Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Agriculture; Food and the Marine if he will undertake new research to determine the stock levels of sea bass in Irish waters with a view to looking at the feasibility of allowing small boats to fish for sea bass for even a defined period of the year; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Deputy Simon Coveney:This is a particulary sensitive issue. Irish vessels are currently precluded from landing sea bass under the Bass (Conservation of Stocks) Regulations 2006, S.I. No. 230 of 2006, and the Bass (Restriction on Sale) Regulations 2007, S.I. No. 367 of 2007. The complete ban for the commercial fishing of sea bass applies to Irish fishing vessels in all areas. These regulations were introduced as a co-ordinated set of measures with the sea bass fishing conservation by-laws. The by-laws imposes a bag limit on anglers of two bass in any one period of 24 hours and a ban on angling for bass during the spawning season, from 15 May to 15 June in any given year.
These measures have been in place since 1990 and were introduced arising from the dramatic decline of sea bass stocks in the 1970s. Bass in Irish waters are a slow growing fish and, at a recruitment age of roughly five years, are late maturing fish. The distribution of bass around Europe is found mainly in southern waters, including the inshore waters of the south west of England and the English Channel. It is farmed extensively in Mediterranean waters.
The Marine Institute carried out an annual bass survey between the years 1996 and 2007. This survey validates previous research on the species and indicates that the stock of bass in Ireland’s inshore waters remains greatly depleted since the 1960s and 1970s. In Irish waters, the available scientific advice is that the sea bass stock appears depleted and should be allowed to rebuild. The evidence suggests that sea bass in Irish waters do not exhibit the same strong recruitments as recorded closer to continental Europe and the species abundance remains depressed.
Studies conducted in the 1970s in Ireland when commercial netting was permitted by smaller boats found that the majority of net caught fish were immature. The shoaling nature of these immature fish close to shore coupled with the dependence on a good year class means that the sustainability of the stock can be disproportionately depleted by inshore netting when compared to other commercial species.
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Studies submitted to my Department argue that the value to the economy of a bass caught by an angler and which is returned alive is many multiples of its value to the commercial sector and I am aware of a number of businesses, such as fishing guides, hotels and guest accommodation in the south, which are reliant on this bass tourism. I understand that Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI, is currently undertaking a socioeconomic survey of recreational angling in Ireland. The overall objective of the survey is to establish the current volume and value of domestic and overseas recreational angling in Ireland. It will run over the course of 2012.
From a scientific perspective, our knowledge on the biology and stock dynamics of sea bass in Irish waters is poor. There is a need for new research in this area. Following recent discussions, the Marine Institute and Inland Fisheries Ireland are considering developing a research programme to deepen our understanding of sea bass. This will inform future discussion on policy and management of the resource.
Deputy Mick Wallace:It is clearly very important to protect the angling sector of the industry. There are huge benefits for the economy from angling. However, I get the impression that much of the research that has been carried out appears to have been carried out by the anglers. Since the regulations were introduced, Irish boats have not been allowed to fish off the coast, but things do not appear to have changed a great deal. Are the rules in place benefiting the stock? One would imagine that with less fish being caught the stock would be higher. The French and British boats are still allowed to fish—–
Deputy Simon Coveney:It is much further out at sea.
Deputy Mick Wallace:Yes, it is past the 50 km mark. Given that they are allowed fish there, do we know that letting small boats fish off the coast, even for a short period of the year, would definitely impact on the angling industry?
Deputy Simon Coveney:These are fair questions. We are trying to take a cautious approach towards this stock because it is very vulnerable. If we start catching them commercially again, we could do huge damage and they would take a very long time to recover. They do not grow quickly, unlike other stock that can recover quickly. It is not just the inshore fishermen and the smaller boats that are concerned about this. I have been asked about this by the owners of bigger boats also, who are actually discarding large volumes of bass which they catch while trying to catch other fish. They say it is crazy because they must dump dead fish over the side of the boat, and ask if they can be allowed to bring in a small quota. The danger with that is that if one agrees to allow a certain quota of fish to be caught, one sends a signal that it is okay to start catching bass commercially again. One is then into a quota management situation for a very delicate stock. I would be slow to do that.
We must make decisions on the basis of science and information. We are currently in discussions with the Marine Institute on ways in which we could conduct scientific research on the bass stock. I am very protective of this stock. First, it is very valuable. Second, it is very important for both angling and tourism. That is not to say it could not be very important for commercial fisheries as well, but I would require convincing before changing the current approach towards banning the commercial netting of bass given that it is such a delicate species.
Deputy Mick Wallace:While I obviously do not agree with overfishing, could more research be carried out to ascertain the best thing is being done?
On a different point in respect of angling, I was contacted by a person from Wexford, Mr. Ashley Hayden, who maintained that the angling industry in Ireland is worth approximately €100 million. He reckons south-east Ireland potentially has a world-class angling product but that it is poorly developed and marketed, with the result that only 5% of Irish tourist anglers stop in the south east and generally only do so for a single bed night. Mr. Hayden personally visited a major angling association in south Wales with a membership of 3,000 and over the past six months, has managed to get 300 people from this association to come to the south-east region of Ireland for a week. As they spent an average of €1,000 per head, he reckons doing this has brought approximately €300,000 into the local economy. He thinks a professional should be appointed in the south-east region to promote angling and to further develop what he did himself.
Deputy Simon Coveney:It is important to state that even though I have responsibility for commercial fishing in my Department, different Departments are in charge of different things. Consequently, a lot of angling is the responsibility of the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. That said, this must be a Government response and it does not matter who specifically is in charge of it. There is huge potential for angling tourism in Ireland and in the south east in particular centred on the bass stock there. In this context, the Government should be working through the tourism bodies, as well as the coastal and fishing communities, to try to exploit this to the full. Ireland has an extraordinary marine resource, as well as a coastal resource comprising 7,500 km of coastline, much of which is rich in angling potential and a lot more can be done to build that industry. If the person who has made contact with the Deputy wishes to contact me, I will happily try to put him into contact with someone who may be able to help.