Wednesday, 18 February 2009
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator David Norris: I compliment the Minister of State on the gracious manner in which he dealt with the previous Adjournment matter. I hope he will be equally gracious in dealing with the matter I am raising. He is the most appropriate Minister of State to deal with the subject of eel fisheries because he is involved in determining Ireland’s approach to the issue. I have been approached by representatives of the eel sector from the the North Western Regional Fisheries Board, the Northern Regional Fisheries Board, the Eastern Regional Fisheries Board, the Southern Regional Fisheries Board, the Shannon Regional Fisheries Board and the Shannon Eel Fishermen’s Association. They have complained to me about the over-zealous implementation of an EU directive.
Eels are a naturally occurring species in the Irish fish stocks. The River Dodder at Ballsbridge was full of eels when I was young, until one day the Dartry dye works allowed some effluent to flow into the river and caused a massive fish kill. Masses of trout and eels were killed. It was quite astonishing. It was interesting because eels are fairly resistant to pollution. When eels start to die, it is a significant indicator of the strength of a pollutant.
It is worth pointing out that in negotiations during Ireland’s early years of membership of the EU, we gave a massive bonus to the Union by handing our fish stocks to Spanish and Portuguese fishermen, in particular. We are always being told how much we have gained from being in the EU, but people rarely point out how much we have given to the Union. According to some computations, we have given the EU at least as much as we have gained in grants, subsidies and farm payments under the Common Agricultural Policy.
I want to look at this situation. The eel is an interesting fish, although it is hardly like a fish. It is somewhere between a fish and an animal such as a snake. The life cycle of the eel lasts 90 years. Irish eels breed in the Sargasso Sea before their elvers come to the rivers of Ireland.
It is obvious that the Union is trying to protect this resource. Eel fishermen want to protest against this drastic measure. Not only will it destroy their livelihoods, but it will also prove to be ineffective from the perspective of eel stocks. They accept that what is known as “elver recruitment” is experiencing difficulties in Europe. If elvers do not arrive in Europe in sufficient numbers, eel stocks will decline. Eel fishermen accept that action needs to be taken on a Europe-wide basis.
Why, given that the directive issued by the European Union required a reduction of just 40% in the catching of eels, has Ireland decided to eliminate 100% of its eel fisheries? There is an extraordinary contrast between the position being taken here and that being taken North of the Border. The authorities in the North have decided to allow the Lough Neagh eel fisheries to stay open. It is extraordinary that we are penalising people on this side of the Border while people on the other part of the island are not being penalised.
What can eel processing plants do to avoid going out of business? I understand some of them have explored the possibility of importing eels for processing from Europe or China. If they were prepared to do that — I understand it will not happen — it would be absurdly cost-ineffective. If the Government had not introduced a proposal to eliminate the eel industry entirely, the EU would have automatically required it to reduce by 50% the number of eels being caught. The eel fishermen could have lived with that, but instead the Government has decided on a 100% cut.
In the run-up to the taking of this decision, the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, where the Minister of State is deployed, quite appropriately established a working group to examine this matter. At the outset, however, it did not provide for any representative of the eel industry to be represented on the group. It was only at a late stage that representatives of the industry were included on the group. The major decisions had already been made at that stage, without any input from those who are professionally involved in eel fishing. That is an extraordinary attitude. In addition, there has been no recent comprehensive survey of eel stocks in Ireland. We are dealing with this in the absence of solid and scientific evidence.
Severe restrictions, including the introduction of a closed season, were imposed on the Irish eel fisheries in 2008. The working group I have mentioned invited submissions from interested parties. Various submissions were made by eel fishermen and their representatives. They were prepared to reduce their fishing levels for 2009 to a point that would satisfy the requirements of the EU, but this proposal was ignored. I understand that attempts to secure meetings with the Minister have been similarly rebuffed. The Minister of State is shaking his head. I will accept what he says. Has he met representatives of the eel industry? If not, will he give the House an undertaking that he is prepared to meet them?
The Irish commercial eel fishing industry comprises just 2% of the total EU eel fishing industry. It is relatively insignificant. The member states that are responsible for the other 98% of the EU industry are reducing catch levels by just 40%. It seems that the entire industry on our section of this little island needs to be destroyed even though it comprises just 2% of the EU industry. In other words, Irish eel fisheries will be closed while other fisheries remain open. Virtually all the regional fisheries boards have passed resolutions opposing the introduction of a total ban.
The only eel fishermen in the EU to be affected in this way will be the Irish eel fishermen. We are discriminating against our own fishing community at a time of economic recession. While the number of jobs that are at stake is not huge, it is significant for the local communities affected. Why has the Government chosen to put people out of work at this time? By closing an indigenous industry, we will cause great hardship to many decent fishermen without achieving any real or scientifically validated increase in eel stocks.
I understand that no package of financial compensation is to be provided. Even if we were to accept this catastrophic decision, the least we would expect is for some degree of compensation to be offered. If people’s livelihoods are to be swept away from them by a directive from on high, the least they should be given is some compensation for their investment in boats, stock and equipment. That is not being done, however.
I ask the Minister of State to revisit this decision and address this situation. Perhaps limited eel fishing could be allowed, in line with the best scientific advice. Alternatively, or in addition, compensation could be provided to people who are being flung out of their jobs, at a difficult economic time, as a result of the over-zealous implementation of an EU directive. The EU requires each member state to close 40% of its eel industry, but we have decided to close 100% of our industry. There is something almost masochistic about this that I do not understand. I look forward with great interest to hearing the Minister of State’s reply.
Deputy Seán Power: I thank Senator Norris for raising this matter. I have discussed it with many people who are involved in the eel industry. I am fully aware of the legitimate concerns of commercial eel fishermen who are affected by the demise of European eel stocks. I met representatives of the eel fishing industry before Christmas, before Ireland submitted its plan to Brussels, and again in recent weeks. I took their concerns into consideration when examining the options presented to me for the future management of Irish eel fisheries. The delegations from the industry have taken a constructive approach, by and large. I have explained the difficult position in which I find myself. A public consultation process was undertaken during the preparation of the national eel management plan to elicit the views of stakeholders in this sector, including eel fishermen.
I wish to outline the background to the draft national eel management plan that Ireland has submitted to the European Commission. Recent scientific research, issued by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, has indicated that the European eel fish stock is so depleted that it is outside safe biological limits. The EU regulation mentioned by Senator Norris represents an attempt to achieve recovery of the stock to a sustainable level. The objective of each eel management plan is to reduce anthropogenic mortalities so as to achieve a target escapement of 40% of the biomass of adult eels in pristine conditions, that is, before the collapse in stocks began.
I am advised that Ireland’s draft eel management plan relies upon the most up to date scientific and management information available. Surveys of eel stocks were undertaken by the Marine Institute throughout the 1960s into the mid-1990s. Eels were also recorded in the mixed stock surveys undertaken by the central and regional fisheries boards. During 2008, the Marine Institute, along with the other agencies, has collated all available eel survey data into a national database which will support assessments of the stock into the future.
Given the implications of the scientific and management advice, the absolute necessity to conserve remaining stocks and the obligation to contribute to the recovery of stocks in the shortest time possible, the national eel management plan recommended a number of management measures needed to reach the targets set in the EU regulation. These are, first, an immediate cessation of the commercial eel fishery and closure of the market; second, mitigation of the impact of hydropower, including a comprehensive silver eel trap and transport plan; third, ensuring upstream migration of juvenile eel at barriers; and, fourth, the improvement of water quality in eel habitats.
The option of reducing rather than ceasing the commercial fishery in some districts was considered and decided against for a number of reasons. The required traceability scheme would be uneconomical, monitoring and enforcement effort would be disproportionate to the value of the activity and the recovery of the eel stock would take up to three times as long.
Adoption of all of these measures within the eel management plan provides for recovery of stocks to historical levels in the shortest time possible, some 90 years, which is the equivalent of four eel generations. I emphasise that the achievement of the regulation target by Ireland is dependent on equivalent EU-wide action being taken. Anything less would compromise the recovery of Irish stocks.
Under the regulation an evaluation of the eel stock and management measures will be undertaken every three years until 2018 and every six years thereafter. The prospect of reopening the fishery in each river basin district will be examined from 2012. When the last 25 years of poor recruitment is taken into account, however, it is clear that the adult eel stock in Irish waters will continue to decline for at least the next decade. For the foreseeable future, therefore, management of the fishery will focus on conservation.
I must stress that there is no property right attaching to public eel licences and consequently the issue of compensation is not relevant or appropriate, given that the proposed closure of the fishery is being applied for conservation reasons under the Fisheries Acts. While I have no funds at my disposal for a hardship fund for commercial eel fishermen, the Central Fisheries Board is actively investigating alternative opportunities to assist eel fishermen in diversification efforts. Some eel fishermen will also have the opportunity to tender for the trap and transport operations to be managed by the ESB under the plan.
My obligation as Minister, regardless of the EU regulation, is to conserve and protect our depleted stock of eel sufficient to ensure its recovery and to secure ecological biodiversity in our inland fisheries for future generations. I hope I can rely on the support of the Oireachtas in meeting that challenge.
Senator David Norris: I thank the Minister of State for his response, which addressed partially some of the issues but not all of them. I would like to pick up on a number of points. The Minister of State said he is advised the draft eel management plan relies on the most up to date scientific data but he did not say who advised him. I am suspicious of that advice because the figures on which he is relying are from 1960 to the mid-1990s, which means they are between ten and 20 years out of date. What happened in 2008 was that they collated the data. The collation is an intellectual exercise that does not directly relate to the health or otherwise of eel stocks at that historic period and therefore the fact that it happened in 2008 is not impressive. The data were assembled at a much earlier period than that and may well be out of date.
I welcome the mitigation of the impact of hydropower, the escapes and so on. That should be done in any event but the Minister of State’s first point was on the closure of the fisheries. We are unique in Europe in doing that. The Minister said it will be 90 years before the stocks are completely rehabilitated, if every other European country co-operates.
The Minister spoke also about the examination of the stocks from 2012 but the people working in the industry will have moved on. He cannot expect people to sit on their oars for three years before coming back into full employment.
I am disappointed with regard to compensation. I know times are difficult but the action taken by the Minister of State’s Department has destroyed an indigenous industry. The entire workforce has been thrown into unemployment and in those circumstances some degree of compensation for their livelihood, their stocks and their boats should be considered. He should at least suggest he is actively investigating alternative opportunities to assist them in diversification efforts.
My information might be slightly out of date. In my original communication I mentioned they said they had no meeting since 19 January. Perhaps the Minister of State has met with them since. If not, I hope he will meet with them again to provide an opportunity to resolve this difficult and human problem as well as one that is financial.
Deputy Seán Power: The Senator has raised a number of issues and I am happy to respond to them. I could give him the dates of meetings I had with individuals on the matter. In fact, a number of colleagues from both Houses sat in at meetings with me when eel fishermen were brought in to make their case. I have not refused to meet anyone.
I should mention that a blog has appeared recently, obviously written by people involved in the eel industry, which is despicable. It is a serious attack on civil servants who are doing their best working on behalf of the country. I find the behaviour of the people responsible for that despicable and I hope we can identify them at a later stage.
Deputy Seán Power: That is okay. On the scientific advice, I would be happy to provide the advice that was given to me to the Senator. I felt with the advice being made available to me I was in no position to make any other decision other than to do what I did.
Regarding the instruction from Europe, we had to submit our plan by 31 December and as a minimum countries which failed to do that would have to see a reduction of 50% in their catch, in addition to the plan they were to submit. It has been said to me that we are the only country adopting this approach. I cannot agree with that because I am not aware of the plans of other countries. They have not published them and I have not seen them.
Lough Neagh is a different case. There has been an onus on fishermen there for a number of years where they were taking eel from the Severn and stocking Lough Neagh. That is a different case and there is a different operation there, on which I can give the Senator the detail later.
It is not my intention to upset people. I know people were fishing eel on a commercial basis while others were doing it as a hobby. It is something they enjoyed doing and all of a sudden we are putting an end to that. The only reason we are doing it is to protect the eel so that future generations can enjoy this pastime or commercial activity that others have enjoyed for a number of years. That is the only reason we submitted the plan. I await the response from Europe but I would be negligent had I taken any other decision than the one I have taken.
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