Dáil Éireann - Volume 494 - 07 October, 1998

Adjournment Debate. - Fisheries Protection.

Mr. Sheehan: I thank the Chair for giving me the opportunity to raise this important matter concerning the skipper and crew of the Irish fishing trawler the MFV Girl Jane who were the victims of an incident which occurred 17 miles south of Baltimore, County Cork, on 21 September 1998 created by a French trawler, Melodie, the owner of which is believed to be S. A. Nicot Arment.

Both the Irish and French boats were fishing in that area. The Irish trawler crew did everything possible to avoid getting involved but they failed to get the French boat to veer off. Consequently, the French boat got entangled in the Irish vessel's net. The French boat made no attempt to free the Irish boat's net but proceeded to burn it in five or six places with a gas torch. The Irish boat's wire combination was entangled in the French trawler's trawl door. The French crew then proceeded to cut the combination wire as well. As a result the Irish trawler lost its net, valued at £3,000, the combination wire worth £700, and two days' fishing.

The Irish trawler suffered loss and damage as a result of this incident. The Minister gave a commitment in the press the morning after this incident that he would investigate it and make sure that the French trawler concerned and the French authorities compensated the Irish trawler owner. Having hauled its trawl door, the Irish trawler steamed back to Baltimore to find a replacement net. In 25 years fishing experience, this was the worst incident they had ever come across. They honestly believed at the time that the crew had to be Spanish and could not be convinced they were French but, alas, they were French. The skipper of that French registered trawler must be a very dangerous man. I further believe this was no accident and that the skipper intended to destroy the Irishman's fishing net. This man should be immediately removed from the position of skipper because of his conduct in the interest of good relations on the high seas and the safety of crew members and vessels.

The Naval Service was contacted at 4 p.m. on 21 December about this incident and contact was also made with the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources. Investigations seem to be continuing in respect of the incident but there are no moves afoot to compensate the Irish fishing trawler which suffered a loss of £3,700 as well as the loss of fishing opportunities and loss of approximately £1,000 in profits, a total of £4,700. What efforts has the Minister made to ensure the trawler owner is compensated for this blatant act of [1349] piracy on the high seas? How much longer can we tolerate this action?

Mr. Neville: Hear, hear.

Mr. Sheehan: I admire the Minister for saying the following morning that he would investigate the incident to the letter of the law. However, he must, for God's sake, act before it is too late. Fatal accidents will happen in the waters off my constituency if the Minister does not make concrete moves to prevent such actions by trawlers. I want action from the Minister rather than pious words.

Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources (Dr. Woods): As the Deputy knows, I share his very deep concern about incidents such as this. It is completely unacceptable that the safety of Irish fishermen is put at risk by strong arm tactics of harassment and intimidation. I will not tolerate illegal interference with the legitimate activities of our fishermen. Such deplorable behaviour is irresponsible, dangerous and shows scant regard for the safety of fellow fishermen. I assure the House I am taking every possible step to prevent such incidents from happening. I have already put in place a rapid reporting and response system when they do arise.

This incident is a symptom of recurring problems between fishermen in the fishing grounds off the Irish coast. I want to see the problems and the causes of the problems tackled and solved.

At my request, discussions have been taking place in recent months between my Department and the French fisheries ministry on this problem. We had already decided, prior to this incident, to host a face to face meeting this month between Irish and French fishermen and their representatives in Dublin. That meeting will take place next Friday. The French ministry will also attend. The recent incident will obviously be top of the agenda and the Irish side will be pressing for answers. The meeting is also a forum for finding solutions to prevent such incidents. The two sides will be exploring the scope for codes of practice and improved communication in the interests of peaceful coexistence in the fishing grounds off our coast.

The most recent incident, to which the Deputy has referred, happened on 21 September off the south-west coast, some 20 miles off Baltimore. The skipper of an Irish fishing boat, the Girl Jane, reported to my Department that the boat had been dragged backwards by a French registered fishing boat and that its fishing gear had been cut by the crew of the French registered vessel using a blow torch. The French vessel then left the scene and headed back to France. At my instructions the matter was taken up immediately by my officials in strong terms with the French authorities. My deep concern about the alleged incident was conveyed to them and the French authorities were requested to investigate and respond to us as a matter of urgency. We are currently [1350] waiting for their response, which I expect will come fairly shortly.

Mr. Sheehan: I hope it comes before the meeting on Friday.

Dr. Woods: As I have said, Friday's meeting is a very timely opportunity to pursue this issue. I will protect the interests of Irish fishermen by ensuring the most effective surveillance and control of all fishing vessels in these waters. We are working closely with the Department of Defence, the Air Corps and the Naval Service on sea fisheries protection so that all legitimate fishermen can go about their business safely and securely.

I already arranged for a rapid response system last March following similar incidents. I am glad to have this chance to spell out these arrangements again. Fishermen should immediately contact the marine emergency service, IMES, of my Department if an incident takes place, via the VHF radio or 999 emergency telephone system.

Mr. Sheehan: They have done that on several occasions and have got nowhere.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Minister, without interruption.

Dr. Woods: Not on this one. It would be preferable——

Mr. Sheehan: They have — I have the information with me.

Dr. Woods: I am urging fishermen——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Minister, without interruption.

Dr. Woods: I have explained the system I have set up. I am asking fishermen to use that system and not any other one because it is the one to which we can respond most rapidly. We can call on the different services, not only the Naval Service but also the Air Corps and the Department's own services. This will facilitate a rapid and appropriate response by mobilising available resources to the scene very quickly. There are procedures in place to enable swift action to be taken.

Mr. Sheehan: By whom?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Minister must be allowed to conclude.

Dr. Woods: I urge fishermen to use the IMES facility. I set up this system earlier this year and a number of fishermen have used it. It is a very effective system because it means we can get either aeroplanes or helicopters to the scene very quickly. They can then be followed up by the Naval Service because the Naval Service cannot get there as quickly as the air services.

[1351] Mr. Sheehan: The Naval Service indicated it has no powers to do so.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I must ask Deputy Sheehan to allow the Minister to conclude. I ask the Minister to draw his remarks to a conclusion as his five minutes are up.

Dr. Woods: I am just trying to state the facts. I ask fishermen to use the rapid response system which I introduced. It has been used by vessels since I introduced it and it is preferable that they would do so. These resources include our own IMES helicopters and Air Corps Casa aircraft, the Air Corps helicopters and naval vessels. All of these will be available and several of them can take pictures of the scene, which can be very valuable in subsequent disputes.

Prevention is better than cure. My primary objective is to see peaceful coexistence between all fishermen and a safe future for Irish fishermen in particular. I hope Friday's meeting will show tangible progress on this objective. Meanwhile, the other issue is being pursued and the various reports will be in place shortly.

Mr. Sheehan: Will the Minister guarantee——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Deputy Gilmore has given me notice——

Mr. Sheehan: ——that £5,000 will be paid in compensation?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I remind Deputy Sheehan the Chair is speaking.