“I have decided to issue licences to those netsmen who have provided undertakings to the Department not to fish…”

Evidently all those 161 publicly funded press officers were busy elsewhere…  No press release to accompany the Northern Ireland Fisheries Minster Sinn Féin’s Carál Ní Chuilín’s statement to the NI Assembly yesterday.  It was an update on departmental salmon conservation measures and, in particular, the Minister’s latest position on the issuing of commercial licences to net salmon

Here’s what the Minister told the NI Assembly

In conjunction with the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), conservation limits have been established for a suite of rivers, which represent an index of the river types in the DCAL jurisdiction. These monitored rivers have failed to achieve the conservation limit in most years since 2002. North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization (NASCO) guidelines state that fishing on stocks that are below the conservation limits should not be permitted. That applies equally to commercial netting and recreational angling. AFBI has also determined that licensed drift nets and bag nets that fish for salmon off the County Antrim coast are intercepting mixed stocks of salmon from rivers monitored by DCAL as well as salmon from the Foyle catchment area.

Members will be aware that my Department wrote to the six commercial salmon netsmen holding DCAL licences in 2011 asking them not to apply for 2012 licences. However, all six netsmen had applied for the 2012 licences, requiring me to decide on their issue. My officials met with the salmon netsmen at the end of February to advise them of the Department’s position and to hear their views on voluntary salmon conservation measures for the 2012 season. After the meeting and subsequent communications, a number of the netsmen have provided my Department with clear undertakings that they will not fish for salmon in 2012 if they are issued with licences.

After careful consideration of all the facts, I have decided to issue licences to those netsmen who have provided undertakings to the Department not to fish. Given that we have assurances that the netsmen will not fish in 2012, the Department considers that action to be consistent with its obligations under the EC habitats directive and with NASCO guidelines. Most importantly, it means that those nets will not be exploiting wild Atlantic salmon in 2012, which is a first step in our efforts to conserve this iconic species.

In an attempt to reach a mutually acceptable resolution to the matter at this time, my officials are continuing to liaise with those netsmen who have not yet provided a suitable undertaking and who will not, therefore, be issued with a licence. I also recently called on anglers to adopt the practice of catch and release when angling for salmon during the 2012 season. Current legislation does not readily enable the introduction of further restrictions on the taking of salmon in time for the opening of the fishing season, and, consequently, voluntary measures are the best option available to minimise the killing of salmon by anglers in 2012. This is an interim step to allow the Department to consult on how to contribute to the long-term sustainability of wild Atlantic salmon stocks. [added emphasis throughout]

The first question the Minister faced was from the Chairperson of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure

What assurances has the Minister received that the actions that she and her Department have taken will meet the obligations of the EC directive and will result in financial penalties being avoided?

 Her response…

I am pleased that the approach that my Department and I have taken has been acknowledged. I have received assurances that our actions are complaint with the EU directives, NASCO guidelines and, indeed, the salmon management plan.

[But “assurances” from whom? – Ed]  Good question.

Ms Ní Chuilín: As was outlined in the debate on 21 February, non-compliance with the EU habitats directive or the water framework directive could result in proceedings against us. There has been mention that we could incur significant fines of £350,000 daily. Given the assurances that we have received, I am happy that we are complying with those directives and that we are meeting our responsibilities in respect of salmon conservation. I just want to repeat this point: there will be no fishing for salmon during 2012. As a result, I think that we will meet our obligations to Europe. [added emphasis]

Hmm….  There’s been no response so far from the Atlantic Salmon Trust, nor from the Ulster Angling Federation who had raised the issue of the continued netting of salmon with the European Union Environment Directorate in Brussels…

There was one other exchange in the Assembly worth noting following the Minister’s statement

Mr Allister: Given that the Minister told me on 30 January that I was wrong to suggest that she had any powers to withhold net licences, I welcome the journey that she has made. Will she give us an assurance that she will be resolute in refusing to issue licences to the two outstanding netsmen who have not agreed, if they continue to take that position, and that she will not back down?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The two netsmen who have not been issued with licences will not get their licences unless the assurances that they provide are as robust as the assurances that the other four netsmen provided. If those assurances are not strong, they will not get a licence. That is very clear.

And here is the exchange on the 30 January that Jim Allister referred to

Mr Allister: If the Minister is interested in seeing a restoration of salmon stocks to our rivers, the best and most effective contribution she could make would be to decline to issue licences for nets off the Antrim coast, which her Department recognises are interrupting the return of salmon to rivers to such a grave degree. She has that discretion; why is she not exercising it?

Ms Ní Chuilín: The Member is wrong: I do not have that discretion. If I had that discretion, I would not be seeking counsel on the issue. The Member knows well what the position is. I ask that commercial fishermen in particular do not apply for the licence. If they refuse to do anything, I will seek legal advice on my position. The Member knows that I do not have the legislation that would allow me to remove the nets. Given the interest that he has in that area, I am surprised that he is not particularly well informed.

[Wasn’t that misleading then? – Ed]  You might very well think that…

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  • sherdy

    Maybe the fisheries minister was only codding!

  • The yokel

    The BBC have announced that Sinn Féin’s Carál Ní Chuilín’s special advisor is to be replaced. This may result in an improvement in the minister’s performance but, I for one, am not holding my breath.

  • babyface finlayson

    Pardon my ignorance, but I’m trying to understand why those netsmen who have undertaken not to fish needed to apply for a licence to fish. Having trawled (sorry) your links the way I understand it is that they could lose the option on future years if they have not applied for 3 consecutive years. Is that the reasoning?
    Even then they could safely forego applying for 1 year could they not?
    Also, how would this undertaking not to fish be policed?

  • don.keyoatey

    maybe they will only be allowed to Catch 22 as in the legendary novel by Joseph Heller
    you could only get permission to see Major major when he wasn’t in his office. priceless!!

  • cynic2

    “I have decided to issue licences to those netsmen who have provided undertakings to the Department not to fish”

    Only in La La Land
    Perhaps if they are in opposition soon the UUP can ask how much it cost to issue fishing licences to people so they cannot fish> At the moment everyone else at Stormont appears unable to ask impertinent questions like that

  • changeisneeded

    Babyface.. if u just have the license it is worth lots of dough.
    I wonder are the remaining “fishermen” Seymour Sweeney and Ian og paisely as they hold 1 of the last 2 licenses on the north coast.
    Corruption guaranteed!!

  • “Corruption guaranteed!!”

    changeisneeded, can you provide evidence that either of the two gentlemen have been found guilty of corruption? I’ve seen a drift net licence containing Sweeney’s name but not Paisley’s.

  • changeisneeded

    Put it this way Nevin. Have you ever seen Sweeny hauling a net?

  • babyface finlayson

    In your blog in 2008 you said the licences had been reduced to 2.
    How did it get back to 6?

  • changeisneeded, I haven’t; I haven’t seen him manhandling lobster pots either.

  • babyface, the 2 in NALIL blog refers to drift net licences – Portballintrae and Ballycastle; there are two bag nets round by Torr/Cushendun; perhaps the other two are draft nets. There were 2 Drift Nets, 1 Draft Net, 2 Bag Nets in 2007. All salmon have to be tagged and the details entered in a logbook. Unused tags and the logbook presumably have to be returned to DCAL by a certain date. These tags should indicate when, where and by whom the salmon were caught. A north Antrim tag turning up in Billingsgate via, say, Greencastle in Donegal would naturally arouse suspicion, especially if the boat used wasn’t named on the licence.

  • babyface finlayson

    Thanks for that.
    In trying to understand this, I was reading a report to the Committee for Culture Arts and Leisure which stated the entire worth of the industry was about £25,000 .
    Hardly seems to justify the corruption that changeisneeded hints at.

  • Coll Ciotach

    Has anyone given the actual statistics regarding the impact these nets have on the local salmon population? Is this a distraction? What studies have been done on the Salmon in Ireland, can rivers be improved? Is the decline part of a natural cycle?

    I have not seen anything, which does not mean it does not exist, so I make the huge leap and say that I bet others have not either. Without the background of proper research how do we make a judgement on this?

  • babyface finlayson

    Coll Ciotach
    The report I mentioned is on Hansard from 16/2/2012. It is quite informative for someone who knows nothing about this, like me.
    Seems like the netsmen try to deflect the blame towards anglers and other factors. But there is no denying the scale (sorry) of the problem.

  • changeisneeded

    Report based on declared landings babyface.
    The value of the license to catch what’s left of the north coast salmon is worth far more than that and it price will continue to go up the longer Sweeny holds on to it.

  • “price will continue to go up the longer Sweeny holds on to it”

    Presumably the level of compensation depends on the length of time an operator has held a drift, draft or bag net. Sweeney’s tenure is very short so compensation would be relatively small. Why FCB issued a licence in the first place is the key question when it had an opportunity to terminate that particular licence.

    Here are the details of salmon catches given to Jim Allister; tabled on 16 November 2011:

    The catch returns for the 2011 season for each boat licensed by DCAL to operate drift nets off the north coasts are as follows:
    Boat 1 – 192 salmon
    Boat 2 – 35 salmon

    The catch returns for the 2011 season for each bag net licensed by DCAL and operating off the north cast are as follows:
    Ballyteerim – 345 salmon
    Torr Head – 494 salmon, 1 sea trout

    It seems most curious that the bag net locations are identified but the drift nets are not. The drift nets operate out of Portballintrae (Sweeney) and Ballycastle (Morton). I wonder which took the greater catch.

  • changeisneeded

    Morton, he leased his to a boy from Donegal…
    Sweeny boys arnt fit.

  • Interesting, changeisneeded. AFAIK the licence goes with boat and crew who are named on the certificate. Perhaps the person you refer to is a crew member who is currently based in Donegal.

  • Pete Baker

    It’s not interesting, Nevin, it’s just another tree…

    The ‘wood’ of the original post has remained unenlightened by most of the comments here.

  • It’s all part of the same story, Pete, the same conservation.

  • Pete Baker

    No, it’s not.

  • changeisneeded

    And black crows are white Pete.

  • changeisneeded

    Nevin any license for fishing can be leased.

  • “If those assurances are not strong, they will not get a licence. That is very clear.”

    Would the Minister’s position withstand a legal challenge? Would the position even be defended if a challenge was thrown down?

    Here’s some useful background:

    The issue of draft and drift net licences to commercial operators is specified in Part 2 of the byelaws. Byelaw 14 states that ‘the Board shall issue a drift net licence to any person who has held a drift net licence in any one of the 3 calendar years immediately preceding his application for such a licence’. There are a set number of licences in each case, so that when a licence holder dies or retires, a licence shall then be issued to the longest serving crew member of the same boat. Licences are no longer issued for anyone who has been (a) paid compensation by the Department, (b) fails to use it for three years or does not notify the Department that it will not be used in any given calendar year, or (c) commits an offence under the Fisheries Act

    The Department ‘may make byelaws prohibiting, restricting or otherwise controlling’ salmon fishing at sea but it’s claimed that there are no ‘details stated of the grounds on which a licence may either be refused or successfully appealed’. It would appear that a raft of Ministers have been far too slow to ‘introduce a range of salmon conservation measures, which will include consideration of provisions relating to bag nets and drift net licences’.

    changeisneeded, can you demonstrate that these licences can be legally leased/sub-let? Would salmon caught off the north and east coasts by Donegal-based fishermen and landed in Donegal be included in the NI statistics? If such leasing is an option then there may be a loop-hole in the assurances given to the Minister.

    The main political pressure is coming from the UUP and TUV but as SF and DUP politicians have lobbied on behalf of the current license-holders they may not make much headway. Much will depend on the inter-action between DEFRA and the EU Commission.

  • babyface finlayson

    What use would assurances not to fish be, if the license holder can simply lease it to someone else?
    Surely the Minister would be aware of such an obvious loophole?
    Apologies, by the way, for calling you Nalil in my earlier post here.