Tuesday, 12 November 2002
Dáil Eireann Debate
Cecilia Keaveney: I am delighted to have this opportunity to discuss an issue which is of great importance to my constituency. I have tried to raise it on a number of occasions since the idea of a total ban on catching whitefish was first mooted some weeks ago. I welcome the Minister of State  at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Browne. I wish to praise the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, who has kept Deputies informed about developments. He is working hard to deal with the situation.
I represent an area which incorporates the port of Greencastle, one of the biggest whitefish fleet operations in the country. This whitefish fleet has been keen to progress both in terms of its infrastructure for landing, piers and harbours and its boats. People have put their own money into their ability to do their job through investing and upgrading their boats in terms of safety equipment. They appreciate the new whitefish vessel renewal scheme introduced by Fianna Fáil in the last Administration. Reading the remarks in regard to Mr. Fischler, I am asking for an assurance that 40% of the fleet will not be decommissioned. This cannot happen in view of the investment being made in the area.
The fishermen welcome the plans for the future development of the harbour in Greencastle to meet their needs. I want these needs to be met and I expect we will take up the fight to ensure there is potential for a better harbour in Greencastle. We are now faced with a potential 'turning of the key' in Greencastle as new blows are dealt to the industry each day. The Minister of State knows our fishermen are anxious about conservation. They understand the concept of sustainable development. They openly advocate keeping the seas into the future for their offspring to carry on the role of fishermen. Therefore, they cannot understand the blanket ban in the Irish Sea. Will the European Union invent some new net which will warn cod not to get caught? How else will fishermen deal with the situation where they find cod among their legitimate catch – dead cod at that? Will they throw them back into the water or will they become criminals if they keep them? Neither answer through quota restrictions alone will solve the issue of depleting stocks. Why not involve the fishermen and scientists and close off spawning and holding areas, which are known at certain times of the year to be particularly sensitive. This can be easily policed. There can be a number of different solutions to policing that problem. Everyone should be brought on board in the first instance to achieve a compromise. There are better solutions. Everyone is offering better solutions. Speaking of policing, all countries must be seen to adhere to the rules in regard to quotas, as Ireland does. That issue must be addressed properly under the common fisheries review.
Immediately after the Irish Sea issue there was the question of the possible opening of the Irish Box. Is this, too, in the name of conservation – closing off one area and letting everyone have a free rein in another area? I do not think that is consistent. I am asking the Minister of State, as Junior Minister in the Department, and his senior colleague, to continue the good work they have begun and work with our fellow member states  who have a similar interest in this matter. They should work with the fishermen as they embraced them in the talks yesterday with Mr. Fischler. It is only by co-operating and working together that solutions can be found. Without a key role in the Irish Box, we will close the fishing season for good for the fishermen I represent. We were sold out in the past, therefore, we must not let it happen again under the Common Fisheries Policy review.
I reiterate that we are an island. We have so much potential as an island, be it in commercial fishing, angling, aquaculture, tourism, water sports or yachting. There is so much opportunity that we must continue to invest in our seas. The past Administration has been extremely good to fishermen. It put fishermen to the fore and provided facilities. It gave them opportunities they did not get for years. The difficulty now is that if we do not fight in co-operation with like-minded member states all that investment will have been in vein. Otherwise we may as well sit down and put up our feet in my constituency in regard to fishing, farming and Fruit of the Loom. Fruit of the Loom is almost gone, farming is in difficulty and I do not want to see our fishing go. The Minister has a difficult and vital job to do in his Department. It is essential to gain what we can from the fishery review.
The EU Commission brought forward proposals in May 2002 to provide for the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy. These proposals include a change in fleet policy. The Commission's objective is to rapidly reduce fleet size by putting in place a system that will make the operation of the current national fleets uneconomic. The fleet reductions would be achieved through imposing restrictions on the days vessels would be allowed to fish. They would involve the introduction of limits on fishing effort, or days at sea, of between 30% and 60% depending on the state of stocks and the regions. The total amount of fishing effort the Irish fleet would be allocated would be significantly less than the total that would allow the present fleet to operate on an economic basis. Accordingly, many vessel owners would be forced to scrap their vessels and get out of fishing. The Commission estimates that the effect of its proposals would be that over 400 Irish vessels would be scrapped, which represents 40% of the total Irish fishing fleet. This would have very serious consequences for the fishing industry in Ireland and for the coastal communities dependent on fishing, such as in Greencastle.
The Commission's proposals were most recently discussed at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in September and October. At Council, the Minister, Deputy Ahern, explained his opposition to this element of the Commission's proposals on the basis that they were a technocratic approach to fisheries management and  would not ensure the sustainability of fish stocks which is the primary aim. He explained that Ireland could not support these measures which would force many family fishing enterprises in peripheral areas out of business. His position was supported by a number of other member states with whom he has been working to achieve agreement on a way forward. The Minister, Deputy Ahern, is satisfied that all other member states and the Commission understand clearly the difficulties the Commission's proposals on the fleet would create for the Irish fishing industry.
My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Ahern, is aware that the advice from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea recommends a closure of all fisheries for cod off the north-west coast of Ireland and Scotland as a targeted species or by-catch. This advice was reviewed by the Scientific, Technical, Economic Committee for Fisheries, a group of independent scientific, technical and economic experts appointed by the European Commission. STECF noted that there is serious concern about the stock and that stock recovery is unlikely unless stringent management action is taken immediately.
A recovery plan is currently in place for this cod stock. Both the Minister, Deputy Ahern, and I consider that this recovery plan needs to be significantly strengthened in order to rebuild this stock. This advice has significant implications for whitefish vessels operating into the north-west fishing ports, including Greencastle. Proposals from the Commission for total allowable catches for 2003 for all fish stocks will be available from the Commission in the coming weeks. These proposals will be considered in the context of the scientific advice, current measures in place under the cod and hake recovery plans and in consultation with the industry representatives in order to determine a national position taking account of the need to provide for the recovery of the cod stock and the needs of coastal communities dependent on the exploitation of whitefish stocks in the north west.
In the past few weeks, the Minister, Deputy Ahern, met with the Ministers with responsibility for fisheries in Portugal and France, who have taken a similar approach to this aspect of the Commission's reform package. He has also met the Danish Minister for Fisheries who currently holds the Presidency of the Council for Agriculture and Fisheries. As recently as yesterday, the Minister, Deputy Ahern, met Commissioner Fischler. At these meetings he sought to build an understanding of the difficulties facing Ireland if the CFP reforms are not altered to take into account our unique position and pointed out that he strongly supports fundamental reform of the CFP, but that any reforms must be equitable and effective and also based on taking into account the survival of fishing communities around our coast.
Over the coming weeks he will continue to work with member states and the Commission to effect changes to the Commission's proposals  both for the CFP review proposals and for TACs and quotas which will ensure an appropriate balance between protecting the livelihoods of coastal communities and having in place effective measures to ensure the sustainable exploitation of fish stocks.
Mr. Coveney: I welcome the Minister of State to discuss this issue this evening but I regret the fact that the Minister himself cannot be here, despite the fact that he was in the House up to half an hour ago. He could not even wait an extra 20 minutes when there were two crucial questions about fishing on the agenda for the Adjournment Debate in the build-up to the Common Fisheries Policy negotiations. I hope that is not a sign of things to come. Having said that, I recognise the knowledge of the Minister of State in this area and I hope he has some answers.
The Irish box became an issue for discussion among Irish fishermen last week when they realised for the first time that the restrictions on access to the box which currently exist were to be threatened under the CFP negotiation process. The ecological benefits and importance of the Irish box should not be underestimated. It is a breeding and spawning ground for fish species for European waters generally, not just Irish waters. Everybody agrees that we must conserve stocks in this area above all. The history of the Irish box is quite simple. In 1996, at the last major negotiations on this issue, it was decided under the western waters provisions to protect fishing stocks in the Irish box area by reducing fishing efforts. The decision was made to limit access for the Spanish fishing fleet, the largest in Europe by far, to 40 vessels in this area of water and we have been trying to police that ever since – with some difficulty at times.
The Spanish now make the case, in the build-up to the CFP review before Christmas, that they have a legal entitlement to challenge the restrictions on the box and that they should have equal access to this very sensitive fishing area for their entire fleet as any other European country has. It has been made quite clear to me, from fishermen from Castletownbere to Killybegs, that if this happens Irish fish stocks and the Irish fishing industry will be under severe threat – in fact, as somebody said to me last night, it will be curtains for the Irish fishing industry. I am reluctant to be that dramatic but this is the major issue in the build-up to the CFP negotiations.
The first thing we must do is clarify our legal position before we go into negotiations. It is unacceptable to me for our Ministers to go to mainland Europe to negotiate the new CFP until the legal issue has been clarified. We need to have the necessary legal advice available so that we may be sure before we go into these negotiations that we have a legal right to keep the restrictions on the Irish box in place. If we do not, it will be part of the negotiation mix, so that if Ireland does achieve some concessions from the Spanish on this issue, we will have to give much  in another area, because the Spanish are very anxious to get into the Irish box. They have recently been removed from waters off the coast of Morocco because of over-fishing in that area so that a significant portion of the fleet now needs to find new, fertile fishing grounds. They are looking to the south, west and north coasts of Ireland for them and we must keep them out.
The Minister's success in these negotiations will be based on his achievements in the protection of the Irish box and in fleet restructuring, as Deputy Keaveney has already discussed. These are the two key issues, along with conservation matters, which are related. It is time we called in the favours of which we spoke so proudly during the Nice referendum. We said quite clearly that if we voted “Yes” to Nice we would be able to use the goodwill we generate during crucial negotiations such as the CFP and the CAP. We now need to test our friends in Europe and the Minister and the Minister of State need to perform for the sake of Irish fishermen and for coastal communities around the country.
Mr. Browne: I thank Deputy Coveney for raising this very important issue. A regime to limit fishing activity and access to western waters, including the Irish box, was put in place in 1995 to provide for a rational and orderly exploitation of fishing grounds by all vessels, including the Spanish fleet. The regime laid down as of 1 January 1996 provided the arrangements governing access to waters and resources by Spain and Portugal in the context of the full integration of these countries into the CFP. The regime restricts access by Spanish registered vessels to 40 vessels at any one time. In addition, the regime incorporates restrictions on fishing effort, i.e., days at sea, on all member states fishing in the Irish box.
Ireland's legal advice is that this regime is not time barred and does not come to an end at the end of 2002. It is clear that the Commission has been of the same opinion as it did not envisage an end to the western waters regime in its Green Paper on CFP reform or in the proposals for reform introduced in May 2002. Accordingly, the recent opinion from Council Legal Service that the regime for the Irish box comes to an end at the end of 2002 was totally unexpected. The advice, in the view of the Attorney General's office, is incomplete and flawed and my Department will be submitting a formal paper challenging this advice in the next few days. The Irish box is a most sensitive fishing area. It is one of the richest fishing grounds in EU waters and is already under severe pressure from the many European fishing fleets operating off our coast. Spain has by far the largest whitefish fleet in the EU and has the potential to seriously overfish these rich grounds.
The national strategy review group on the CFP, under the chairmanship of Padraic White and involving industry representatives, has already  examined the situation of the Irish box. It has recommended that the sensitive nature of the box must be recognised, that adequate conservation management procedures be implemented and, furthermore, that effort in the box be reduced. The legal advice that provides for the ending of the current restrictions on fishing in the box flies in the face of these recommendations set down by the Irish industry, which is almost totally dependent on fishing opportunities in the area and is therefore committed to the protection of the valuable fish stocks.
Since the legal advice from Council Legal Services became available, my colleague, the Minister for Communications, the Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, has held an intensive series of meetings at European level to draw attention to the very serious consequences arising for fish stocks and for the Irish fishing industry if unrestricted access to the Irish box is allowed from the beginning of next year. In the past week he has met the Portuguese Minister for Fisheries, who shares some common ground with Ireland on this issue, and the Danish Minister for Fisheries, who currently holds the presidency of the Council for Agriculture and Fisheries. The Minister also held a bilateral meeting involving the Irish fishing industry on Monday with Commissioner Fischler, the EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Fisheries. At the meeting, Ireland's case that the waters within the Irish box are very sensitive and play an important role as nursery grounds for stocks in western waters and beyond was strongly made. The need to maintain and enhance the current restrictive regime, which is fully justified on the grounds of conservation and rational exploitation of fish stocks, was strongly emphasised.
Commissioner Fischler stated that while the Commission will do its utmost to ensure that the Irish box does not fall, he considers that the rules currently governing the Irish box which relate to the 40 vessel limit for Spain are discriminatory and must be changed from January 2003. The Minister and I have serious concerns about this approach as the current 40 vessel restriction for Spain is a very effective instrument for conservation and must be retained. In this context, we are satisfied that the current regime, including the vessel limits for Spain, is legally sound and that there is no justification in the CFP legal framework for their removal. The Minister will continue in the coming weeks to work vigorously to have Ireland's position on this issue fully understood by our colleagues at Council and by Commissioner Fischler from both a legal and a political perspective. It is crucial that Council is fully informed of the consequences for fish stocks and for fishing communities around Ireland of any change in this regime that would increase access or fishing effort within the Irish box.
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