The Government has been asked by the European Commission to explain why it has failed to protect the quality of water in coastal areas used for shellfish production.
A 1979 Directive requires all member-states to designate each shellfish production area in its jurisdiction and to implement water quality standards that would allow molluscs to be eaten safely in a raw state. The Government only designated 14 bays for special protection - about one-quarter of the total - and last year it downgraded the others to class B, where shellfish have to be cooked or subjected to expensive filtration systems before being sold.
The response by the Government to the needs of this €30 million industry, which employs about 1,500 people in peripheral areas, has been short-sighted and inadequate. Unpolluted inshore water is important not just for fishermen, who can secure a premium price for shellfish at lower production costs, but for the hospitality sector and for the environment in general. The designation of all shellfish production areas as class A would force local authorities to pay greater attention to their waste-control policies and to limit housing and other developments which affect water quality.
The Irish Shellfish Association is particularly concerned that the agencies largely entrusted with protecting water quality - the county councils - are themselves amongst the worst polluters. Last month, at its annual conference, it appealed to the Government to remove such powers from the councils and to set up a separate, independent State agency to protect water quality in inland waterways and estuaries.
At a time when fish stocks are seriously depleted in the North Atlantic, and EU conservation measures are becoming more onerous on national fleets, the Government should concentrate its attention on those areas it controls. The development of the shellfish and finfish industries lies in Irish hands and offers considerable export potential. Salmon and trout angling, along with other freshwater and inshore fishing, also provides an opportunity for long-term tourism development.
Successive governments have presided over a gradual deterioration in the quality of fresh and inshore waters. Some remedial measures have been taken, but a great deal remains to be done. Prevention is always the cheaper and most effective option where pollution is concerned and the problem will not go away. The Government should act now.