In compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make a statement regarding the thirteenth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in the aquaculture and marine sector. This was held on Wednesday 21 October. Due to the current COVID restrictions, the meeting was conducted via videoconference. The Executive were represented by Minister Nichola Mallon, as accompanying Minister, and me. The Irish Government were represented by Mr Eamon Ryan TD, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, who chaired the meeting. The statement has been agree with Minister Mallon, and I make it on behalf of us both.
Ministers welcomed the report on the activities of the Loughs Agency, including the ongoing conservation and protection efforts, and noted in particular the Loughs Agency's response to COVID-19; the Loughs Agency's strategic direction for a new decade 2020-2030; the collaborative work and delivery of a number of conversation, angling and marine tourism projects; and the success of the Foyle and Carlingford ambassador programme. The Council also welcomed the Loughs Agency's continued investment in a scientific fisheries monitoring programme.
The Council agreed that the Loughs Agency, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications will continue to work together to consider the impact of the UK's withdrawal from the EU. Ministers agreed that the matter will be kept under review at future NSMC meetings in the sector.
The Council approved the Loughs Agency's business plans and budget grants for 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2020 and the Loughs Agency's corporate plans for 2017-19 and 2020-22, which have been completed in accordance with the agreed guidance issued by the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and agreed by sponsor Departments and Finance Ministers. The plans could not be formally improved in the previous absence of the NSMC.
The Council noted the Loughs Agency's annual reports and accounts for 2016, 2017 and 2018, which have been laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly and both Houses of the Oireachtas. The Council approved the continuation for a period of one year with effect from 21 October 2020 of the framework designed to support the Loughs Agency in dealing with emergencies, such as a serious pollution incident. Ministers agreed to review the operation of the procedure, including its possible renewal based on a report from the Loughs Agency and the sponsor Departments before 20 October 2021.
The Council noted that the Loughs Agency, with the support of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, is undertaking a competitive recruitment process for the post of the chief executive of the agency. In that regard, the Council noted that the sponsor Departments are shortly to seek approval from their finance Departments for the recruitment process and the terms and conditions of the post. The Council also noted that the recruitment process will be managed by the South's Public Appointments Service, as agreed with the sponsor Departments. Finally, the Council agreed to hold its next aquaculture and marine meeting in 2021.
I thank the Minister for his statement. In his statement, the Minister referred to Lough Foyle and made references to the Loughs Agency. The Minister will be aware that the ongoing dispute over the ownership of Lough Foyle is impeding the full remit of the Loughs Agency's work. Does he have any update on how best to deal with that dispute?
Issues arise about Lough Foyle that cause us problems. The long-running jurisdictional issue about Lough Foyle is a reserved matter and is not within the competence of my Department or the Assembly and can be resolved only through the agreement of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in London and the Department of Foreign Affairs in the Republic of Ireland. The lack of resolution of the jurisdictional issue has, however, created practical difficulties, as the Member indicated, in creating a system for the licensing of aquaculture in Lough Foyle, and, consequently, there is significant unregulated aquaculture activity. Currently, the Loughs Agency has no authority to intervene in its expansion.
I have raised my concerns about the unregulated activity with the Northern Ireland Secretary of State and asked for an update on progress made by both Governments to resolve the current difficulties. The Minister of State for Northern Ireland has advised me that the UK Government recognise the need to take action to address the illegal activity and that they remain committed to working closely with the Irish Government on improvements to the management of the loughs. The UK Government are optimistic that progress can be made by both Governments on a management agreement for Lough Foyle, which would enable authorities to exercise criminal and regulatory jurisdiction of the bed of the lough. I very much support the efforts of both Governments to progress an agreement that will enable a licensing regime for Lough Foyle until such time as the jurisdictional issue is resolved.
The Loughs Agency estimates that there are 70,000 oyster trestles, which are particularly on the Donegal side of the lough. That unregulated oyster farming is inextricably linked to the jurisdictional issue that I have just dealt with and which is a reserved matter that is not within our competence. The unregulated activity, however, creates hazards and risks, including the potential threat of the introduction of non-native species and a threat to the environment generally. Currently, the Loughs Agency does not have the authority to intervene.
In our jurisdiction, a lot of the trestles had been set up on land owned by the Crown Estate, and we were able to have a large proportion of those trestles removed. Unfortunately, individuals have moved to the Donegal side and set up trestles, and there is a considerable issue at that side of the lough. There is a clear understanding that, in the area within Northern Ireland in which we have been able to take some degree of enforcement action, the robust approach prevented the spread of illegal aquaculture development on the Northern Ireland side. We encourage it very strongly that the authorities in the Republic of Ireland find a means of taking action against the individuals who are setting up the illegal trestles.
I thank the Minister for his statement. It is very welcome. In towns such as Dundrum in South Down, we see native crayfish stocks that are among the finest in Ireland, but now they are becoming depleted. How does the North/South council intend to re-establish a cross-border technical aquaculture advisory service for the whole of the North and not just the cross-border loughs?
The issue that the Member raises is one that is directly for us in the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), and, therefore, we will be happy to deal with it. If the Member wants to write to me, we will certainly correspond with him on how best we can conserve the various species that are in Dundrum Bay, which is a very important and sensitive environmental area indeed.
Salmon poaching is one of the big issues. Illegal fishing activity and water pollution remain a concern. The Loughs Agency has seized a significant quantity of illegal fishing material. Seizures by Loughs Agency staff have fallen, when compared with the 2019 figures. In 2019, there were 303 seizures of items such as boats, nets, rods and fish, compared with 165 seizures to date in 2020. The breakdown is as follows: two seizures of boats and cars in 2019 and seven in 2020; 31 seizures of nets in 2019 and 30 in 2020; eight seizures of other items in 2019 and four in 2020; 47 seizures of rods in 2019 and 54 in 2020; and 215 seizures of fish in 2019 and 70 in 2020. That gives a total of 303 seizures in 2019 and 165 up to 16 October 2020.
The agency has instigated a significant number of prosecution cases stemming from those enforcement actions. The agency has also collaborated with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, an Garda Síochána and other enforcement agencies to secure convictions.
I thank the Minister for his statement. We are, more than ever, in a time when we need workable solutions to complex jurisdictional issues. I note that there are frameworks in place to deal with emergencies, and we have been reminded in recent days of the importance of that.
On a different theme, has there been a refreshed or renewed effort to promote the tourism product on this island by, for example, examining interchangeable or transferable angling licences to assist in the post-COVID recovery?
We all recognise that angling has traditionally been a huge tourist draw to this jurisdiction, and we warmly welcome that. We will continue to cooperate with tourism authorities to promote that. We are also happy to cooperate with others on licensing to ensure that visitors who come to Ireland, North or South, have as good an opportunity as possible to enjoy the angling that is available and that there is as little bureaucracy — let us put it that way — as possible for the individuals who are doing it. That just makes sense.
The Minister stated:
"The Council agreed that the Loughs Agency, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications will continue to work together to consider the impact of the UK's withdrawal from the EU."
Does the aquaculture and marine sector have any particular concerns about leaving the EU?
The aquaculture sector is less concerned than perhaps the sea fishing sector. Most of its material will not have issues around the import of goods from GB, and, consequently, it will, whatever opportunities there are to sell its product, be able to sell that in both GB and, indeed, the single market. The issues, therefore, are of less concern to the aquaculture sector than, for example, the deep-sea fishing sector, for which there are still issues outstanding, because fish caught in UK waters outside the Northern Ireland zone would be regarded as imports to the European Union single market and would, consequently, have to go through a series of hoops. Those issues are still to be resolved in the negotiations, and one hopes that they are resolved to everyone's satisfaction.
I am not sure how it relates to the topic, but temporary facilities will be available from 15 December and will be in place. That is the action that has been taken. Permanent facilities will not be available until, probably, the middle of next year, but the procurement procedures have started, the companies have been awarded the contracts and certificates of lawful use or development (CLUDs) are now available for three of the four sites. Work will probably commence on those in the not-too-distant future, but temporary measures will be put in place to ensure that food enters Northern Ireland irrespective of the protocol.
Loughs Agency will continue to apply for funding from whatever sources, the key ones being us and the Irish Government. There will be opportunities to apply for EU funding for particular projects, and it is likely that we will continue to draw down that funding.
Loughs Agency has been involved in a series of projects. For example, under INTERREG Va, there was a sea monitor project that delivered €4·6 million. It is a unique marine research project, studying the seas around the island of Ireland and western Scotland, using innovative tracking technology to better understand and protect vulnerable marine life. The agency is also a project partner in other EU projects: the shared waters enhancement and loughs legacy (SWELL) project, which is a €35 million project, and Catchment Care, which is a €13·7 million project.
The agency is projected to bring in around £700,000 in INTERREG funding in 2020 out of its total budget of £5·475 million. We have been reassured by the assurances from the two Governments and the European Union of continued funding of INTERREG Va, allowing those projects to reach their conclusion in 2023, and the development of a new PEACE PLUS programme from 2021-27. They will focus on a range of nature-based solutions and other initiatives to support environmental protection, sustainable economic activity and climate action.
I am not sure; there may well have been. There should not be an impact because the goods that are being brought in are the goods that have been brought in for many years. The impact will be on the end-user, the consumer, with potential additional cost. That is something that we need to remove and something that the European Union needs to take account of, for example, when insisting on export health certificates for food that will end up on shelves in shops in Northern Ireland. Those goods will do no violence whatever to the single market, so why does the European Union want to produce additional costs, additional bureaucracy and an onerous burden on businesses that will inevitably be passed to consumers in Northern Ireland — some of the consumers with the lowest disposable income in the UK — as a consequence? It is important that we all continue to drive home the message to the European Union that, in the negotiations, it needs not to introduce things that will create additional burdens for businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland, particularly things that will have zero impact on the credibility of the single market.
I thank the Member for the question. Rather than say that it is not fit for purpose, we always need to review how we engage, and, where we can improve on the good practice that exists, we should carry out such improvements. The agency has responded quickly to, for example, the major pollution incident around Mourne Beg, which is critical. We need to get as good an outcome as possible to that, and the agency appears, thus far, to have responded well.
In all these things, it is always good to review what you have been doing and the practice, and, if you can improve, we always need to look at how we can do that.
I thank the Minister for his statement. Has there been a Loughs Agency response to salmon farming? Have discussions taken place to investigate possible pollution and disease through that activity and the impact that it may have on wild salmon during their migration to Northern Ireland rivers?
Salmon farming is a concern for many jurisdictions. It is not as significant an activity here as in some other jurisdictions. Consequently, those concerns would not have come to the fore to the same extent.
Wild salmon is a wonderful resource that has been diminishing in Northern Ireland. We have never quite got to the bottom of the reason for that, so some of our high-quality salmon rivers do not have as many salmon as they once had. Therefore, it is important that we continue to identity how best we can ensure that that salmon stock is maintained and, ultimately, that we turn the tide and it increases.
Salmon draw tourists from far and wide. We have quality salmon fishing, so our focus needs to be on that source as opposed to salmon farms, which have a much more limited financial return and, environmentally, are much more challenging for us.
Clearly, fishing rights and licensing are matters for both jurisdictions. Currently, licences are cheap in Northern Ireland, at around £20, so people who want to engage in the sport of fishing can do so for a relatively modest cost. We want to encourage people to get out into the countryside. Most fish are returned to the water by most anglers. They fish for the enjoyment of getting out to a river and into the open air and engaging in the activity that they enjoy.
The agency is engaged in ongoing efforts, particularly to provide a safe environment for its employees and for stakeholders and members of the public, while continuing to deliver a valuable public service in difficult times. Fishery protection staff, who play an important role in protecting our shared natural resources, have returned to full operational duties since 18 May, and a full range of statutory scientific surveys have recommenced. The Loughs Agency's goal is to offer a hybrid model of working that facilitates a blend of home and office working, with ongoing monitoring and adherence to public health guidance. The Riverwatch visitor centre remains closed. The delivery of capital projects has recommenced where possible, with all projects being kept under constant review.
Has the Loughs Agency had an increase in funding to deal with the consequences of Brexit? If so, will the Minister give us the quantum? Were there conversations about the fate of our eel fisheries, particularly in Lough Neagh, whose main market would be decimated if there were not a comprehensive deal with the EU? What are the latest conversations that he has had with that sector?
The Lough Neagh eel fishery was not mentioned in this context because they are not part of the agency's remit. It lies solely within this jurisdiction. That sits with all the arguments that I have made to the European Union and the UK Government negotiators about the well-being of our people who sell product to GB and the European Union. I do not believe that additional funding has been awarded to the Loughs Agency for Brexit issues.
I want to focus on issues of transboundary breaches of existing environmental laws, specifically with regard to aquaculture and marine breaches. In the statistics for Northern Ireland, 78% of our shellfish water bodies now fail water quality standards for E. coli. There has also been a decline —
I thank the Member for her question. At the meeting, the agency reported on the number of pollution incidents over the past five years. A total of 210 incidents have been dealt with in 2020 to date, compared with a total of 252 in 2019. That should give the Member a feel for the number of incidents. I am concerned about the number of serious pollution incidents in our rivers. I believe that the Loughs Agency has a responsibility to work closely with the local community here and in the Republic of Ireland to reduce pollution and the inevitable fish kills in the Foyle and Carlingford catchment areas.
Minister, correct if I am wrong, but is it the case that the Loughs Agency has been without a chair for over two and a half years and without a chief executive for over three and a half years? I see no reference to any of that in the statement. More than that, is there a problem in the agency with absentee board members? I refer to the fact that the minutes of the Loughs Agency suggest that Mr Ian McCrea, formerly of this parish, who receives something like £6,000 a year to be a member of the Loughs Agency board, has not bothered to attend a board meeting since October 2018. What action is being taken to deal with absentee board members?
I thank the Member for his question. Maybe he was not listening when I made the statement, which is not like him:
There is a recruitment process for a chief executive. Clearly, there have been issues with there being no NSMC cover for the appointment of either a chair or a chief executive, but that is now under way.