“However, the Minister told us that she was too busy to see us.”

With potential European Commission fines still pending for the Northern Ireland Executive’s failure to protect a special habitat in Strangford Lough, another area of contention, environmentally, has opened up – with further potential EC fines.  This time, it’s commercial salmon fishing.  And the Department responsible for licensing the nets used is the NI Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL).

On the 12 January the NI DCAL minister, Sinn Féin’s Carál Ní Chuilín, publicly called for a voluntary moratorium on the taking of salmon.  From the minister’s 12 January press release

The Department monitors the status of Atlantic salmon populations in the DCAL jurisdiction. Conservation targets have been established for a number of rivers that represent the range of river types in the DCAL jurisdiction. These monitored rivers have failed to achieve Conservation Limits in most years since 2002.

Long term monitoring of the survival of salmon during the marine phase of their lifecycle at Bushmills Salmon Station shows a decline from around 30% prior to 1997 to less than 5% today.

A series of proposals have been presented to the Salmon and Inland Fisheries Forum – an advisory body set up by the Department to reflect the views of all stakeholders including the commercial salmon fishermen and recreational anglers.

The Department is asking operators of coastal fishing engines not to apply for 2012 licences. It is writing to the Lough Neagh draft net licence holders asking them to not take salmon in 2012. It is also asking anglers to practice catch and release when fishing for salmon rather than killing them. [added emphasis]

On 17 January, as the BBC’s Mike McKimm reported, the minister told the NI Assembly in a written statement

After careful consideration of all the available scientific research and data I have concluded that the continued commercial exploitation of wild Atlantic salmon and killing of salmon caught by rod and line in the DCAL jurisdiction is currently untenable. Authorising such exploitation would be inconsistent with the Departments obligations under the EC Habitats Directive and with NASCO guidelines. This could lead to significant infraction fines being imposed by the EC. [added emphasis]

However, on the 17 February the minister issued another statement which appears to leave open the option of “authorising such exploitation” after all.  From the DCAL minister’s 17 February press release

“In January, the Department called on anglers to release any salmon they catch, and for netsmen not to apply for licenses. These voluntary measures are an interim step intended to allow time to conserve the species, and give the opportunity to consult further on longer term measures to be taken.

However, the fact netsmen have applied for licenses means the Department must decide, in light of scientific and legal advice, whether or not to issue.

“That decision is under serious consideration and has, ultimately, yet to be taken. But there is overwhelming evidence pointing to the fact that to issue these licences will contravene European law. This decision will be informed by scientific and legal advice, and also the views of the Assembly and the Salmon and Inland Fisheries Forum, which meets at the end of February. [added emphasis]

“This is a complex, emotive issue. I have heard compelling arguments from all stakeholders. In trying to save salmon from extinction we face difficult choices, the repercussions of which could have environmental, economic and legal implications. As such, these decisions will not be taken lightly.”

Interestingly, in a statement dated 16 February,  noted by the Atlantic Salmon Trust, Jim Haughey Chairman of the Ulster Angling Federation (UAF) “welcomed information today from the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure (DCAL) that they cannot legally issue licences to net salmon this year due to the perilous status of the salmon population” [added emphasis]. 

From the UAF statement [Word doc – added emphasis throughout].

The Ulster Angling Federation welcomes the information today from the Department of Culture Arts and Leisure (DCAL) that they cannot legally issue licences to net salmon this year due to the perilous status of the salmon population. This comes about as a direct result of the Ulster Angling Federation challenge to DCAL policy at the European Union Environment Directorate in Brussels. The Federation can confirm that the remaining salmon nets are in breach of the Habitats Directive as they are mixed stock fisheries, and as such are illegal due to the stock collapse on the River Finn in Donegal, a Special Area of Conservation for salmon. Sadly DCAL for some years refused to see commonsense. Following a meeting at the EU in Brussels on January 24th, DCAL have moved now in the face of threats of huge fines from Europe.

The anglers have always taken the lead in salmon conservation, and recently have exerted very considerable pressure at Stormont on this issue via the “No To Salmon Nets” group. MLAs Robin Swann and Danny Kinahan have also worked extremely hard, and have been instrumental in focusing pressure on the issue.   The Ulster Angling Federation policy on salmon has not changed since we commenced our campaigns on salmon in the late 1980s. This work intensified in the early 1990s and in 1993 we set up our sister organisation the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NI), which led directly to the buyouts of some 225 salmon nets in NI.

Despite a long series of meetings and correspondence over a number of years between The Ulster Angling Federation, the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NI), and DCAL, this Department continued to licence the remaining Mixed Stock Interceptory salmon Net Fishery which has been taking salmon destined for a large number of rivers in NI that are not meeting their Conservation Limit, and also the River Finn.

Under European law, DCAL have failed to make an appropriate assessment under article 6(3) of a plan or project likely to have a significant effect on the conservation status of a species (Salmo Salar) for which a Candidate Special area for Conservation has been identified in Ireland (the river Finn).

They have licenced and allowed the killing of an Annex II directed species without taking account of or consulting other member nations on the impact upon their SAC (the river Finn) of that licenced activity.

And it’s also worthwhile pointing out that the NI DCAL minister Sinn Féin’s Carál Ní Chuilín’s call for a voluntary moratorium on 12 January was published on the same day that the Ulster Angling Federation gave evidence to the Assembly Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure.  Here are some extracts from the minutes of that meeting. [added emphasis]

Mr Jim Haughey (Ulster Angling Federation): 

At present, there are some barriers to development that we feel need to be addressed.  In previous years, DCAL has done some excellent work in this field.  A few years ago, some expenditure was invested, through a salmonid enhancement scheme, to try to make good the damage done in rivers by some of the arterial drainage schemes of yesterday.  There was also the buyout of Fisheries Conservancy Board (FCB) nets, which was a very significant event.  That was a groundbreaker not only in Northern Ireland but in the United Kingdom and even in Europe.  At that stage, Northern Ireland was very much leading the way in that field, but, unfortunately, we have fallen behind recently.  We feel that there is a great stasis in the administration in DCAL at the minute.  It does not seem to have any plans or intentions.  There seems to be a lack of interest, and the pervading attitude seems to be, “They are only fish.”  We recently asked to meet the Minister to discuss the mixed stock netting of salmon at sea.  However, the Minister told us that she was too busy to see us. 

We have been attending the salmon and inland fisheries advisory forum, which we have sat on for two years.  The forum was supposed to advise DCAL on policy.  However, we have never been told what its policy is on anything, so it is a wee bit difficult to give it advice, and it has never asked us for any advice on any matter of import.  It has asked us for some comment on some fairly low-level matters.  It appears that the forum was brought into existence after the demise of the FCB so that the Department could hold its hands up and say, “We are consulting the stakeholders.”  In point of fact, there is not any movement there at all. 

And later on, [added emphasis again]

Mr Haughey:

The United Kingdom is a member of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO) [added link].  It was formed to protect the salmon on the high seas.  All of the countries of the north Atlantic are members of it, and Northern Ireland attends under the banner of the European Union.  That organisation has protocols to protect the salmon, one of which is that there should be no mixed stock netting, as it is called, which is where salmon from different rivers are netted as a group.  That endangers the stocks of salmon.  That has become quite an issue in recent years because stocks are continually falling and the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) has advised for a number of years that netting of mixed stock should not be happening.  NASCO has adopted that, and netting of mixed stock should not be happening at all. Unfortunately, DCAL has refused to stop the mixed stock netting.  That is in breach of the protocols of NASCO, but, more seriously, in the past three or four years, the permission by DCAL of mixed stock netting at sea for salmon is now in breach of the habitats directive.

A recent Salmon at Sea (SALSEA) programme report confirmed the advice from ICES down the years that our salmon stocks are at a low ebb and there is no immediate prospect of improvement.  As a result, the Ulster Angling Federation has submitted an objection to the European Union, asking it to commence infraction proceedings against the Government of Northern Ireland — or more likely, the United Kingdom — for breach of the habitats directive.  There are two clear precedents for such action in the South of Ireland and in the Foyle area, so we anticipate that that will go ahead.  We understand that the fines would be levied on the United Kingdom and that there would be some sort of deduction from the Northern Ireland allocation.  However, as I said, there are two clear precedents for that, so we anticipate that that will be successful.

The Chairperson of the Committee, the DUP’s Michelle McIlveen, and Mr Haughey also had the following exchange

The Chairperson:

Thank you.  Your passion and concern around these issues is not in doubt.  That was obvious from your paper and your presentation.  You have raised many issues that we will need to contact the Department about and get its response on.  For your information, we received correspondence dated 10 January from the Minister.  I have already gone through that with the Committee, but for your information, that letter acknowledged that monitored rivers had failed to achieve conservation limits; that the Loughs Agency had indicated that some of Foyle’s catchment stocks are below manageable targets; and that the survival of salmon during the marine phase of their life cycle had declined from 30% in 1997 to under 5% today.  It states that the current position is untenable and could lead to infraction fines being imposed by the EC, and the Department has asked for support for a range of voluntary conservation measures to minimise the exploitation of salmon during 2012.  The letter states that the Department plans to consult on a range of options on the future of commercial salmon fishing and recreational salmon angling.  You are obviously laughing in response to that: can I have your comment?

Mr Haughey:

The Department has been saying that for five or six years.  To tell you the truth, we have given up.  We have gone to so many meetings and written so many letters, and that is what they tell us every time.  That is just bluff and bluster.  They have been telling us that for something like five years.