish, progress to the market and sales income to the Exchequer, this issue could be dealt other than through the log book in the port. Could something of this nature be considered? Perhaps the Commissioner could examine it because vast quantities of fish are consumed in many continental countries; by comparison, the consumption of fish in Ireland is very limited. However, continental countries do not seem to have a problem accessing fish taken from the sea, rather than farmed. How can this matter be examined in terms of the broader industry and sales in the economy?
Eel fishing has given rise to considerable problems and has been banned for the foreseeable future, possibly for up to 100 years, which sounds crazy. The Minister of State may not wish to address this issue today.
Chairman: I am conscious that Deputy Connick wishes to enter the Chamber before 4 p.m. I will call Deputy Ferris after him.
Deputy Seán Connick: I thank the Chairman. I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for his presentation. I was delighted to hear him singing from the same hymn sheet as the Federation of Irish Fishermen, representatives of which visited us last week. It seems he is working closely with them and they were complimentary of his efforts on their behalf. I compliment him on the negotiations on the Common Fisheries Policy in December.
The Minister of State mentioned the difficulties relating to criminal offences and administrative sanctions and answered on an issue I wished to raise. Ongoing efforts are being made by him, the Federation of Irish Fishermen and the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority to build a better relationship between fishermen and the authority. It is perceived that the playing field is not level and if the Council regulation can help in this regard, I welcome it. I ask the Minister of State to keep a close eye on the matter because Irish fishermen believe they are not being treated in the same way as others.
Many fishermen have told me that an opportunity lies in the reopening of the sea bass fishery in which numbers are high. Deputy Costello mentioned eels, a particular concern in the south east. Some in local coastal communities also raised the issue of cockle fishing, a fishery from which they could raise substantial income. As these are all banned, I would welcome any improvements in these areas.
Deputy Tony Killeen: Senator Burke has stated there are similarities with the food industry which has been very successful in promoting Irish food. Responsibility for marketing will now lie with Bord Bia, rather than Bord Iascaigh Mhara, and I hope we will see improvements in that regard.
The Senator agrees with me on the concept of a log book; it is daft and would be unworkable. However, traceability could be positive and I will address the issue in response to Deputy Costello’s contribution.
The historical point relating to the role of fisheries in the Common Fisheries Policy and how matters evolved in the European Union was mentioned, although few realise that we now catch more than five times the amount of fish caught prior to joining the Union. Our most important and lucrative markets are in Europe, namely, France and Spain. There is a a view that fishing aimed at factory production is what does the damage. One of the positive aspects, if the final version is as it should be, is that the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority will be able to access information available to authorities in the United Kingdom, France and Spain. It is virtually impossible for a single state to deal with the matter effectively and this is only one of the positive aspects of the regulation. I visited the authority two weeks ago and the technology available allows it to see where boats from various countries, including Ireland, Spain, the Netherlands and so on, are located. It is amazing and there is more activity than I realised. There are positive aspects which will be to our benefit, rather than that of the historically larger players.
The current system of traceability is based on the keeping of a log book and sales note system and limited in terms of consumer confidence. Deputy Costello is correct that we do not have a great record in using fish as a food but we have great potential to do so. Despite this, the Irish market grew by about 10%, year on year, in the past three or four years; on year it grew by 17%. It is a potentially lucrative market.
Chairman: Public health awareness has contributed.
Deputy Tony Killeen: Yes. Traceability could be of benefit to fishermen because the only considerations are the amount of fish one may catch and the price one can secure. These are the only variables. This is where our support is needed. I do not doubt that some elements of the regulation will be helpful in this regard.
Eel fishing is the responsibility of the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I escaped from that Department last May. The matter must be referred to it.
Deputy Connick mentioned the issue of criminal sanctions. The biggest beneficiaries of a level playing field would be Irish fishermen.
The reopening of the sea bass fishery has also been mentioned. Sea bass fishing stopped 15 years ago and other Departments have a role in the matter, including the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. A strong lobby has a negative view on the reopening of the fishery; this is not an area one would choose to visit if one wanted to stay out of trouble. However, there have been interesting developments. Some fishermen suggest climate change is having an impact and I want scientists to investigate the matter. It has been said sea bass have moved north and that the fishery is better off our coast than it has been.
Chairman: Stocks have improved.
Deputy Tony Killeen: Yes. It is also said certain cod species have moved north, either for food or owing to climate change. This must be taken into account if we are trying to save cod stocks and fishermen with a quota are being prevented from fishing. We are trying to have this issue placed on the European agenda.
Cockle fishing is impacted on by the slow pace at which we receive the information we require to address issues relating to Natura 2000, special areas of conservation and so on. There has been a series of meetings between officials from the Department and the National Parks and Wildlife Service and considerable progress has been made. I have had discussions with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, who has been very helpful. When the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, attended the last Agriculture Council meeting, we asked him to meet the Commissioner for the Environment, Mr. Stavros Dimas, and they had a very positive meeting. We are trying to progress the matter as quickly as possible but it will be difficult to reach the required agreements. Deputy Ferris is correct in the points he made about his own area. I am not satisfied with the progress made but we are investing as many resources as possible to reach agreement with the Commission.
Chairman: On the scrutiny role, we were delighted to hold a debate on the cod recovery plan, although the impact of the eel directive was not debated. This directive gives increased powers to the Commission but does the Minister of State have concerns about downsizing? Fishermen expressed concerns during the debate on the Lisbon treaty about European regulations which diminished the powers of national parliaments.
Deputy Tony Killeen: This proposal leads to a new round of debates on the Common Fisheries Policy which is not due to take place until 2012 but is on the agenda of the Commission. There is a political concern, which I share, that some of the changes appear to move decision-making away from the Council and the representatives of the people and towards the bailiwick of the Commission. The Commission should have a clear role in setting out policy objectives, preferably on the basis of agreed scientific data. There is also a political role for the Council in making decisions — some of them very difficult which none of us wants to make. Ultimately, that is where decision-making ought to reside. There will be a requirement for me or a future Minister of State with responsibility for fisheries to come before the committee on many occasions to discuss the issue. There is a huge agenda leading to the health check for the Common Fisheries Policy.
Chairman: The cost of compliance and the regulatory demands on fishermen are key issues for their viability, as are equity and fairness. Fishermen who have invested heavily are under enormous pressure from their repayment schedule. The Federation of Irish Fishermen told us last week that the proposal put the cart before the horse. The regulations are to be implemented by 2010 but does the Minister of State believe a change in the Commission will have any impact on the timescale?
Deputy Tony Killeen: That is hard to judge. We do not know if there will be major changes in staff or a change of Commissioner later this year. The agenda could change in so far as what may have been a priority for one Commissioner may not be for the next. There will be a new Parliament with an enhanced and important role in fisheries policy.
I would also like the role of national parliaments to be enhanced. This role of the committee with regard to EU matters is of huge importance. It is frustrating for members that it receives very little publicity. It is very hard work and some of the documents which members must read are as turgid as any. Decisions made on foot of apparently harmless regulations which have been in place for a number of years have enormous impact.
I am never sure whether we are over-regulated or under-regulated in any sphere. We may have considered we were over-regulated until we saw what happened in the banking sector.
Chairman: On the issue of subsidiarity, the fact that we are discussing this one year in advance of its implementation and meeting the key players is very important. We hope the report can be debated in the Chamber, which should provide greater knowledge for the Department, as well as those involved in the industry and politicians.
Deputy Martin Ferris: I wish to raise two issues which may not be within the scope of this discussion. One relates to the by-catch discard, as a result of which a lot of good, edible fish are thrown away. The other, about which the Minister of State will probably hear in Rossaveel at the weekend, relates to inshore lobstermen and the problem of imports into Cork from Canada and South America which last summer caused the price to drop to below €10 per kilo, making it unprofitable for everyone involved.
Deputy Tony Killeen: That is a good point that brings us back to the issue of traceability. I was visited by a person at the weekend who informed me that the cost of lobster in a supermarket chain which I will not mention was two and a half times the price at which Irish inshoremen had provided it. The lobsters being sold are approximately two years old and imported from Canada or South America, with huge questions about traceability, how they were frozen and for how long. We have to introduce a high level of traceability and present the customer with the choice of buying good quality, Irish-sourced fresh or recently frozen fish of whatever species. The price of crab is also low and there are huge difficulties for Irish fishermen as people from outside fill a very big market with lobster at two and a half times its cost in Ireland.
As Deputy Ferris said, discards undermine the credibility of the system when perfectly good fish are thrown overboard because it has not been possible to devise a way of accommodating them. We have made a number of proposals in this regard, dating back to 2004 when Deputy Dermot Ahern was Minister and as recently as the November Council when we proposed a pilot scheme which the Commission is considering. The Norwegians have had some success with their ideas but it takes a long time. However, the matter has been kept at the top of the European agenda and I have raised it at every Council meeting.
Chairman: The Cawley report dealt with investment in the industry and the impact on inshore fisheries of competing fleets fishing in the Irish box. The Minister of State said there would be greater compliance and information to create a level playing field but how certain is he that it will happen? How will the policy be implemented and which authority will police it on behalf of the Commission?
Deputy Tony Killeen: Prior to a couple of weeks ago I had some misgivings about the matter but I have seen the technology and the information it will provide on the activity of boats at landing ports elsewhere in Europe and believe they will make a huge difference. I cannot think of anything which would better address the shortcomings in information which make it so difficult to regulate the fisheries sector.
Chairman: Exchange of data is a concern for the Federation of Irish Fishermen. The Department is doing a good job on the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Bill 2005 but the federation has a problem with the provision under which landing has to take place within a certain distance of designated ports which, given the economies of scale involved, will create difficulties.
Will the Minister of State comment on the level of decommissioning recommended in the Cawley report? This will be influenced by the value added to the fish product. I am a retailer and the range of choices, marketing and branding options provided by Bord Bia helps in job creation for generic coastal industries. Could this policy enhance the credibility of generic branding with regard to country of origin? Is there potential for an Irish brand in Sainsbury’s stores in the United Kingdom and stores further afield?
Deputy Tony Killeen: If we discussed this issue ten years ago, we would have been referring to Irish beef and would probably have thought such a thing was impossible. The Chairman knows better than most that stores on the Continent present Irish food products in a prime position, although they charge more for them. The image was created over a relatively short period and a great deal of work went into it. The same can be done with Irish fish products but we must start with our own market. It is fair to say some of the products on the shelves have fewer guarantees regarding traceability than they should and are being sold at a price that is at least double what would be viable for Irish fishermen. We must start with this matter and representatives of BIM have met representatives of the industry to do so. To be fair to the Commission, there is an equal labelling proposal. More often than not I complain about the Commission but its approval brings a level of credibility, in which there are benefits. At a time when stocks and quotas are declining, one must push up the price of fish caught. There is great potential to do so.
Chairman: Public health awareness has increased and, in terms of job creation, fish is on demand five days a week. Promotion of fish in Ireland is minimal and sales could be increased. Price is not necessarily the issue because people will pay for quality. There should be a nationwide focus but there is a piecemeal approach; only certain outlets may specialise in fish. The Cawley report dealt with investment in terms of outturn and added value. Is there support from the European Union for such a concept?
Deputy Tony Killeen: It is true we spend most of our fisheries programme money on decommissioning which is an important element of the strategy. That issue has been dealt with and is unlikely to be back on the agenda in the short term. We would like it to be but economic realities dictate that this cannot be so. The Chairman is correct that we did not realise the potential when income was sufficient but perhaps we did not have to. In the next five or six years this will not be the case, particularly as quotas will decline each year. It is imperative that we provide the best value added products in terms of employment and income for fishermen.
Chairman: With regard to the substantive amendments the Minister of State will suggest, he is fighting for Ireland’s interests. In this regard, the conservation of stocks is very important. He has a difficult job because selling this concept will not be easy. There are pelagic and mersal fish species off the west coast and many will be frustrated because they do not see the bigger picture. The suggested amendments will come about through consultation with the Federation of Irish Fishermen. How will reform of the Common Fisheries Policy impact on the viability and enhancement of the Irish box in the next five years? Based on the advice of the Irish Marine Institute on the renewal of stocks, what is the long-term picture?
Deputy Tony Killeen: It varies from stock to stock and from location to location. In some instances the truth is the quality of the scientific research and data available is limited. There may not have been enough interaction between the fishing industry and the scientists on making the information available but this is changing under the new initiative. The truth is that this will continue for the foreseeable future; it will be difficult for some time to come to gather scientific evidence in support of the case the Chairman makes. We must face up to this struggle and deliver. We are capable of doing it and benefit greatly from the input of the Federation of Irish Fishermen. From my perspective, they are tough to deal with but the value of what they bring to the table, in terms of advice and information, is incalculable.
Chairman: It is a high risk business with heavy generational investment by certain families that work the coastline; the sense of renewal is important. I have listened to their submissions. They have concerns about the Common Fisheries Policy and believe this regulation is a preamble to it. They also believe the situation should be reversed. The Common Fisheries Policy will not be negotiated until 2012 but has the Minister of State seen anything that might allay concerns in this regard? In his submission he outlined his concerns about the increased cost of using modern technology which will impact on the viability of vessels under 10 m in length. The low margin of error, 5%, is very important, as are the severe penalties and emergency powers conferred on the Commission. Concerns will also be expressed about Articles 95, 96 and 101 and the manner in which one approaches this area in negotiations. How will the provisions on recreational fishing in Article 47 impact on Ireland?
Deputy Tony Killeen: This will probably be on the agenda for a number of Council meetings and many will have ideas to express. Other countries will have ideas, as will the Commission, and there will be an input from the European Parliament. There will, ultimately, be agreement. On balance, it will be to our advantage if at the end of the process, we manage to create a level playing field in regard to sanctions and so on. If there is an enhanced level of traceability tied with this, the benefit to the fishing industry will be great. One could say all this should happen in tandem with the health check and the renegotiations in 2012 but, in other respects, it may be better to take them separately and deal with less central issues to get them off the agenda with a positive outcome. I am confident we will have a good outcome on this issue, with the co-operation of the Irish Marine Institute. I may be back before the committee on many occasions in connection with other issues.
Chairman: I have no doubt about what the Minister of State said. I have tremendous respect for him as an effective politician. I am happy that there has been a high level of debate prior to this submission being discussed in the Chamber and negotiated. This is good politics because it is important to have consultation in the public domain with a wide range of individuals on whom this will impact to enable them to express their interests and concerns. Having a debate at the committee and, possibly, in the Chamber at a later date will be helpful as previously there were concerns that many directives came directly from the European Union and were incorporated without effective debate. It was considered that it was a fait accompli but the frankness of the Minister of State’s contribution will considerably enhance the report which we hope will be completed in the coming weeks. If further concerns arise after this meeting, or from any of the submissions to be made before the report is finalised, we might contact the Department. If the Minister of State has any suggestions as to further matters that should be incorporated in the report, it would be helpful if he let us know.
Having listened to the concerns of people at the coalface, they will be reassured that we have debated the regulation one year in advance of its implementation and that we are concerned about fishermen and the industry. The survival of the industry depends on what is included in the regulation coming from European Union. Fishermen want equity in the level of controls applied throughout the Union. They want a transparent system of negotiation and to believe they are not being penalised, while others, for example those who fish in the Irish box, get away with lower level controls. They also consider there is a role for the Naval Service in policing the regulation. How does the Minister of State see its role? Will it have increased powers? Has he seen a change since the new authority came into being?
Deputy Tony Killeen: I was not familiar with the system prior to the setting up of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority. I had heard very negative things from the industry but understand the liaison process between the authority and the industry works well. There are sensible exchanges of information, which is positive. I was really impressed by the capacity of the technology to provide information on where boats were and how long they had spent in particular areas. If we could marry it with information on port of landing within a common system, we would be able to see exactly what was happening and Irish fishermen would be beneficiaries, as would the Irish box in terms of conservation and price. One of the factors determining price is the availability of product.
On the role of the committee, I expect a Green Paper in April or May which will be the precursor to what will happen in 2012. There will be an enormous job to do in digesting it and strategising based on Irish interests. I will certainly welcome the input of the committee. Politicians do not always get the credit they deserve but we hear a lot of things and come up with some ideas.
Chairman: I was pleased to hear the comments of the Federation of Irish Fishermen on the level of dialogue with the fisheries body and the Department. Working together in partnership is very important to ensure there is no ambiguity. There has been a good level of debate and the issue has also been discussed by another committee. The debate we held on the cod recovery plan gave people a good idea of what was coming.
I thank the Minister of State for his submission. I also thank Ms Josephine Kelly and Mr. Cecil Beamish for their input. I have worked with them in the past and the Minister of State is fortunate to have such good officials. I look forward to working with them again in the future. If they have an additional input, we would welcome it and I am sure they will respond, if the committee secretariat contacts them on any matter.
Deputy Tony Killeen: I thank the members of the committee and the secretariat.
The joint committee adjourned at 4.25 p.m. until noon on Tuesday, 10 February 2009.