Northern Ireland Assembly
Monday 18 September 2000
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development that she wishes to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council meeting held on 5 July 2000 on the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):
The second meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council on the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission (FCILC) sector took place on 5 July in Dublin. Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Mr Michael McGimpsey and I represented Northern Ireland. Mr Frank Fahey TD, Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, represented the Irish Government. The Executive Committee noted the papers for the Council on 29 June. The meeting opened with a useful update from the chairman, Peter Savage, and the interim chief executive, Derick Anderson. They outlined the Loughs Agency’s progress to date in taking forward the work of the agency and, in particular, the progress in relation to the agency’s proposed work programme. The Council then considered and approved a number of papers put before it. These were the corporate plan for the years 2000-02; a code of conduct for board members of the FCILC; a code of conduct for the staff of the Loughs Agency; a draft equality scheme for the agency; and regulations for angling permits for the Rivers Foyle and Finn. The Council also gave its approval, subject to the final approval of both Finance Ministers, to the staffing proposals put forward by the Loughs Agency.
In addition, the Council was updated on the making of the legislation to enhance the functions of the Loughs Agency of the FCILC in line with the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Northern Ireland) Order 1999, and in relation to the transfer of the functions of the Commissioners of Irish Lights to the body.
Finally, the Council agreed to meet again in September — although I understand that that has now been put back until early November — and approved the issue of a joint communiqué, a copy of which has been placed in the Library. I am making this report on behalf of myself and Mr McGimpsey.
I thank the Minister for her report. My questions relate to paragraph 7 of the report and, in particular, the reference to legislation transferring the functions of the Commissioners of Irish Lights to the North/South body. Does the Minister agree that the essential problem that the legislation will have to tackle is that historically Irish inshore lights in both Northern Ireland and the Republic have been subsidised out of the general lighthouse fund administered by the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions? There is an issue of cross-subsidisation of the functions here from Great Britain. Does the Minister agree that in the light of that financial transfer, it would be sensible for the British-Irish Council to be involved in the Irish Lights function as well as the North/South Ministerial Council?
Officials are working to achieve a transfer as quickly and effectively as possible. As the Member will appreciate, marine safety is a sensitive issue subject to international conventions. Transferring responsibility in a way which allows both the United Kingdom and Ireland to continue to meet their obligations is a complex issue. There are unique funding arrangements for the Commissioners of Irish Lights through the general lighthouse fund, and it is necessary to ensure proper accountability for that funding. Furthermore, a legislative vehicle must be identified to make the transfer of functions at Westminster. The Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions is concerned about the level of funding from the Irish Government, but that is a matter for the United Kingdom and Irish Governments.
During the past few months anglers have had major difficulties pertaining to Ballyarton weir and the River Faughan. What is the current position with regard to the improvements there?
I am aware from the Member’s representations that there have been difficulties with the weir for a number of months. The difficulties that were delaying the improvements to ease the passage of fish over the weir have now been overcome. I hope that the work will be completed by the end of September. An interim solution has been put in place to ensure that the fish can pass freely if the water conditions become available.
Does the Minister accept that there is concern about the degree of secrecy that surrounds this and so many other meetings? She refers in paragraph 5 of her statement to a corporate plan for the years 2000-02, a draft code for conduct for board members, and various other documents. I take a considerable interest in this because Carlingford Lough is in the constituency of South Down. I am not aware of any of these documents having been made available to Members. Can the Minister assure me that all the material published by this board will be brought forward for public debate?
I am not aware that there has been any secrecy. Reports of all North/South Ministerial Council meetings that have dealt with the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission have been published, and we have made clear what has been happening. For instance, the equality scheme being prepared by the Council will go out for consultation in the near future, and the code of conduct is available on request. Information about the Council’s work is also available.
I am advised that Members are finding it difficult to hear those speaking in the corners of the Chamber. This is an unusual phenomenon. Technical checks are being made, but in the meantime perhaps Members in that part of the Chamber will project their voices more.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. For the first time in my political career, someone has found it hard to hear me. I asked the Minister about the corporate plan. Will it be published and made available to Members?
I think it is fair enough for that question to be repeated.
The acoustics in the Chamber must be the problem. I do not think that it is my hearing or the projection of the Member’s voice. The corporate plan has been published, or will be published when it is ready.
Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh. I welcome the Minister’s statement. Everyone will agree that the transfer of functions to the all-Ireland North/South Ministerial Council and the implementation body will benefit cross-border activity and co-operation. According to the statement, the Council was updated about legislation to enhance the functions of the Loughs Agency of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission, in line with the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Northern Ireland) Order 1999. What is the position on that?
Work on aquaculture legislation and the transfer of functions from the Foyle Fisheries to the Loughs Agency, are proceeding at all levels. This includes the development and licensing of aquaculture on Lough Foyle. Policy matters have proved more difficult and complex, but legislation is progressing in all areas and we hope to advance it as quickly as possible.
We in this corner are finding it difficult to hear the Minister’s responses. There may be a problem.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. I have two questions. She said that the corporate plan had been published, and then added that it will be published. Can she clarify this? My second question concerns the regulations for angling permits for the Rivers Foyle and Finn. When will these permits be made available to anglers?
The corporate plan has not yet been published, but it will be.
The Foyle and Finn angling permits have been published and will be available. The legislation is being amended to allow the Loughs Agency to take over these functions.
Mr J Wilson:
The Minister said she was speaking on behalf of herself and Minister McGimpsey. We are all aware of the confusion arising from the involvement of two Departments in this matter. Is the Minister really aware of the confusion in the angling community over the administration of permits and licences by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission? Will she undertake to try to simplify this matter, especially with regard to paying twice for a licence for a day’s angling, which could easily take place in both jurisdictions? This issue is important to local anglers, but it is more important for tourists. If local anglers are confused, tourists will be thoroughly confused. I hope that the Minister will undertake to look at this more closely.
I recognise the Member’s interest in angling matters. There is bound to be confusion during the process of change. I agree to undertake to see whether matters can be simplified. The Member is aware that people with a Fisheries Conservancy Board licence can have it endorsed at a lesser price to fish in the FCILC area.
I welcome the Minister’s statement. Can she provide an update on progress in relation to the Loughs Agency’s new headquarters and its proposal to open an office in the Carlingford Lough area?
The new headquarters in Derry has now been opened, and suitable accommodation in the Carlingford area has been identified. Staff to provide services directly are currently being recruited, and they will be in place in the coming months. In the meantime services continue to be provided on an agency basis by the Fisheries Conservancy Board and the Eastern Regional Fisheries Board.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for her statement, and I endorse what Jim Wilson said about the confusion for anglers in relation to the issue of permits and licences. Is the Minister aware of the serious situation in Lough Foyle that is threatening the shellfish industry? I welcome the fact that there is to be a draft equality scheme for the agency and that regulations are going to be in force. However, is the Minister aware that by the time the various pieces of legislation are completed and the regulations are introduced, there may not be a shellfish industry left in Lough Foyle?
I am aware that there are problems in the Lough Foyle area and that representations have been made by local people with an interest in shellfish and the aquaculture of the area. I know that they are keen to have a say in how the licensing scheme will operate. These matters will be addressed by legislation. It is because of the level of interest being shown by local people that the legislation has been made a matter of priority. The two Departments are working with interested parties to ensure that those with an interest in the area are not disadvantaged in any way by the delay. I am aware of the difficulties. Consultation is going on with Members in the area, and I am anxious that the legislation be processed as a matter of urgency.
There has been much talk of permits and legislation, but I am sure that the Minister is aware of the deep concern about illegal fishing and netting in the Foyle system. I am surprised that a body meeting to consider such matters would not be taking this issue on board. Is the Minister aware of the situation and will the Commission be taking the matter forward in future?
I am aware of the problem with poaching and illegal fishing. Recently there has been an increase in poaching. That is due to the increase in fish stocks. The Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission has been successful in seizing illegal nets and continues to be effective in preventing poaching. The Commission also acknowledges the efforts which have been made by many private river watchers in protecting fish stocks.
I appreciate the efforts of those who have to work for the Department in those areas because it is not always an easy task. This year, the rate of seizure of illegal nets has been consistent with the numbers for last year. However, there has been an increase in seizures of illegally caught salmon and sea trout. That is because there has been an increase in the fish stock in the rivers.
I too welcome the Minister’s statement. My question arises out of the considerable weight of evidence that the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee has been collecting in public session — I repeat: in public session — relating to poaching in particular. The Minister’s reply to Mr Hussey has adequately answered my question.
I welcome the Minister’s statement and, in particular, her response to my Colleague Dr Birnie on the complications arising from meeting the costs of the Irish Lights Commission, which is currently subsidised by Her Majesty’s Government. What action is the Minister proposing to take to obtain from the Government of the Republic of Ireland a contribution in proportion to the cost of Irish Lights in relation to the territorial waters of the Republic of Ireland?
As I have already said, this is a matter for the UK and Irish Governments, and it is being dealt with at that level.
Mr A Doherty:
Will the Minister expand on the consultation arrangements put in place by the Loughs Agency and inform the Assembly on the progress in staffing the Loughs Agency to the level agreed by the North/South Ministerial Council?
The Loughs Agency is currently developing a formal procedure for consulting customers and other parties with an interest in the work of the Agency in the Foyle and Carlingford areas. As part of that process, the agency recently invited interested parties to suggest how it should establish consultation arrangements to ensure that interested parties are given the opportunity to provide input to agency decisions.
In relation to the progress made in staffing, the Loughs Agency is currently recruiting river watchers in the Carlingford area and administrative staff and biologists in the Foyle area. The agency is also arranging for the posts of resource officer and development officer to be filled on a temporary basis by secondment.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):
I beg to move
That the Second Stage of the Fisheries (Amendment) Bill (NIA 9/99) be agreed.
This Bill proposes to amend the Fisheries (Northern Ireland) Act 1966 on behalf of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. Both Departments have powers under that Act, following the split in fisheries functions after devolution.
Broadly speaking, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has retained responsibility for sea fisheries and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is now responsible for inland fisheries. Since the amendments were proposed before devolution, it has been agreed that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development will take the lead in bringing a single Bill to the Assembly on behalf of both Departments rather than each Department bringing separate Bills.
I will detail all of the proposed amendments in my opening speech. My Colleague Mr McGimpsey will make the closing speech.
Changes to the existing legislation are considered necessary to allow the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to regulate the collection of wild shellfish, which are a natural resource, from the foreshore and to use fisheries regulatory powers to conserve and enhance the environment. Collection of wild shellfish from the foreshore of Strangford Lough for commercial purposes has been increasing in recent years. During 1999 one individual used a mechanical harvester towed by a tractor to extract quantities of shellfish for onward sale. It is estimated that for a four-week period, beginning in mid-August, about four tonnes per day was collected. That is a substantial operation.
Conservation bodies such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the National Trust have raised concerns with the Department about the potential ecological effects of ongoing extraction at this rate, particularly the impact on wildlife on the foreshore.
A number of bird species are dependent on a continuous rich supply of wild shellfish as food to maintain populations, particularly during winter months. It is too late to take action when the damage has been done and the bird population has been lost. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development views the need to regulate the collection of wild shellfish as vital to ensuring the ecological balance is maintained in order to conserve wildlife on the foreshore. There is evidence to support this.
Similar mechanical harvesting took place in Scotland in the early 1990s. In 1994 the opportunity was taken to amend legislation there to allow the regulation of such collection. In addition, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is proposing to amend the Fisheries Act (Northern Ireland) 1966 to bring Northern Ireland into line with the wider powers now available under Great Britain legislation to allow regulation of fishing for environmental reasons.
Legislation in Great Britain was amended in 1995 to ensure that regulators there could protect the marine and aquatic environment to ensure compliance with the EC Habitats Directive. A parallel duty was imposed in Northern Ireland under conservation regulations made by the Department of Environment in 1994.
However, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development does not have specific power to regulate sea fishing for environmental purposes. The proposed amendment would specifically empower the Department to do that. A parallel amendment to another section of the Fisheries Act (Northern Ireland) 1966, which I will describe later, will give the Fisheries Conservancy Board similar regulatory powers in relation to salmon. Further amendments to the Act are proposed which will make it an offence to contravene regulations made under the powers referred to above and will ensure that the necessary enforcement powers exist to enable authorised officers of the Department to enforce any such regulations. They may board and examine vehicles and equipment used in fishing and, when appropriate, seize and dispose of such vehicles or equipment.
In addition, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure wishes to take the following powers. It is proposed that restrictions which have the effect of prohibiting trade in salmon roe obtained from fish farms be lifted. Salmon roe is a viable product particularly in view of Northern Ireland’s disease-free status. The amendment to the Act will allow trade in spawn produced at a fish farm for salmon production for human consumption or for stock enhancement. However, it will remain illegal to sell spawn obtained from wild salmon.
The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure also proposes investing the Fisheries Conservancy Board with powers to control the removal of materials such as gravel from river beds. This is an important conversation measure designed to preserve spawning beds. It is considered necessary for the protection of increasingly threatened fish habitats. Gravel constitutes a key component of fishery habitats and is necessary for successful spawning. Removal of gravel from riverbeds has resulted in a significant deterioration in Northern Ireland’s fisheries and the proposed amendment will afford protection to this habitat.
The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure wishes to streamline the administrative process by dispensing with the requirement to obtain Department of Finance and Personnel agreement each time it varies charges for fishing permits for fishing the public angling estate. This approval is not required for other charges, and the Department of Finance and Personnel is content with the proposed change. The Department will publish its permit fees at the beginning of each season.
The Department also wishes to give powers to the Fisheries Conservancy Board (FCB) to issue licences at reduced rates to certain classes of person, such as the disabled. These powers will give the board scope to be flexible and sensitive to the needs of different groups in society.
The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure proposes to amend section 26 of the Act in two respects. First, it wishes to enable the FCB to make by-laws in respect of anything relating to the management and protection of fisheries. This power will, in particular, allow the implementation of a salmon carcass tagging scheme, which is designed to improve the management and conservation of wild salmon and sea trout stocks. Parallel schemes are being introduced by the relevant fisheries conservation agencies throughout the island of Ireland. Other agencies already have appropriate powers for the introduction of tagging, and it only remains for the FCB to be invested with the enabling powers to allow it to do likewise. Secondly, the amending clause provides the FCB with powers to regulate salmon fishing for environmental purposes. This parallels the proposal being sought by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to regulate sea fisheries for environmental purposes.
The final amendment relates to powers available to the FCB following a pollution incident. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure wishes to strengthen the powers of the FCB to reinstate polluted waters and to recover the full cost of this from the polluter. Reinstatement will include restocking, restoration and enhancement of fish habitats to pre-pollution levels. FCB’s powers are at present limited purely to restocking. The effects of pollution go beyond the loss of fish evident in a fish kill. While restocking could supplement fish stocks lost to pollution, reinstatement would take into account the other physical and biological effects necessary to restore a fishery as a biodiverse habitat, such as invertebrate and plant recovery and habitat restoration.
Members will note that the financial and explanatory memorandum has been amended. Originally when this Bill was drafted it was4 felt that the FCB would take on the additional work proposed in this legislation through reorganisation and internal efficiencies. It is now unlikely that the board will be able to meet the cost from its own resources and, therefore, some additional funding may need to be found, but we believe that this will not, relatively speaking, be significant.
My Colleague, Mr McGimpsey, has also written to the Chairman of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee, Mr ONeill, advising him of a review of the functions of the FCB in the light of the changes following devolution.
I ask the Assembly to support this Second Stage motion, which will allow the Bill to proceed to Committee Stage.
The Chairperson of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee (Mr ONeill):
I welcome this legislation. However small, it is at least a start. There are huge challenges facing both Ministers with regard to the health of fishing and angling in Northern Ireland. I often think that the health of rivers and lakes is a clear indication of the health of the environment in general. They are almost like the lungs in a body.
This year we have experienced some of the worst examples of pollution. They have occurred with such regularity that when the statistics are pulled together at the end of the year, I imagine they will show that it has been one of the worst years in the last 40 or 50. We have major challenges ahead.
There are references to the foreshore in clauses 1 and 2. Part of the existing problem in relation to the harvesting of shellfish is the exploitative way in which it has been carried out in Strangford Lough in the example quoted by the Minister. One thing that needs to be clarified — and I am not sure if it is clarified sufficiently in the Bill — is the definition of "foreshore".
We should all welcome clause 5, which will allow the tagging scheme to come into effect in Northern Ireland. Some time ago an arrangement was made between the Department here and the fishing authorities in the South of Ireland for an all-Ireland tagging scheme to regulate and control the terrible poaching and misuse of our wild fish stocks. However, it was not possible to introduce this tagging scheme fully in Northern Ireland because of legislative arrangements. We should all welcome this clause, as it will introduce appropriate by-laws to facilitate the implementation of the salmon carcass tagging scheme. Having that throughout the island will be a considerable advance which will be welcomed greatly by those in angling and environmentally concerned bodies who wish to see changes.
Clause 7 concerns the reinstatement of polluted waters. As I have already outlined, there is great concern about this summer’s events. It is to be welcomed that the word has been changed from "restocking" to "reinstatement", for, as Minister Rodgers has pointed out, there is much more to do than simple restocking after a river has been polluted or poisoned to the extent that all life has been destroyed. Restocking without providing the ecosystem on which the fish can survive is not sufficient.
I should like to ask whether the Department has given any thought to ensuring that native stock can be held for use in reinstating and reinvigorating particular stretches of polluted water. This is of great concern, for some restocking schemes have in the past used fish alien to the local area, a practice which was not very successful. When considering reinstatement we should be thinking of a much more comprehensive approach encompassing issues such as introducing native stock to a particular area or river network. It also begs the question of the collection, preservation and storage of sufficient amounts of such stock to be available whenever these unfortunate disasters occur.
We are all concerned about the sea fisheries. Although the remit of our Committee covers only inland areas, sea fishing clearly has a big impact on stocks of wild salmon and sea trout coming in and out of river systems. I should like to hear the Minister state clearly what the current position is on the regulation of sea fisheries for environmental purposes, and why it is considered necessary to regulate them. There is still much work for us in this area.
We have come under international pressure, particularly from countries such as Iceland, which has fished north Atlantic salmon stocks and would dearly love to do so again. It has not, however, because of the environmental impact it was having. It seems odd, therefore, that local countries will continue to fish those stocks. We need to address the emergent problem of fishing north Atlantic stocks.
I welcome this stage of the Bill and look forward to its next stage.
I welcome the Minister’s comments, but does she have the staff to police this?
It is a welcome boost for tourism and agri-tourism. There is a great opportunity for Northern Ireland if we can bring our waterways up to standard and protect them — especially for fishing — as we have a great shoreline. If we can get our part right, the quality and image that will be put forward across tourism will be admired. We have such a bad image. We have to improve the image of our fishing. The opportunities are tremendous but I am worried about whether the Minister has the staff to police this.
By and large, we endorse the amendments to the Bill. There are a couple of concerns, specifically about clause 1, which relates to the foreshore. Many people are concerned about the dredging taking place in Strangford Lough, which has had a detrimental effect. It has led to erosion. Many refer to it as the rape of Strangford Lough. We are all aware that Strangford Lough is of international environmental importance. The fact that there are some changes in the Bill to ensure that the dredging and scraping of the foreshore to get the shellfish is discontinued is to be welcomed. At the same time, we have to get a balance between the environment and local fishing needs and interests. We look for assurance from the Minister that what we have today is the correct balance — that environmental interests do not override fishing interests.
I would also make the Minister aware that, along with mechanical dredging, we have people in the Ards and south Down areas who regard the harvesting of shellfish as a traditional job they have done over many years. Can the Minister assure those people that they will still be able to do that? In some cases, those people are in the low wage bracket and they supplement their income by taking some shellfish. This is fine, as long as the shellfish population is there to sustain it.
The Department has also issued a booklet entitled ‘Intertidal Zone Shell-Fish Harvesting’, which I understand has been withdrawn. Some fishing bodies are concerned that they have not been consulted on the matter. We want to find out about that today.
In clause 3 we have an example of changes that need to be made. The Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee recently asked for a change of wording. That change is important because "to sell, purchase or knowingly have in their possession" would be the new interpretation. If that were the case, it would prevent circumstances where people have found themselves in possession of the spawn or the fry through no fault of their own. Spawn are small and worm-like, and able to get into and out of fish farms.
I welcome the rewording of clause 7 to refer to reinstatement rather than restocking. That is very important. Restocking is a superficial way of addressing the wrong that has taken place. Just putting more fish in does not get us back to where we were. Reinstatement means that the habitat will be put back in order, so as to sustain the reintroduced fish. Reinstatement means the habitat, the banks, the water itself and the contributing waters as well. Those are all very important.
Pollution is one of our greatest problems. My own Committee is taking submissions at the moment, and each and every group that comes forward highlights pollution as one of its greatest concerns. We must also look at policing. It is not just a matter of having the words and having the legislation and having it all down on paper. We must have the manpower or the womanpower to enforce it. Who will police it? Will staff be made available to ensure that polluted waters are reinstated and those responsible are made amenable?
Clause 5 relates to the power of the board to make by-laws. That is a welcome introduction that will go some way to addressing what is a very dear issue to the people in North Antrim, and indeed to fishermen throughout the Province, and that is the stock of salmon. I hope that that will ensure that our stock of salmon will be enhanced and increased. That is important.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee (Mrs Nelis):
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Bill. I am certain that it will make some impact on the disastrous state of our inland waterways, loughs and seas. As Mr ONeill said, the Committee is currently inquiring into the issue of fisheries. Most of those who have given evidence paint a dismal picture of the difficulties facing our anglers and those who are trying to maintain the environment and the purity of our water.
I welcome that part of the Bill that addresses the issue of polluted waters, but we need more and we need it urgently. Witnesses from various angling clubs have told us that the inland waterways are polluted almost beyond recovery. Pollution is threatening the entire marine life of the rivers. We hear every week of various pollution incidents, whether caused by farmers, gravel extractors, hydroelectric schemes or irresponsible people. Salmon stocks — fish stocks in general — have been so seriously depleted that one wonders whether legislation at this stage will be enough to address the very serious state of our rivers and inland waterways.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It might be of benefit to Members if you were to explain why the Minister of Agriculture is making legislation for the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. I hope that it is not a question of one Department poaching from another.
On the issue of fishing, I suspect that the Departments will be particularly careful about the question of "poaching". This Bill clearly has elements relating to the responsibilities of both the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development explained that she would be opening the Second Reading debate while the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure would make the winding-up speech. It would be particularly surprising, given the Member’s party, if he were to object to co-operation between the two Ministers.
I am not sure how to follow that one. This is a serious problem, because these issues affect both Departments. It will not be easy for those of us on the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee to deal competently with further stages of this legislation when our Colleagues in Culture, Arts and Leisure have the expertise in certain aspects of it. Despite reservations, I give a broad welcome to the principle of the Bill. It is clear that most of the proposed measures are overdue.
The Minister highlighted the fact that foreshore protection has been part of legislation in Great Britain for five years. However, Strangford Lough, which is supposedly protected to the highest UK and European standards, has been subjected to a kind of tractor trawling operation through a site of special scientific interest and a Ramsar site in the interests of dredging up shellfish. This must be stopped, and stopped speedily.
I have some sympathy with the view expressed by Mr Shannon about people who traditionally farmed for shellfish in that area. However, I do not see how driving a tractor and dredging up everything in sight can be described as a traditional fishing method. Clause 3, which refers to the protection of spawning beds, is clearly necessary, although Mr ONeill has highlighted the problem of potentially alien species being introduced.
I wish to ask questions later, in relation to salmon roe, about what measures will be taken to prevent alien species being introduced to inappropriate places. That falls within the area of responsibility of both Departments. Clause 7 — which stresses reinstatement rather than restocking — is a laudable aspiration, although I wonder how it will be carried out. Considering all the micro-flora and micro-fauna required to fully restock a river, it seems that to merely insert a clause in a Bill saying that people — who may go bankrupt in the meantime — can be charged for the necessary cost of reinstatement, is a little naive. That will not solve the problems. To suggest that this can be done at minimal cost to the public purse is also somewhat naive.
Do the two Departments feel that the powers given to them under the proposed clause 7 will be adequate? In the light of it, how do they propose to go about the restocking and the full reinstatement? It is clear that the powers of the Fisheries Conservancy Board are limited. We welcome clause 5, which will increase those powers, but it impinges on the resources that I have mentioned. As the Minister mentioned, there is also the issue of how similar powers will be applied to the Foyle and Carlingford systems. We need to ensure that the whole of Northern Ireland — indeed, the whole island — is given protection at the same level. There are some detailed questions to be asked, but I welcome the Bill in principle.
The Member touched upon the question that was raised as a point of order by his Colleague. I remind the House that, under Standing Orders, if a Committee is dealing with a matter that is clearly also a matter of interest to another Committee, there is a requirement to consult. Precisely how to do that in the conduct of the Committee Stage of the Bill is not an easy matter. It is much more straightforward in terms of investigation. Nevertheless, the requirement for consultation is there. I am sure that this will be undertaken by the Committee on which the Member sits.
Mr J Wilson:
It may be advisable for me to declare an interest, as Members are looking at a piece of legislation where it could be argued by some that my views represent those of angling organisations and pressure groups. I welcome the Bill, and I see nothing in it that concerns me a great deal. However, there are two matters that I would like to refer to.
First, I refer to clause 3. This clause provides the Fisheries Conservancy Board with powers to control the removal of material from rivers by making it an offence to remove material from the bed of a river without their prior consent. Does this apply to Drainage Division, which over the years — and some might say that it is still happening — has canalised our rivers? This has left them with 45º banks that almost require anglers to have one long leg and one short one to fish them. It has removed riverside vegetation, flora and fauna, and left the rivers in a terrible state. If Drainage Division does not comply, will it be fined? That is a very interesting question.
Referring to clause 5, all the angling media forecast that salmon tagging would be introduced over a year ago when the Department and the Fisheries Conservancy Board looked at the issue. However, it was discovered that the Fisheries Conservancy Board did not have the funds to introduce salmon tagging. I believe that the Chairperson of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee will agree with me that through our work, and through the representations made to us, people are becoming increasingly aware that the Fisheries Conservancy Board is seriously underfunded.
How can the Fisheries Conservancy Board be expected to take on the administration of the tagging scheme — welcome though it is — without serious consideration being given to increasing its funding?
My Colleague, Mr ONeill, sought clarification on the definition of foreshore boundaries. I would also welcome such clarification. Can the Minister advise the Assembly on the current position regarding the regulation of fishing on the foreshore? Are any changes anticipated that will remove local councils’ custodial interest in the foreshores? Under the current legislation this gives the Minister of Environment an ongoing role. I am not trying to introduce yet another Minister to the fray.
I strongly support the overall purpose of this Bill. Before coming to the Assembly I worked for the National Trust. That organisation campaigned vigorously for this legislation because the commercial exploitation of wild shellfish was having an extremely detrimental impact on the ecology of Strangford Lough. Indeed, it had almost become an industrial activity. We can all draw a clear distinction between someone with a bucket and spade digging up a few shellfish on a Saturday afternoon to take them home to eat, and the harvesting of tonnes of molluscs as occurred on Strangford Lough.
What was going on was totally unsustainable, not only in terms of its detrimental impact on the wildlife but eventually on the fish stock, which would be exhausted. Therefore the individuals who were carrying out this activity were sowing the seeds of their own destruction. It must be remembered that Strangford Lough, as everyone in the Chamber knows, is an area of special scientific interest; a Ramsar site; an area of outstanding natural beauty; and a marine nature reserve. Large portions of it are national nature reserves. This area has one of the highest possible designations as far as wildlife conservation is concerned. An activity that was leading to the destruction of the mudflats could not be allowed to continue, because the mudflats are vital for the fish population. They are also vitally important feeding grounds for species such as Brent geese, wigeon, bartailed godwit and many other species for which Strangford Lough is either internationally or nationally important. I therefore strongly welcome the speed with which this Bill has been brought forward and the support that it has received.
The enactment will be vital. It must be done forcefully and very clearly. The regulations that are introduced after the passage of the Bill will have to be looked at very carefully. Officials from the Department must have clear authority to step in and prevent this destructive activity. Therefore we will be watching very carefully to see what happens.
I also ask the Department to look at some other activities in areas such as Strangford Lough and Lough Foyle which are having a very detrimental impact on the ecology. One issue is sand removal. Currently there seems to be no control whatsoever of the removal of sand from beaches in the Province.
Another issue is bait digging. Here you can have a situation where someone like the hon Member for South Antrim, Mr Jim Wilson, goes down once a year with a shovel and a plastic bucket to Larne Lough and digs a few worms to use for fishing. Apart from the animal welfare aspects of what happens to the worms, that activity in itself has no real impact on the environment. However, from my experience of Belfast Lough, bait digging seems to be happening on a very large scale. I suspect that some of that is commercial and that it is being sold on to other fishermen. We need to look at whether that should be controlled.
I also note that a large proportion of Whitepark Bay on the north Antrim coast is being carted away on the back of lorries as the sand is extracted and sold commercially. So there are other aspects of the marine environment that give cause for concern and need to be looked at as a matter of urgency.
Any sensible person would also strongly support the replacing in the Fisheries Act (Northern Ireland) 1966 of the word "restocking" with "reinstatement". Time after time the angling bodies that have contacted me have made the point that the fines handed out by the courts for instances of pollution are totally inadequate.
The FCB is very diligent in tracing the people responsible, but when they are brought to court they are fined £200 or £400, even though they may have done tens of thousands of pounds’ worth of damage to the fisheries of that water. If they knew that they would not only have to restock the river or the lake but also to reinstate it to what it was before the incident occurred, that would act as a major deterrent to those carrying out that activity. We need to send out a clear message that if you pollute you are liable to pay a substantial amount of money and will be expected to bring that river back to the condition it was in before you allowed the silage, oil or pesticides into the water. That could only be good news.
Does the FCB have the staffing and resources to implement this legislation? I am not certain to which Minister I am putting my question — we are in one of those difficult situations. Anyway, I would like an assurance that the extra resources will be given to the FCB to police this legislation and to ensure reinstatement.
Much time and effort will have to be put into reinstatement as opposed to restocking. With restocking, if the perpetrator pays for a specified number of fish to be put back into the river he has carried out his obligations under the 1966 Act. Under this new legislation — and it is very welcome — the situation will have to be monitored by scientists to ensure that the river is returned to its original condition. That is a totally different situation — I was going to say "kettle of fish", but maybe that is not appropriate.
We have all had very serious incidents of pollution in our constituencies. I can think of recent instances on the Upper Bann, the Moyola and the Lagan where, clearly, if this legislation had been enacted, a major scheme would have had to be carried out. Therefore can the Minister tell us what extra resources have been made available?
Apart from those few minor points, this legislation is extremely welcome.
A Cheann Comhairle, go raibh maith agat. I broadly welcome the Bill, and I hope that it will have a beneficial impact.
The controls that will be beneficial to habitat are welcome, as is the flexibility regarding disabled people — and maybe local people have often been left out regarding fishing in their own indigenous areas. Environmental protection of foreshores, habitat and wildlife is also a welcome benefit. I have some concerns about the shellfish and the salmon roe trading. That seems to be of benefit to a few — or is it of greater benefit?
The removal of vast amounts of sand from habitats in Lough Neagh and such places as Ballyronan by absentee landlords is another issue that has been mentioned to me. Local people are concerned about the effect that will have on the habitat of the eel population.
Clause 7 relates to pollution regulations extending to reinstatement. This is a good thing, because those who are destroying the local habitat — and it is going on at a phenomenal rate each year — deserve more than a fine. Government bodies and agencies have also been responsible for a sizeable amount of river pollution — especially of inland clear-water rivers — year after year, but they have Crown immunity. However, farmers are often cited as the only cause of pollution in most areas.
There is also the pollution caused by the attempts of vested interests to poison our drinking water through the addition of fluoride. That has been attempted in all council areas in the Six Counties but was turned down. I would not want to see that happening in the future. Fluoride is supposed to be more toxic than lead.
As regards reducing pollution, the inadequate sewerage systems in towns and over-developed areas also contribute to the pollution problem. Therefore the sewerage system is another issue that must be addressed. A holistic approach to the issue of pollution is required, taking in households, Government Departments and agriculture. It is not about laying blame at one sector; it is about going forward with anglers and local people so that they can have better waterways.
A Cheann Comhairle, I am addressing the same issue as my Colleague Mr McHugh — pollution as it relates to clause 7. One of the big problems in a lot of rural areas has been that Government agencies are not prosecuted for causing pollution. Does the Minister envisage that, particularly as regards the Department of Agriculture and Rural Department, there will be some change in attitude to this? It is a bad situation that various agencies and departments seek immunity instead of facing up to their responsibilities.
A farmer can be fined for polluting a river but the Department can pollute it. In Coalisland, there was a case in which the Water Service polluted a local river. The river had just been completely restocked and reinstated by Government grants, and then the Department was responsible for polluting it. There needs to be a change of attitude. Owing to immunity, the Departments and their officials who are responsible for pollution are escaping prosecution. The legislation needs to be strengthened in relation to pollution and reinstatement.
The Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure (Mr McGimpsey):
I thank the Members for their interest in the debate. Clearly, the provisions represent important and necessary changes. There is great interest in this matter, as has been demonstrated by the number of questions and points raised. I will try to deal with all of them.
This Bill came through prior to devolution, which is why it cuts across two Departments — the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. I suspect that this will not be the last time Members will see two Ministers introducing a Bill.
Mr ONeill referred to pollution, the tagging scheme, clause 7, and the provisions for reinstatement. I know he welcomed the tagging scheme. As for reinstatement, Members will be aware that under the 1966 Act, when there has been a fish kill the polluter, whoever that may be, is responsible for restocking. Under the new Bill the polluter will now be responsible for restocking the entire environment of the particular section of waterway affected with both flora and fauna. This is very important, because if you kill the ecosystem that the fish lives in, simply restocking fish is clearly not sufficient. This is an important power that the Fisheries Conservancy Board will have.
Some work is being done on retention of native fish stocks. For example, Queen’s University is undertaking genetic mapping of native trout and salmon. One area where that is active is Lough Erne. Genetically pure Lough Erne brown trout are being bred in a hatchery at Marble Arch. That is the only example that I am currently aware of, although I will look at the issue and see if there are any more. It is difficult for any of us to say what "genetically pure" means, but genetic mapping is going on at the minute. The example from Marble Arch caves is the only one I am aware of.
As regards the regulation of sea fisheries for environmental purposes, we are committed to adopting the precautionary approach to salmon management. We have introduced a salmon management plan which takes account of the scientific status of the salmon stocks. Mr Savage asked whether the authorities have the funds to enforce the regulations. The Fisheries Conservancy Board — and a number of Members have mentioned this — does not have the funds to manage its current activities. These regulations will result in extra activities. I have bid for extra funding in the 2000 spending round. It is not a huge amount of money. This is a Department where small amounts of money can produce big outputs. This is no exception. Currently the Fisheries Conservancy Board does not have the funds. We are taking on the powers for the board to enforce this, but there will be a revenue consequence.
The Bill does not in any way interfere with the public right to shellfish extraction that Mr Shannon referred to — the private, traditional right that has been exercised in Strangford Lough, for example, where people will go down with a bucket and spade and extract some cockles. We are looking to deal with mechanical extraction. As my Colleague said, we estimate that in 1998 about 4 tonnes of material per day was being extracted from Strangford Lough over a four-week period. That is a very substantial amount. That is the only occurrence that we are aware of at the moment, but we must regulate this because it has a knock-on effect. It knocks out the balance of the ecosystem. It is important that that is maintained and regulated. That is what this measure is designed to do.
In terms of enforcement, the Department of Agriculture is content that it has adequate resources to enforce the regulations in relation to the foreshore. The foreshore is the area between high tide and low tide marks. The Department of Agriculture is responsible for that. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure is responsible for fresh water. The Fisheries Conservancy Board has inadequate resources, but the Department of Agriculture is content that it has adequate resources.
Mr Shannon also asked whether there would be an opportunity to consider amendments later. Of course that will happen. Only the general principles of the Bill are under discussion here. The Member will have an opportunity to see further details in due course.
Mr Ford asked about the responsibilities of the two Departments and how the Agriculture Committee relates to the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee. The Agriculture Committee will deal with agricultural responsibilities under the Bill. Committees may invite members of other Committees or have a joint meeting of Committees if necessary. That is an example of us learning to do what we have all talked about for many years. We are learning that this is a process of joined-up government.
Mr Ford also asked about the Fisheries Conservancy Board, restocking and reinstatement. I have already dealt with that.
Regarding steps being taken to introduce alien species, the Department is not doing that. A licence is required. For example, Members may note that the Department has allowed the introduction of carp to a lake outside Banbridge. That requires specific approval because carp is not a native fish. Alien fish do from time to time get in, but it is not something that the Department would be looking to take forward officially.
Mr Jim Wilson asked whether the regulations would apply to the Drainage Division of the Department of Agriculture. As a Government agency it has Crown exemption, but we would expect it to observe the spirit of these proposals. I am waiting for a response from Drainage Division. There are two competing requirements here. One is to maintain the environment of the rivers, and the other is to ensure adequate drainage. Some rivers are designated as drainage rivers, and if Drainage Division does not carry out its work then areas of the countryside will be liable to flooding. Drainage Division has been responsible for seriously altering the natural state of the rivers. This has also seriously altered the ecology of the rivers and upset the environmental balance of the riverbanks and riverbeds.
Mr Wilson also referred to salmon tagging and whether the Fisheries Conservancy Board has sufficient resources. I have already referred to the Fisheries Conservancy Board. It does not have sufficient resources for salmon tagging, any more than it has sufficient resources for enforcing the pollution measures. I am aware of that. I am bidding for more resources. Currently we are empowering the Fisheries Conservancy Board. The revenue consequences will be dealt with, and that will allow these measures to be taken forward.
I think I have covered most of the points that have been raised. Members will forgive me if I have missed some of them. Mr McHugh and Mr Molloy made points about pollution. I am well aware of that problem. Agencies and Departments do pollute on occasion. The Water Service has a case to answer there in terms of the occasional ineffectiveness of the sewerage and drainage systems. However, it appears that at least 50% of pollution incidents have an agricultural source. For example, officials have told me that last year they took 91 dead sheep out of the river at the Bushmills fish station. Farmers had been throwing dead sheep into the water. That is an example of pollution that we are aware of. It is often difficult to discover who the polluters are. It can also be difficult to discover areas of pollution because one of the means of detection is dead fish floating on the surface of the river, and if the river is badly polluted it will not support fish. If pollution occurs, there are no fish to die and come to the surface to give the evidence.
I conclude by thanking Members for their contributions to the debate, and support the motion moved by the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Second Stage of the Fisheries (Amendment) Bill (NIA 9/99) be agreed.
That Mr Conor Murphy shall replace Mr Mitchel McLaughlin on the Committee of the Centre. - [Mr Maskey]
That Mr Pat McNamee shall replace Mr Conor Murphy on the Committee for Regional Development. - [Mr Maskey]
That Mr Nigel Dodds be appointed to the Business Committee. - [Mr Gibson]
That Mr Jim Wells be appointed to the Assembly Commission. - [Mr Dodds]
Relating to the questioning on the Minister's statement on the North/South Ministerial Council this morning, Mr Speaker, at an earlier sitting you ruled that it was not in order to take points of order during the questioning on Ministers' statements. I was ruled out of order on that matter. Since the House resumed in September I have noticed some recidivism by both yourself and your Deputy. I wonder if you could clarify your ruling on this matter.
You are absolutely right on both counts - that we said we did not want to take points of order, and that we are recidivists. We will, having returned from the summer recess, return to our former good ways, as, I trust, will the rest of the Members. There are occasions when it is in the interests of the House to take points of order, because it sometimes clarifies matters in a helpful way, though points of order in this House rarely tend to do that. We will try to keep alert to those which do.