“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…