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28 October 2004 Edition

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The great marine and river resources scandal

No one should doubt the immense potential of the Foyle and Carlingford Loughs. We're talking about a whole range of development potential — in shellfish, in river fishing, in coarse fishing, in fish processing, in tourism, in aquatic sports and marine land development.

All acclaim the exceptional natural beauty of these areas. The mussel beds and the oyster beds are a unique resource on these inland loughs, which straddle the border between the Six and 26 Counties of partitioned Ireland. Some of the best fishing rivers in Ireland, even in Europe, run into of these two loughs. The potential downstream development of fish processing, the potential for tourism, in coarse fishing in the lakes, from which these rivers spring, or on the Newry canal, hold huge opportunity for locally beneficial economic development.

None of this potential has been developed. You might well ask why, especially when an Implementation Body, was set up precisely for this purpose five years ago?

The functions of the Body

The remit of the Foyle and Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission (FCILC), as set up under the Good Friday Agreement 1999, and the NI (Implementation Bodies) Order 1999, were defined as "the promotion of development of Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough for commercial and recreational purpose in respect of marine, fishery and aquaculture matters; the management, conservation, protection, improvement and development of the inland fisheries of the Foyle and Carlingford areas, the development of licensing of aquaculture, and the development of marine tourism".

It is a huge remit, with provision in the legislation to expand its functions and regulatory powers. It might be envisaged that in the longer run these functions might well be extended throughout Irish coastal waters to develop cooperative fisheries, aquaculture and marine tourism, affecting the lives and economic environment of the thousands of people who live in what are widely recognised as amongst the most severely disadvantaged areas of Ireland

But this has not been the case. There has been no fundamental effect in terms of improved livelihoods as a result of the Loughs Agency's work.

Three months ago, Sinn Féin negotiators presented the British Government and Dublin Government with proposals to expand the remit of all these institutions. In the case of the FCILC, the neglect of these opportunities is utterly reprehensible.

Positive developments

There have indeed been countless reports, Business and Corporate plans, drawn up at some expense to the Agency. All the reports talk of the social economic potential of the Loughs areas. Somewhat reluctantly, the Board commissioned a survey of resources in the Carlingford area, and commendably carried out, in 2002, through the Queens University Centre for Marine Resources and Mariculture, a survey of some 140 stakeholders, consulting them on their views about present and future shell fishing and farming, and on the issue of licences.

And some quite remarkable developments have taken place, especially in relation to river fishing and the study of salmon, where the agency has instituted groundbreaking research into this extraordinary fish. These research results suggest that the fish have distinct DNA patterns or variations which correlate with particular rivers that the fish seek out as places to spawn.

And the Agency has done a lot of work surveying the river catches, the quality of the water, and monitoring and tagging the fish.

The new Interpretive Centre, Riverwatch, at the agency's headquarters at Prehen, next door to Derry, has a marvellous museum showing, explaining and instilling interest and a love of these areas. They have programmes showing the animal habitats, the behaviour of the Atlantic salmon, the sea trout, of the shellfish, the beauty of the rivers and the Loughs and the need to protect these environments and preserve their resources.

Over 10,000 visitors have come to the centre, which undoubtedly has been innovative in extending understanding and love of the country to urban based kids who are often denied this knowledge.

Shellfish concerns

But in terms of social economic development, the record of the Loughs Agency is far more limited. Firstly, the shell fishermen and women on the Loughs are most unhappy. They voice concerns at what they see as the destruction of oyster beds by mussel trawlers, or dredgers, which have seeded mussels on top of the oysters, and then dredge for them, destroying the original oyster bed resource upon which the local fishermen depend.

The areas of the lough where these beds lie cannot be claimed, or licences allocated, because of the lack of legislation empowering the Lough Agency to take control of the sea bed, which lies between the Six and 26 Counties.

But the fishermen and women also have grave worries at what they see as large, mostly Dutch, trawlers coming into the lough, taking the mussels away for sale and processing back home, and cutting out the development opportunities for small fishermen, who historically have fished the loughs for generations.

They see EU legislation and controls being introduced where crippling costs are imposed on smaller boats to install new equipment to meet these EU regulations, enforced by Dublin, which make for unsustainable costs. Far from the Dublin Government protecting this indigenous resource, the fishermen see these regulations being used to wipe out the smaller boats in favour of the large foreign trawlers. They feel that no one has regard to protecting their livelihoods or the resource that could be used to so great a benefit in the local communities.

Lack of legislation

The lack of the required legislation leaves government a free hand to allow in the Dutch ships, leaving the Agency unable to allocate ownership, title, or licence to local people to develop or even protect the oyster beds and mussel grounds. Why would the Dublin Government want to protect the larger and foreign owned boats to the detriment of local fishermen?

Fishermen say that the grants available for boat investment didn't come their way. They went to the big boat owners — some of them Irish owned. Others say that the smaller fishing boatmen were too small to meet the criteria upon which the funding was allocated. The net effect is that small fishermen went without.

Tourism development

But a similar story is told by people who would have a strong interest in developing the immense opportunities for marine tourism in the area of both of the Loughs. They complain that because no title can be allocated by the Lough Agency to the bed of the lough, they are unable to access the resources available for cross-border economic development under EU programme funding, such as Interreg III measures.

This has held back development of the areas to their full potential. The Loughs Agency Business Plan 2005-2007 talks of the scope for development of waterway walks, coastal drives, scenic boat trips, cruise ship visits, marine events and festivals, sea cliff climbing, sand yachting, marine archaeology, wildlife and bird watching, diving and sea angling, water skiing and jet skiing, power boating and yachting.

It's a long list of potential development. It appears to wait on legislation to empower the Loughs Agency to take hands on control of these resources, most especially the ownership of the lough's grounds between the two states.

All these activities proffer a tourism package, and the accompanying development of commercial onshore services, and the development of recreational activities and accommodation. Provision of all of these facilities would mean investment opportunities, and downstream, hard income and employment for people, especially in Donegal and the Inishowen peninsula, which has suffered serious job losses recently with the demise of Fruit of the Loom and the threatened closure of no less than eight social economy projects upon which local people depend.

Lack of trust

Most glaring of all the failures of the Agency to live up to its remit to exploit the resources available is in the area of river fishing, especially in Donegal, and the development of bass fishing in Carlingford, as well as popular coarse fishing in the upstream lakes within the large catchment areas of the Loughs Agency.

The management of this great tourist attraction, which offers some of the finest river salmon fishing in all Ireland, is a mess, with conflicts rife between private owners of beats on the river and local fishing peoples' interests.

For example, one of the best pools in all of Ireland, comparable to the famous Cathedral pool in Ballina, County Mayo, is crippled by a dispute between the local owner, who has clearly attempted to meet the needs of local fishermen, and Mackies of Belfast, which doesn't wish to share the ownership of the downstream beats, and has gone to court over the dispute.

The issue is confused further by local interests who claim the opponent of Mackies is a blow-in, and wrongly suggest his interests are opposed to the interests of local fishermen, which is quite apparently false, since local people are let fish this prime pool at no charge.

Old habits of thinking, of 'foreign' landlords exploiting local native resources, against the interests of the local peoples' rights, die hard. Not everyone grasps as yet the potential for such all-Ireland institutions as the Loughs Agency to progress local consultation with all the stakeholders in the community to derive solutions.

Lack of all-Ireland commitment

Far from the Loughs Agency working to draw together local interests and stakeholders to resolve such disputes for the benefit of developing this unrivaled natural resource, the Agency has simply let it run. This has led to mounting distrust amongst the fishing people, towards the Agency and its commitment to developing the resources or impartially serving the interests of local communities.

The failure of the Loughs Agency to implement its remit to develop the indigenous resources of the area has left it vulnerable to alienating the very people it was set up to serve. Local people, the fishermen and women, the shellfishing people, the tourist development people, have become alienated and mistrustful.

At the heart of these problems is the delay in drawing up the necessary legislation giving the Agency the powers it needs to be able to fulfil its wide remit, or at least to be accountable for any failure to do so. Why the delay in legislation?

Irish Lights Commission

The Implementation Body in effect has become two separated institutions, the Loughs Agency dealing with the above remit on Foyle and Carlingford, and the Irish Lights Commission, which looks after the maintenance and safety of all the lighthouses around the island of Ireland. The Irish Lights Commission is primarily funded by Lights dues from commercial shipping round Ireland, supplemented by an annual contribution from the Dublin Government.

The Commissioners who run the Irish Lights are lifelong appointees, known as 'commodores' in yachting circles. They have quite considerable responsibilities, powers and influence, especially amongst the yachting community, who do not pay dues for the use of the lighthouses that guide the yachts safely through our coastal waters and into the harbours of Ireland.

At this point, if the Agency and the Lights Commission became, as intended in the GFA, to be joined into the one Implementation Body, then the possibility emerges of the extension of the revenue base of the Lights Commission to be used to seed the capital and infrastructural develop of harbours around the coast of Ireland.

As the fishermen and tourism developers report, there is no pull-in or harbour facilities for any yacht travelling around the northern coastline. The consequence, of course, is that the yachts don't come to an area which could be very popular amongst the growing, and well-heeled, European community of yacht owners. Visiting yachts could be the basis of a major tourist facility on shore.

All this is not even an option without the Implementation Body in control of its own original remit. The Lights Commission also waits on primary legislation at Westminster and Dublin to enable the function of the Commissioners to be incorporated into the Implementation Body, and thereby to make it politically accountable, through the Implementation Body Board, with its party political representation, to those who should benefit from fulfilling its remit.

Why the delay in legislation?

It is widely understood that the hold up on the enabling legislation has been in Dublin. Excuses vary.

Mostly, it is suggested that the Department has simply not had time and resources to draft the requisite legislation. Such an account would seem most unlikely. A briefing document on the marine sector by economist Peter Bacon, leaked to the Irish Times six months ago, suggests that policy matters and departmental structures on key areas within the economy, on ports and shipping, on marine tourism, on fishing and on renewable energy, are remiss in the Dublin Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. The Department however, promising a long-term planning review, remains silent on the issues.

The stakeholders ask the same question. Why the delay in getting the necessary legislation drawn up. Could it be, similarly to the case of the Loughs Agency, that what is holding up this primary legislation is the difficulty in legislating over the vexed question of who owns the seas surrounding the island of Ireland, and a reluctance in dealing with this historic question, whose solution so clearly lies in embracing the all-Ireland Implementation body provided for under the GFA?

It has been five years now waiting for this legislation, which is still 'definitely coming', predicts the Loughs Agency. Derick Anderson, CEO of the Agency, declares his confidence in delivery of the enabling legislation before Christmas. He adds the further information that there have been special appointments made to expedite this legislation through the Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources in Dublin. The Department remains quiet.

Whatever the real causes of this delay, there is little confidence amongst the fishermen or the broader communities of stakeholders, that legislation will be forthcoming. They ask what is the Dublin Government waiting for? The answer is by no means clear.

But as one fisherman pointed out succinctly: "In a department that gave a fishing licence to McHugh's Atlantic Dawn, anything could happen." Whatever, it is unlikely that anything that 'just happens' will be to the advantage of the small fishermen or the local communities which depend on fishing, or marine development for their livelihoods.

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