Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
3. Mr E McCann asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, given that the Lough Neagh Fishermen's Co-operative Society receives public funding, to outline the steps she will take to ensure that the society issues fishing licences democratically and accountably to shareholders and members of the co-operative. (AQO 542/16-21)
My Department is responsible for the conservation and protection of salmon and inland fish stocks on Lough Neagh and for the issuing of licences for commercial fishing of eels and scale fish. It also provides financial assistance to the Lough Neagh Fishermen's Co-operative Society towards the eel restocking programme, which is a conservation measure outlined in the EU eel regulations. The Department is satisfied that the cooperative is complying with the conditions of funding contained in the letter of offer. That funding is not related to the issue of commercial permits.
The fishing rights for Lough Neagh are owned by the cooperative, and it is a matter for that organisation to manage its own interests, including the issuing of permits to allow fishermen to fish for eels and scale fish. The Department has no role to play in that process. The rules regarding the issuing of permits to fishermen are agreed by the cooperative, and any applications for permits are considered against the criteria. Although under no obligation to do so, the cooperative has provided my officials with clarification and supporting documentation on the processes for administering applications for permits, and, indeed, it has been the subject of two judicial reviews in the past.
The lough's fish stocks are a finite resource, and the cooperative must control fishing intensity to ensure the long-term sustainability of the fishery. The serious decline of eel stocks across Europe has intensified the need to manage stocks effectively.
DAERA inland fisheries officials are currently finalising a fishery management plan for Lough Neagh, which aims to ensure the sustainable management of fish stocks on the lough and to maximise the socio-economic benefit of the fishery for communities around the lough shore, the local economy and the ecology of the lough. One of the recommendations in the draft plan, which was agreed by stakeholders, was the introduction of a scale fish permit system, and this has now been achieved.
I thank the Minister for that. I know that the Minister is aware of the very strong feelings that exist among some fishermen around Lough Neagh, particularly on the part of those fishermen who, although they are members of the Lough Neagh Fishermen's Co-operative Society, find that they have not been able to and cannot get from the cooperative —
Given that background and given that the Department has, at the very least, because of the public money involved, an overall supervisory role, will she agree to meet a number of the fishermen who are aggrieved and discuss the matter with them further?
I thank the Member for his question. He may be aware that, in the last mandate, I chaired the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure for a number of years, and, during that time, I met the fishermen on a number of occasions and went to Toome to meet the cooperative as well. I am more than happy to meet the fishermen to discuss their issue. Although I have met with them, I am happy to do that again with this particular hat on.
The Minister is well aware of this issue. Minister, can you give us an update on what actions are being taken to tackle salmon poaching and illegal fishing on Lough Neagh and illegal fishing in full? I am also aware that her predecessor promised a full audit of all of the fish stock in Lough Neagh. Has that been completed yet?
I thank the Member for his question. I am happy to have those conversations in relation to the audit. I was not aware whether it had been completed or not. I do not have that information, but I am happy to provide it.
The Minister indicated that officials had discussed the allocation of licences with representatives of the cooperative. Can we take it, therefore, that she has not yet had discussions with the members of the cooperative who are currently not allocated licences and are currently in dispute with the cooperative?
I thank the Member for his question. The conversations that I had in the past were when I was wearing a different hat. My officials speak regularly with the cooperative, and, over the last number of years, they have spoken regularly with members of the cooperative who do not have permits. I was in attendance at those meetings as the Chair of the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee. I have not met them in my current role, but I am happy to do so. My officials will accompany me at the meetings.
I thank the Member for his question. In December 2008, the UK submitted 15 eel management plans, including the trans-boundary plan for the Erne system, for individual assessment to the European Commission, covering the river basin districts as defined under the water framework directive in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. These plans were approved by the Commission and the management committee for fisheries on 4 March 2010 and are being implemented in accordance with the regulation.
As the Member will know, the eel fishery was closed in 2010 as a condition of the EU approval of the north-west eel management plan, and some 17 Lough Erne fishermen who applied each year for licences and permits issued by the former DCAL to fish for brown eels could no longer do so. Following the closure, local eel fishermen were entitled to tender for participation in the trap-and-truck conservation fishery, which catches silver eels and moves them downstream off the two dams. This provided potential to an alternative source of income for the fishermen after the closure of the commercial eel fishery. A range of conditions and actions in the eel management plan are being kept under regular review, and progress on these is reported to the EU. To date, there has not been any variation or amendment to the conditions applied to the eel management plan.