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Waiting Eight Months for a Ministerial reply

There can be no doubting that the climate has changed and is continuing to change. There can be no doubt that Ireland needs new energy sources, of which wind energy is one. There can be no doubt that protection of the oceans and their resources is essential. There can be no doubt that agreement and joint action by all the stakeholders in the marine sphere is essential to ensure the best possible outcome for the future of this island nation.

So why then are the country’s fishing industry representative organisations warning that “the most chaotic form of governance will ultimately alienate fishermen, driving a wedge between them and Government.”

This is a warning that should not be ignored. It appears that communication between all stakeholders is not at the level it should be. There will, undoubtedly, be disagreements which will have to be overcome, but at the present time a cohesive approach involving all those in and committed to the maritime sector is missing. As well as the fishing industry and coastal communities, I have heard from the shipping industry, from port interests and from leisure circles, of growing concern that debate is skewed towards the demands of environmental organisations, who have active and effective publicity, public relations and lobbying operations. What will the Irish coastline look like in the future?Whatever it will be requires a recognition of the concerns and issues of all those involved.

In addition to fishing and costal communities, will there be impacts on access to the ports, to harbours? How will leisure activities be affected – sailing, boating in general, angling? What will be the impact on seafood provision, wild fish catches and aquaculture?

There are many aspects, but there does not seem to be a preparedness to create an accepted, established, recognised national, central forum to bring all interests together. This must be more than the ‘consultative processes’ announced for planning and the formulation of policy directives which, too often, are box-ticking, bureaucratic  exercises.

Consultation, the act of exchanging information and opinions on an equal basis in order to reach a better understanding in making a decision, should not become dictation under pressure by any singular organisation or opinion.

In this month’s MARINE TIMES I have revealed that the Green Party Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has not replied, since February, to an objection lodged by Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation, against his announcement of Irish Special Areas of Conservation when he attended the COP15 UN Biodiversity Conference in Montréal, Canada, last year.

Minister Malcolm Noonan made the announcement which would triple marine protected areas, saying that the Cabinet had approved legislation: “When the Green Party entered Government, the size of our marine protected areas was shamefully low at just 2.3%. We’ve already increased it almost four-fold and by the time of the next election in 2025 we’ll be well on our way to reaching 30%. This is the sort of difference that comes from having a party in government that truly cares about nature and biodiversity.”

The general scheme of the Marine Protected Areas Bill was backed by Government Ministers against the backdrop of the COP15 UN Biodiversity Conference taking place in Canada at the time. However, “the Minister made that announcement without telling anybody,” Sean O’Donoghue, Chief Executive of the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation told me. “We lodged a very scientific and technical report in relation to it in February and, even though we have written eight to ten times to him in relation to this, looking to see what is the response to our objection, the only response we have got eight months later is that it is still being looked into. This is just not good Things should not be happening without the fishing industry being at least consulted and our views taken aboard. It is just not acceptable. This attitude has to stop.”

I sought comment from the Minister through his Departmental Press Office. I was told that could take some time. As I write this I am waiting two weeks for an answer. Eight seafood and fishing industry organisations have made a joint submission to the Department of Environment about the Draft Maritime Area Plan for the South Coast, recording “deepening unease” about lack of consultation and “spatial squeeze.”  If Government targets on offshore wind are met by 2050, Ireland’s seas will have turbines stretching for at least twice the length of Ireland, their submission suggested.

“We recognise that wind energy is on the way, it is part of Government policy, but the fishing industry has to be consulted in picking locations for this development.“ John Lynch, Chief Executive of the Irish South and East Fish Producers’ Organisation told me. “Fishing must be protected. It is an essential food supplier. We recognise that wind energy is coming into the marine space, but we want to see it done in a logical way with a system where we have an agreed input into it and agreed locations for wind energy.”

The North Western Waters Advisory Council has expressed concern over plans for offshore windfarms on the South coast. A submission by the group to the Department of Environment noted that a “large number of commercially important fish species spawn there,” including  cod, whiting, haddock and herring, which would be vulnerable to impacts from surveys and construction work associated with offshore wind farms,

An EU Court of Auditors has stated that the impact of offshore installations on the marine environment has “not been adequately identified, analysed or addressed”. Its report said that sharing sea space is “encouraged. but not “common practice.”

Communication between all stakeholders does not appear to be at the level it should be for such a vitat national matter.   That needs to be changed.

Tom MacSweeney

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