Fishing groups concerned over opening of territorial waters

‘Gentleman’s’ agreement allowing all Irish boats reciprocal rights may be formalised

A file image showing a fishing boat out of the Co Dublin port of Howth. Photograph: Alan Betson/THE IRISH TIMES

A file image showing a fishing boat out of the Co Dublin port of Howth. Photograph: Alan Betson/THE IRISH TIMES

 

A Government plan to formalise a 52-year-old “gentleman’s” agreement permitting northern and southern Irish fishing vessels reciprocal rights to the island’s territorial waters has been criticised by a leading industry organisation.

The Irish Fish Producers’ Organisation (IFPO) said any such legislation could open up territorial waters within three miles to many other fleets, and could also weaken the Government’s hand in negotiations with Britain on Brexit.

The “voisinage” agreement between Ireland and Britain dates back to 1964-65, and was intended to ease tensions in the Irish Sea over access to fish stocks.

The agreement, which was concluded when Ireland had a constitutional claim to the whole island of Ireland, was never given formal legal status.

It worked with “few apparent difficulties”, according to NUI Galway (NUIG)maritime law expert Dr Ronán Long, and became a mechanism to manage a cross-Border mussel fishery from the 1990s.

However, four mussel fishermen from Wexford, Waterford, Donegal and Limerick took a legal case over dredging of mussel seed stocks in southern waters by Northern Irish-registered vessels.

They said they faced financial ruin from the depletion of a natural resource by vessels, some of which were not even owned by Northern fishermen.

They claimed losses to State in earnings from mussel exports could be as high as €200 million over the past 12 years.

They said that available mussel seed dropped from 30,000 to 2,400 tons in 2013 - even though a National Development Plan estimate forecast 44,000 available tons by 2015.

The fishermen’s claims were rejected by the High Court, but upheld by the Supreme Court last October in a ruling interpreted as having major implications for the “voisinage” deal.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine has said that it has implications for access by Northern Irish vessels within the three- mile territorial limit, but does not affect arrangements in the six to 12- mile territorial limits which are covered by EU legislation.

It says the Supreme Court upheld the High Court finding that the voisinage arrangements are “not invalid” but that, as it stands, there is “insufficient provision in domestic law for them”.

“The Government has approved the preparation of a legislative amendment to address the issues raised by the judgment and expects to have this commenced as expediently as possible,” it said.

The IFO has warned that up to 12 states - covered by a London Fisheries Convention under which the voisinage agreement was made- may be able to fish inside Ireland’s three-mile limit if the Government introduces such legislation.

IFPO chief executive Francis O’Donnell has written to Minister for Marine Michael Creed, stating that his failure to consult with the industry is in “breach of the Common Fisheries Policy”.

“Access by foreign vessels to the exclusive Irish territorial waters is of major concern to the directorship and membership of the IFPO, the Irish processing industry and Irish citizens in general as this would most likely relate to the alienation of Ireland’s natural resources,” he has said.

“There should be no rush in bringing in such legislation as we believe that strategically Ireland is weakening its own hand prior to Brexit negotiations,” Mr O’Donnell says, and his board is seeking an urgent meeting with Mr Creed.

Mr O’Donnell said it was “incredible” that the State, in opposing the action by the mussel fishermen, has sought to argue that dredging mussel seed and transplanting it in British waters was “not an alienation of a natural resource”.