|Deputy Seán Kyne: I thank the office of the Ceann Comhairle for choosing this Topical Issue and welcome the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, to the Chamber.
Many politicians and people talk about sustainable communities, be they sustainable farming, fishing, rural or coastal communities. In recent years there have been unsustainable activities on the part of supertrawlers, the activities of which, in many people’s eyes, have been unsustainable in an Irish, a European Union and a global context. Today, four large supertrawlers are operating off the coast of County Donegal. The Margiris and the Annelies Ilena are the largest and second largest, respectively, and have been fishing on and off for the past few years, while the other two are the Jan Maria and the Maartje Theadora. It has been stated two fifths of European stocks, where data are available, were considered to be overfished, while a further 45% of stocks were estimated to be in a similar state. This places huge pressure on small fishermen off the west coast. I note the careful rebuilding of stocks in the Celtic Sea under the stewardship of the Celtic Sea herring management advisory committee, where, according to a 2012 report, stocks have recovered well and the fishery operation was regarded as being at a sustainable level. Credit is due to the Minister and everyone involved as all stakeholders came on board to ensure the recovery of that fishery.
Recent surveys, however, highlight a concern about the current position. These factory ships were run out of the waters off the west coast of Africa and the coast of Mauritius. The Annelies Ilena, previously the Atlantic Dawn, was known in many parts of Africa as the “sea monster” or “the ship from hell”. Obviously, it also had Irish connections, although it now is Dutch-registered. These ships have also been run out of the waters of Australia and New Zealand amid protests and intervention by politicians. Some assert that they are fishing with no quotas, while others state they have a small quota but that there are no controls over them. I have been asked why a boat that has a quota to fish off Ireland for two to four weeks for a certain species, that is, for one month, would spend nine months fishing in Irish waters. Is it not reasonable to expect, in the first instance, that these large trawlers should announce to the Irish authorities that they are coming into Irish waters to fish? Second, they should have camera surveillance systems on board to monitor activities. Third, they should allow officers of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority to board to verify activities and, fourth, they should leave Irish waters once their quotas have been caught. Ireland has full control – some would say excess control – over its own fleet in terms of quotas per Irish boat, whereas other boats such as boats from Spain have a national quota rather than a quota per boat, which makes it more difficult to verify or monitor whether overfishing is taking place. Ultimately, how is it fair and equitable that Irish boats have to comply, while others may not be doing so?
This is about jobs and the economy, including processing jobs in factories such as the one in Rossaveal, and in our rural communities. The EU is supposed to be about fairness and equality. There are national quotas rather than quotas per boat. How can this be fair if there is no proper monitoring of landings in other areas by these Dutch or German registered boats? Is the EU turning a blind to issues? Are there illegal activities going on? Do these boats target Irish waters and then get out before the Naval Service can catch them? Is the Minister confident that what is going on is above board, that the quota system and compliance by these boats with it is above board, and that we have nothing to worry about?
Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Simon Coveney): I thank the Deputy for raising this issue because I know it is causing concern and frustration. I have had a lot of interaction, particularly on social media, on this issue. I can assure the Deputy that it is not going unnoticed in my Department or by the agencies with responsibility for enforcement of the rules.
Control of vessels within Ireland’s exclusive fisheries zone is as a matter for the Irish control authorities who monitor fishing activity of all vessels operating in the area. The control authorities have ongoing information in relation to the vessels operating in the Irish exclusive fisheries zone, including their activities and characteristics. Under the Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006, all operational issues of this nature concerning sea fisheries control are, as a matter of law, exclusively for the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, and the Naval Service. As Minister, I am precluded from getting involved in operational matters, including in relation to law enforcement. Obviously, I ask what is going on and I ensure that the authority is applying the rules and regulations fairly and robustly. The SFPA has advised me that it is currently monitoring the activity of four large pelagic freezer trawlers within the Irish exclusive fisheries zone.
Vessels with the scope to catch large quantities of fish, with onboard grading facilities, create specific compliance risks, therefore justifying specific focus of available control resources. For each of these, I am advised that the SFPA has clarified through contact with the flag state the entitlement of the vessel, and has identified particular compliance risks pertaining to those vessels. Since their arrival in the Irish exclusive fisheries zone, the SFPA has been monitoring their movements through VMS, and declared catches through ERS. In general terms, it advises that the declared catches have been consistent with limited processing capability that might exist in heavy weather. Current weather conditions are heavy, to put it mildly.
The SFPA is reliant on the seagoing fishery patrol activity of the Naval Service to verify compliance of vessels not landing into Ireland. Boarding vessels of this size at sea creates specific challenges and to date, the operational decision of the Naval Service has been that the weather has been too severe to do that. Our record in regard to large super-trawlers has been strong in the past 12 months. We have brought a number of vessels into Killibegs for full inspection and so on. I do not propose to read the lengthy note I have on this issue, a copy of which I am sure the Deputy has received and will read later in detail. I would, however, like to reassure people on a couple of points.
First, Ireland has a large fisheries area to patrol. It is ten times our land mass in terms of surface. It is among the most fertile fishing grounds not alone in the European Union but in the world. It is a fishing ground shared among many international fleets. Irish boats land about 20% of the catch. It is my job to ensure that the enforcement agencies of the State, namely, the Naval Service and the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, ensure that there are fair rules that apply to big and small boats, be they Irish owned or not. These agencies must, in particular, ensure that boats that enter that zone to fish, but do not land in Ireland because in terms of scale they have processing facilities on board, comply with the rules and that there is no grading, discarding and so on. It should not be forgotten that the discards ban introduced under the new Common Fisheries Policy, the concluding negotiations of which were chaired by Ireland, is in respect of the discard of fish in the pelagic sector. This has been in place for the whole of this year. We will be introducing an obligation to land into the white species from 1 January. The rules are stringent and we will enforce them. Current weather conditions are very rough, which means it is virtually impossible for the Naval Service to board these vessels. If the weather changes that approach may change.
I know there is concern in regard to this area. Ireland, too, has some very large pelagic trawlers. Some of the Irish trawlers probably have a greater capacity to catch in terms of the day catch than do most of the large trawler vessels about which we are speaking because they have to process as well as catch. There are some very large Irish vessels that fish in Irish waters and outside of Irish waters. I know there is a concern in regard to the scale and size of these vessels, which are almost immune to stormy conditions such as currently being experienced. I want to assure people that we are monitoring what they are doing and where they are and we want to enforce the rules strictly to ensure they are not catching beyond the quota they are allowed to catch within European waters.
Deputy Seán Kyne: I thank the Minister for his response and reassurance. I have received a copy of his response and I will read it more thoroughly after I leave the Chamber. The Minister is correct that there is concern in this area. I have been contacted by a number of fishermen and other people involved in the fishing community about the presence of these super-trawlers and their reputations. The Minister is also correct that there are also many large Irish trawlers, with one of the largest trawlers in this area being Irish.
The Minister is strongly supportive of the Celtic Sea project in regard to sustainable fishing. Does he view these super-trawlers as a threat to the sustainability of fish stocks in Irish waters, European waters and across the world? Is that an issue that is raised at fisheries meetings or an issue the Minister thinks is worthy of further examination? The Minister said that Irish waters are some of the most fertile in the world and that 20% of the catch is by Irish boats. It is because Irish waters are fertile that they are attractive to non-Irish trawlers. The more catch that is landed in Irish ports the more jobs created in processing and the more net value there is to the Irish State.
The Minister referenced current weather conditions. We cannot put anybody’s life at risk in terms of our Naval Service and the inspection of boats. The view is that these super-trawlers target Irish waters when the weather is particularly bad in order that they might be able to evade detection by the Naval Service. Is that speculation or is there evidence of this? Is this an issue the Minister has discussed with the Naval Service or the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority?
Deputy Simon Coveney: The situation is not as loose as may be suggested. Boats have electronic logbooks such that we know what is being caught. Obviously, it helps to inspect to ensure that is the actual position. We know where the vessels are as soon as they enter Irish waters. If the Deputy were to visit the naval headquarters in Haulbowline staff there would be able to show him on screen the location of all fishing vessels in Irish waters at any given time, including a flag of the country of origin of each vessel. They can also access logbook information from boats. There is a lot of monitoring going on. What people would like to see is physical verification of that monitoring through on-board inspections. There are multiple boardings every day by the Naval Service. It is a tough job but they do a good job. They will board large vessels such as the super-trawlers about which we are speaking. They will probably target large vessels more than small vessels as there is more at stake potentially because of the volumes being caught, be they Irish boats or other boats.
People need to understand that we share fishing grounds within the European Union with other EU member states. We negotiate in December of each year the quota within different fishing sectors around the Irish coast, as we do across the Bay of Biscay, the Mediterranean Sea and up into the Baltic Sea. The quota that applies to each of those stocks in each of those zones is then divided among member states of the European Union in accordance with an agreed practise that has been going on now for many years.
Before fish are caught they must have a quota from a European member state that has a quota to catch fish, mackerel in this case, off the west coast of Ireland within this fisheries zone area. It is not as if the vessels are appearing, scooping up all of our fish and heading off without the quota to do that. The quota has been given to them on the basis of scientific advice in terms of the state of the stock and the health of that stock, coming from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, ICES, which is the international body that makes the scientific recommendations in terms of the health of mackerel stocks each year.
This is not anything out of the ordinary in terms of fish that have been taken from waters for which we have responsibility for monitoring and managing from a fishery perspective. This is quota fish that are being caught by boats that are owned within the European Union and have a quota to catch fish in that zone. The issue for us is to make sure that they do not go beyond that quota, because given their scale and size they have the capacity to go way beyond it if they choose to and if there is not tight enforcement. Those large vessels have significant catch capacity but they also know the consequences if they break the rules, which are significant.
Because it is so stormy at the moment it is very difficult for us to get on board and to reassure people by verifying the catch and matching that with the electronic logbook data, but as soon as conditions allow for that we will do so. As the Minister responsible for the fishing industry, nobody is more aware than I am of the need to protect fish stocks. In the context of a new Common Fisheries Policy and a negotiated Common Fisheries Fund for Ireland, which is more than twice the size of any fisheries package that Ireland has ever had in the past, we are very serious about protecting Irish fishing interests, so if I felt that we had large super trawlers that were abusing stocks in Irish waters, I would act on that, but this is about enforcement, information flow, transparency and keeping the rules. As soon as we have weather that can allow us to board those vessels, if the Naval Service and the SFPA feel it is appropriate to do so, that is what will happen.