Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 14 February 2008

Presentation from the Lough Neagh Fishermens Co-operative Society Ltd

14 February 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:
Mr Pat Close ) Lough Neagh Fishermens Co-operative Society Ltd
Fr Oliver Kennedy )

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
Members have been provided with a comprehensive document that the Lough Neagh Fishermens Co-operative Society Ltd has prepared on the background of the commercial wild-eel fishery. I also refer members to correspondence from the Department; I am sure that they recall that we wrote to the Department enquiring about its strategy on stocking elvers in Lough Neagh.

I welcome Fr Oliver Kennedy and Mr Pat Close of the Lough Neagh Fishermens Co-operative Society Ltd to today’s meeting. The Committee is duty-bound to respond to the salmon and inland fisheries stakeholder forum consultation. We want to hear Fr Kennedy and Mr Close’s views on the matter, and we also want to hear about the co-operative’s overall strategy. You are very welcome, and I apologise for the slight delay.

Fr Oliver Kennedy (Lough Neagh Fishermens Co-operative Society Ltd):
I thank the Committee and the chairman, in particular, for inviting us to present our case. A few days ago, Pat Close prepared an analysis of the overall position of the co-operative, of which we have provided the Committee with a copy. It is not completely comprehensive, but it gives you a good idea of our position. Given the Committee’s connection to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL), members should be aware of the importance of the commercial wild-eel fishery in Lough Neagh, not only to the people around the lough, but to the Province in general.

Some members may know that this is not the first time that I have been up here; I was here 40 years ago in the days of Terence O’Neill, Chichester-Clark, Harry West and others.

Mr McCarthy:
You are still going strong.

Fr O Kennedy:
I am still going strong.

Mr P Ramsey:
You must have been in a pram the first time you came up here. [Laughter.]

Mr McNarry:
Obviously, Paisley did not tell you to go.

The Chairperson:
He did not throw snowballs at you.

Fr O Kennedy:
If he did, I did not go.

Those people always welcomed me and treated me with respect. We came here at a time when the commercial wild-eel fishery in Lough Neagh faced a potential crisis. Phelim O’Neill once pointed out that Lough Neagh was Irish history in microcosm — I think that quote may be reported in Hansard. At that time, the eel fishery in Lough Neagh was controlled by a group of English firms to their advantage and with no concern at all for the welfare of the local people.

Today, my aim is to convince you of the importance of Lough Neagh and to request that you pressurise the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Minister to take more notice of the lough than they have been doing. That lack of attention is no reflection whatever on the Committee, as I know that you are all well disposed to the importance of the lough.

There is a long history of fishing in Lough Neagh. In fact, commercial fishing took place at Cross Keys, which is downstream from Toome, in 2000 BC. With all due respect to Kieran McCarthy, I was not around then, so I take no responsibility for that.

Fishing is a long-standing indigenous industry that has had its problems over the years. At the turn of the twentieth century, fishermen took a case to the House of Lords, and their legal counsel there was Tim Healy. Many things have happened since the days when I used to come up here to meet Chichester-Clark and Harry West, among others. In those days, fishing was controlled by a group of English firms and one Dutch firm, and they had equal shares in the industry. They treated fishermen with no respect, and, understandably, the fishermen did not like that.

In 1963, a case was brought to the High Court. At that time, that case was the longest drawn-out case in history. The object was to determine who owned the eel-fishing rights on Lough Neagh. The outcome was that eel-fishing rights in Lough Neagh, including the bed and soil of the lough, were awarded by Charles I to the Earl of Donegal in 1640, for unspecified reasons that we should not examine. Ownership evolved from there to the Shaftesbury Estate, from which we now lease the eel-fishing rights on Lough Neagh. It is essential that we realise the importance of that history. A substantial number of people fish commercially on Lough Neagh.

The co-operative was established in 1965 after it bought a one-fifth interest in the company, and it undertook to market eels on behalf of local fishermen. The co-operative held some of the proceeds of the fishermen’s sales, so it was in a position to buy out the other four shareholders in 1971. The co-operative now controls the commercial eel fishery in Lough Neagh. Although it later bought the scale fishery, its main concern is the eel fishery.

I will distribute to Committee members copies of the analysis of the catch of brown and silver eels and elvers since 1965. That shows that there has been a decline in the catch since 1965. The co-operative was concerned with ensuring that the Lough Neagh fishermen got the maximum catch and maximum return.

A biology lesson may be required to explain the next part of our presentation. All European silver eels escape from their local waters and allegedly travel to the Sargasso Sea. Although that is accepted as fact, I do not know how it can be proven. The silver eels spawn there, and the Gulf Stream carries them back towards the coast of Europe. In theory, the offspring do not necessarily return to the same waters that their parents left. However, given that Lough Neagh is accepted as being one of the best feeding grounds, a substantial number come there every year. After the elvers reach Lough Neagh, they remain there and grow into brown eels before they are caught between the beginning of May and late October. At that stage, the brown eels are still growing and feeding. When they are fully grown, they turn silver, and their instinct is to return to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. However, the problem is that it seems that not enough silver eels get away to make that journey.

Biologists of international repute have accepted that Lough Neagh requires about eight million elvers a year. Prior to 1983, that target was not a problem, and Lough Neagh was in a healthy condition — between 11 million and 14 million elvers have been recorded as existing at certain times. However, something went wrong in 1983, and the elver recruitment dropped to 726,000 and never recovered. That decline was typical of eel fisheries throughout Europe.

After 1983, the elver recruitment was not sufficient to maintain fishing at a level that would allow local fishermen to make a reasonable income. To remedy that, the co-operative has bought elvers from England and transferred them into Lough Neagh. Between the elvers that are bought and those that are caught locally, there are approximately seven million a year in Lough Neagh. Therefore, Lough Neagh is relatively safe. I emphasise the term “relatively” because no biologist is prepared to express a definite opinion about anything.

The European fisheries did not buy elvers and are therefore in terminal decline, which is a serious situation. Eventually, the European Union decided that action was required and considered introducing restrictions on fishing to give eel stocks the opportunity to recover.

We have contacted the fisheries officers at the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, and, through them, we have made representations to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and consequently the EU. However, for what it is worth, I feel that there is a breach in communication between DCAL here, DEFRA in London and the EU. The basic reason is that there is no comparable wild-eel fishery anywhere in Europe, let alone in England. Therefore, although a few DEFRA biologists might have an interest in eel fishing, they have no knowledge of the industry, and, despite repeated invitations, they have never taken the trouble to come to the fishery to see what happens.

Such visits are important, and I therefore extend an invitation to each of you to visit the fishery at any time during the fishing season so that you can see what happens. There is no point asking you to come now, given that we are out of season, and we will not start again until 1 May. If you want to come at any time between 1 May and late October, give us some notice, and we will make our facilities available.

The total output of brown eels in Lough Neagh in any given season is around 500 tons and that of silver eels is around 100 tons. The analysis of the financial structure, which has been distributed to members, shows that we pay fishermen the maximum price for their brown eels throughout the season. We subtract only the cost of flying to the continent and the cost of the box; all the overhead expenses come from the sale of silver eels.

Silver eels are caught at the weirs at Toome and Kilrea from mid-September until early December. The catch of silver eels has now declined to such an extent that it is no longer viable. The costs of running the fishery throughout the year are paid out of the silver-eel catch. Therefore, fishermen receive a substantial subsidy.

Since 1983, we have made repeated representations to what was known then as the Department of Agriculture, then to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD), and more recently to DCAL for grant aid on the purchase of elvers. Unless sufficient elvers come into the system, we will not have a fishery, and we will be in just as bad a condition as the fisheries in Europe.

The Chairperson:
Is that your key point?

Fr O Kennedy:
Yes. We have made repeated representations on the matter to DCAL, and I have a letter about it from Edgar Jardine of that Department. I have repeatedly asked DCAL officials — and the Minister — to give us a reason why the Department has requested £500,000 to cover both salmon habitat and elver restocking, with each receiving £250,000. The salmon fishers would get £250,000 as matching funds locally, but we will not receive that sum. I take grave exception to the fact that such funding is not available for elver restocking. Although I have asked repeatedly for an explanation for that, none has been forthcoming. I got that letter from Edgar Jardine only because I asked for it under the Freedom of Information Act 2000; information is just not available without that facility.

I am not blaming the Committee, which has been very kind in meeting us and listening to our representations. In the old days, when we were catching a lot of eels and elvers, we did not seek grants, because we reckoned that other people were more entitled to grant aid. However, it has now reached the stage where we have had to put our money where our mouth is. We have spent £2·5 million on 80 million elvers over the years. We have repeatedly asked for grant aid, but it has been turned down.

I do not accept that the Minister does not have discretion to grant-aid locally; he could do so on a variety of criteria. I do not particularly care why or how he does it, as long as we get it. We need money, otherwise an indigenous industry, for which for over 20 years we have paid fishermen £64 million for their eels, will fall apart. We are looking for that grant aid.

The Chairperson:
I will park the discussion for a short while, then I allow three or four questions on the strategy for stocking elvers, and I will zone in on stakeholder representation on the forum. That will probably last for a total of another 15 or 20 minutes.

Mr McNarry:
Thank you gentlemen. You have provided an excellent written presentation that is informative and easy to follow, as was your oral presentation.

I take it that the Lough Neagh Fishermens Co-operative Society Ltd is a business, and I assume that you have sets of annual accounts that cover the past five years. What is your turnover, and how has it fluctuated over those five years?

Fr O Kennedy:
Our turnover has declined. We pay the fishermen the full value of their catch of brown eels. The silver-eel catch raises around £2 million, which is needed to pay the overheads.

Mr McNarry:
I understand that. I am just asking what your turnover is. Is that £2 million your total turnover? Do you have additional turnover to the revenue that is raised from silver eels? I am going by what I have read in your submission; I would not know one eel from another.

Fr O Kennedy:
That is our total turnover.

Mr Pat Close (Lough Neagh Fishermens Co-operative Society Ltd):
Our turnover is between £2 million and £2·5 million, although it was higher in previous years. Seven or eight years ago, it was as high as £4 million.

Fr O Kennedy:
At times it has been £5 million, but it is on the decline.

Mr McNarry:
Is the co-operative in profit?

Fr O Kennedy:
Not any more.

Mr McNarry:
Are you operating at a loss?

Fr O Kennedy:
We are at the moment. This year, our catch of silver eels was two thirds of what it would be normally. We depend on a catch of silver eels to pay for all our overheads. Approximately 3,000 boxes of silver eels are needed to generate enough money to pay the yearly overheads. No one knows why, but this year’s total was only 2,000 boxes, which is well below our normal total.

Mr McNarry:
You say that you are trading at a loss, but are you insolvent?

Fr O Kennedy:
No, because during the years when we had big catches, we built up a reserve fund. However, we are eating into that now.

Mr McNarry:
I appreciate that.

Mr Close:
That is the crucial point: we have been using our financial reserves to purchase additional elvers to keep the business going. We are not insolvent, but we are extremely concerned about reaching a point where using our reserves becomes unsustainable.

Mr McNarry:
I appreciate that.

Fr O Kennedy:
When we started buying elvers in 1984-85, they cost about £29 a kilo. Recently, the lack of elvers in the Far East has meant that the Chinese and Japanese have been coming to buy them, and the cost is now anywhere between — depending who you ask — €600 and €900 a kilo, which is a colossal rise.

Mr McNarry:
How many people do you employ?

Fr O Kennedy:
There are two categories of people to consider, David. The co-operative employs about 14 or 15 people to pack and handle the eels. However, the number of people who fish on the lough is important. There has been a reduction in the numbers of such people, but approximately 150 are self-employed.

Mr McNarry:
Are those people self-employed in family type businesses?

Fr O Kennedy:
Yes.

Mr McNarry:
You are obviously cutting to the chase: you need money. How much do you need?

Fr O Kennedy:
To buy elvers, we need £500,000 annually, to which we will in turn contribute. The only time that we received money from the Department was when Michael McGimpsey gave us £42,000.

The Chairperson:
That was in 2002.

Mr McNarry:
You need £500,000 per annum to buy the stock. How much can you contribute?

Fr O Kennedy:
We can contribute a further £200,000.

Mr McNarry:
Is that £200,000 of the original £500,000?

Fr O Kennedy:
No, that £200,000 is on top of the £500,000.

Mr McNarry:
Therefore, you need about £750,000 to buy the stock.

Mr McElduff:
Is it your goal to receive £500,000 from DCAL?

Fr O Kennedy:
Yes.

Mr McNarry:
Why should public money be used to support a business?

Fr O Kennedy:
The money is not to support a business: it is a co-operative.

Mr McNarry:
I am sorry, but it is a business.

Fr O Kennedy:
Yes, it is a business but, with all due respect, public money has been used to subsidise other businesses.

Mr McNarry:
I am talking only about your business.

Fr O Kennedy:
Why should public money not be used? It keeps —

Mr McNarry:
To ask why not is not an answer; I am asking you to tell me why it should be used.

Fr O Kennedy:
I will tell you why: the co-operative keeps several people who would otherwise be unemployed in relatively gainful employment.

Mr McNarry:
Several transport companies that have had many employees — and through which many more were gainfully self-employed — have recently gone down the tubes. Although such events are most unfortunate —

Fr O Kennedy:
With respect, many of those companies failed due to bad management. Officials in DCAL accept that the co-operative is the most efficiently managed commercial fishery in Europe. No other fishery can be compared to it. We already have controlling measures in place, such as restrictions on licences and on the daily catch.

Mr McNarry:
I am sorry, but I have to ask tough questions.

Mr McElduff:
That is understood.

Mr Close:
Adding to Father’s answer to Mr McNarry’s question, Lough Neagh is a tremendous natural resource. Our fishery is recognised as the leading wild fishery in Europe, and probably, at this stage, in the world. It is worth keeping it alive. In addition to the number of people who depend on our fishery for their livelihood, Fr Kennedy mentioned that several of the measures that we have been taking for the past 20 years are being considered by the EU. The fishery is an asset that we have managed properly and to the best of our ability. It is recognised as being well managed, and it is worth protecting. That is the reason that we are here today

Mr McNarry:
Your turnover is £2 million, although it has been £4 million or £5 million previously. However, you want a cash injection of public money of £500,000 to contribute to a £2 million turnover. That does not stack up. The Committee wants to know how a cash injection of £500,000 and your £200,000 will boost your turnover to make the co-operative viable.

Mr Close:
To put the figure of £500,000 in context, we have been seeking grant aid for 20 years, and, with one exception, we have received practically nothing. We are now counting what we have spent. In the past 20 years, we have spent approximately £2·5 million on elvers and have received no grants. We are, therefore, looking for a substantial amount of money now.

Mr P Ramsey:
Fr Kennedy said that 150 self-employed people are involved in the co-operative, which has a staff of 14. If such a project were trying to create employment opportunities in any town, money would be thrown at it. The co-operative is a social-economy project, given that shareholders are not seeking a return from their investment.

If the Lough Neagh Fishermens Co-operative Society Ltd does not get a subvention from central Government, what is the likelihood of the lough sustaining the number of self-employed people or the co-operative’s core staff? If you do not receive £500,000, how will you keep the industry going?

Mr Shannon:
My knowledge of Lough Neagh relates only to the wildfowl that fly over it.

The Chairperson:
Fr Kennedy and Mr Close, please note that, given that several members wish to ask questions, we will ask you to respond in one answer to three or four questions in a row.

Mr Shannon:
I would appreciate further comment on your investment in salmon and elvers.

Would using £500,000 a year to restock Lough Neagh with elvers be enough to make the business sustainable? Your presentation mentioned the growth of the elvers, and you stated that seven years pass before an eel is marketable. You also stated that the females return to breed and die and that that process takes between 18 and 20 years. If there are no eels and elvers in the lough, what problems will arise? You mentioned theories about the Sargasso Sea, but I do not know who came up with that.

Mr D Bradley:
God.

Mr Shannon:
Do pesticides, overfishing or disturbances contribute to the condition of Lough Neagh?

The Chairperson:
Fr Kennedy and Mr Close, please take a note of those questions. You will have to conduct yourselves like Ministers. [Laughter.]

Mr Brolly:
My question is similar to Jim’s, although it is more specific. Fr Kennedy, to what extent has the algae, or pollution of the lough, contributed to the decline of the eel?

Following on from Pat Ramsey’s comments, Invest Northern Ireland gave Seagate Technology a subsidy of millions of pounds, but it stayed here for only 10 years. We hope that the lough will be alive for at least as long as Fr Kennedy lives.

Father Kennedy, I believe that you would consider an alternative controlling body for the eel industry.

Mr McCausland:
You mentioned that between 1984 and 2007, the co-operative bought approximately 80 million elvers at a cost of approximately £2 million from its own funds. Does that mean £2 million was spent on elvers over that entire period?

Mr Close:
Yes.

Mr McCausland:
Why has the cost jumped so suddenly? I accept the point about the demand from the Far East. If £2 million covered 20 years, why is £750,000 now required for one year?

The Chairperson:
You can explain that in a moment, Mr Close.

Mr D Bradley:
Good afternoon, and I thank you for your presentation. As someone else has said, it was succinct and well illustrated. The Committee should take up Mr Close’s offer to visit the fishery in season. I remember reading one of Seamus Heaney’s poems about the cycle of eels between the Sargasso Sea and Lough Neagh. I suppose that that is another matter of which the Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee should be aware. Mr Close, the root cause of your problems seems to be largely about the decline in the elver run. What research has been done to determine whether that is the root cause? Is research into that ongoing, and are there any implications of the reasons for that decline?

Fr O Kennedy:
Research is ongoing. DCAL has employed a research biologist who has the support of Dr Robert Rossell of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. As far as continental operations are concerned, a biologist in Holland has said that their elver recruitment is currently about 1% of that which it used to be. Approximately 1·5 million elvers come naturally into the lough. That accounts for approximately 8% of the total. Therefore, we are a lot better off. No one knows what caused that decline or what will fix it. Some people have talked about the Gulf Stream having changed its course, and others have talked about global warming. The fact is that no one knows. The EU is proposing to introduce restrictions that would result in a reduction in the catch. The effects of that would be felt everywhere, and it would take 14 or 15 years for those restrictions to have any positive effect. The only short-term solution is to purchase elvers, which is what we did, but eel fisheries on the continent have not.

Before we started buying elvers from England, there was no big market for them. However, since the decline in elver recruitment in the Far East, the Japanese and Chinese have come to Europe and paid high prices for them. They have grown elvers in farms and are now sending them back to Europe as grown eels at half the price that anyone else could afford.

The Chairperson:
Will you itemise your answers to the points that were raised, Mr Close?

Mr Close:
I will elaborate briefly on the catastrophic decline in elver recruitment. As Father Kennedy has rightly said, no one has yet been able to determine one root cause for that decline. Rather, a combination of factors appears to be the reason. One factor is global warming and its effect on the Gulf Stream, on which we rely to carry the elvers in our direction. We are told that the Gulf Stream’s temperature, salinity and direction have changed and that those factors are having an impact.

Another reason is the possibility that pollutants affect the eels’ reproductive systems. We are not sure that they are breeding successfully when they get to the Sargasso Sea. An expedition is currently in that area attempting to study that possibility, and we hope that we will know more about that in due course.

We manage eel catches in Lough Neagh through the imposition of daily quotas, and, therefore, we are reasonably content that they have not been overfished. However, we are aware that that has not been the case elsewhere in Europe, where it is widely accepted that there has been extensive overfishing. Unlike other European fisheries, we have extensive catch records and data, and, because our activities appear to work, EU officials look to us for guidance in order that they can determine best practice. That is one reason that the industry deserves your support.

The Chairperson:
Several questions were asked, and I am not sure whether members are satisfied that the issues that they raised were addressed. We are running out of time, so please address them in the last couple of minutes of the meeting.

Mr Close:
I will address those questions briefly; however, I wish to correct a point that may have been misheard or misunderstood. More than 150 fishermen are involved with the co-operation. In fact, there are approximately 150 boats, each of which has two men, meaning that that number should roughly be doubled.

We were asked why we require £500,000 now. I answered that in the context of stating that, for an extended time, we received nothing.

Mr McNarry:
Is that figure different from the amount that you require to restock?

Mr Close:
Last year, we spent £495,000 to buy approximately four million elvers.

We have discussed with EU officials — and with anyone who would listen — the exports to the Far East. Recently, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) listed the European eel as an endangered species. That may have advanced efforts to ban exports. However, to put that into context, approximately 80 tons of elvers a year are exported from France, which is in excess of 200 million elvers. We require approximately 8 million elvers a year. We are asking for funding and support to keep those elvers in this country and to keep this indigenous industry alive.

The Chairperson:
Are you satisfied that you have answered all members’ questions? I know that you had a list of queries to get through.

Mr Shannon:
Fr Kennedy mentioned that £250,000 will be allocated for salmon and £250,000 for elvers. Will you tell us more about that?

Fr O Kennedy:
DCAL does not receive money directly from the EU; it must apply for funding through DARD. As a consequence of my request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, I was told that DCAL had applied to DARD for £500,000, of which £250,000 was for elver restocking and £250,000 for salmon restocking. I was also told that there would be matching local funding for salmon fishing but none for us. Given that we have spent £2 million, I want to know why we have been treated less favourably than the salmon fishing industry. I have asked the Minister — who, although he was asked last April, has not taken the trouble to visit the fishery — and DARD officials. However, I have received no answers from anyone to that question.

Mr McNarry:
Given that members have been given only briefing notes to guide them through today’s meeting, is it fair to say that a draft plan for the Lough Neagh/River Bann basin is being prepared in consultation with the co-operation and the Department? The briefing notes state that continued eel stocking is a central tenet of that plan and that, in support of that, the Department has bid for money from the European Fisheries Fund.

Fr O Kennedy:
I have not seen that document.

One of the EU regulations is that each river system must produce a management plan that must confirm that 40% of a fishery’s mature silver eels are allowed to escape. We do that, and we can prove it. Biologists have been tagging silver eels in the lake, releasing them, and we therefore know how many of them we catch.

Mr McNarry:
Perhaps the Committee can help by asking the Department about the context of the bid for European Fisheries Fund allocations to support continuation of the eel stocking. We can also ask the Department when it will be in a position to report to us.

Mr Shannon:
I know that it is not possible to harvest newly stocked eels for six or seven years, but if you stocked for five years in a row, for example, would there be a sustainable eel industry for which no grant would be needed?

The Chairperson:
Jim is asking whether long-term sustainability can be achieved.

Mr Close:
The problem is that the eels do not breed in the lough; they have to go to the Sargasso Sea to breed.

We have bought 80 million elvers over the past 20 years. There is no scientific evidence that we are reaping the benefit of that in that more elvers are coming into the system. Eels are unlike salmon or other fish that return to the same feeding grounds as their parents. If that were the case, we could have been subsidising other fisheries in Europe.

Fr O Kennedy:
The probability is that we are subsidising other fisheries already. As I said in an earlier answer, there is no proof that the young elvers return to the rivers that their parents left. If we allow a substantial number of sliver eels to escape and spawn, some can go back to England, Scotland, Holland, Germany, Portugal — they can go all over the place.

Mr McNarry:
Is the eel industry mainly an export business? Forgive me, but eels are not often on restaurant menus. Do we not have a taste for them here? I know that Cockneys like jellied eels.

Fr O Kennedy:
The only local people who have a taste for eels are those who grew up along the lough shore or those who have been abroad and have had smoked eels in Holland or Germany. Others who buy eels locally are Chinese and Japanese people, who serve them in all sorts of different ways. However, there is no local market for the volume of eels that Lough Neagh produces in a year. No matter what is done, the market will never be built up to that level. We are talking about 500 tons of eels, which represents a lot of eels. That amount will never be sold locally.

The Chairperson:
The biological and culinary aspects of eels are fascinating, and we could talk all day. Shortly, however, we will need to move on. Having heard your presentation on having Lough Neagh filled with elvers, the Committee will have to discuss its attitude to your campaign.

I must also push you on your opinion of a stakeholder’s forum. Fr Kennedy’s letter of 1 February states:

“With respect it would appear that DCAL proposes to create a body which would discharge the functions which are currently the responsibility of FCB but that persons currently entitled to membership of FCB could have no effective influence on its decisions.”

What are the co-operative’s views on its membership of any new forum for stakeholders?

Fr O Kennedy:
Our view has been consistent since the Fisheries Conservancy Board was set up in 1966: a separate body should be responsible for the promotion of the commercial aspects of inland fisheries. I am talking about salmon as well as eels. We continue to be of that opinion.

I have been a member of the Fisheries Conservancy Board since it was established. Given that DCAL has shown little competence in running its own affairs, I do not know how it can assume responsibility for the work of the Fisheries Conservancy Board. That simply will not work.

A substantial number of stakeholders was represented on the Fisheries Conservancy Board, and we were one. Essentially, however, the board reflected angling and tourist interests, and they are entitled to such representation. However, I make no bones about the fact that we would prefer that a separate body be established.

We also want the responsibility for the management of inland fisheries in this Province to be transferred from DCAL back to DARD. That is no reflection on this Committee. Our reason is that DARD obviously has direct contacts in Europe regarding agriculture issues and sea fisheries.

The silly decision to transfer responsibility for inland fisheries to DCAL was made during Good Friday Agreement negotiations. Two new Departments were created, one of which was Culture, Arts and Leisure. Officials in DCAL had no experience of fishing issues. As I said, our opinion is no reflection on the Committee, but we want those responsibilities transferred back to DARD.

The Chairperson:
That is another key point. Pat, do you want to add to that?

Mr Close:
No, the essential points have been covered.

Mr Brolly:
Will the witnesses be more specific about DARD? Regarding the eel fisheries alone, surely at this point, as you are restocking, Lough Neagh could be designated as a fish farm. Do you want that designation?

Fr O Kennedy:
We have requested that Lough Neagh be designated as a fish farm because we are restocking by buying elvers. A departmental official said that fish farms are not liable for licences because they catch their own stock. Therefore, our argument is that we should be exempt on that basis. Does that answer your question?

Mr Brolly:
Yes, absolutely.

The Chairperson:
I thank Fr Kennedy and Mr Close for what was an engaging session. The Committee is much more informed now about the nature of what you do. We will consider the points that have been raised, and we will ascertain what we need to do next and whether we wish to add to your views.

Mr Brolly:
That includes the possibility of a visit.

The Chairperson:
The Committee has received an invitation to visit Toomebridge in season to see the operation at first-hand. We will discuss that.

Fr O Kennedy:
The Committee is welcome to visit any time. However, unfortunately, it is currently off season, so there is nothing to see. You will be able to see the whole operation any time after the middle of May. Lorries are sent to the lough shore to collect the eels from fishermen, and those eels are then brought to Toome where they get sorted, packed and sent out on the same day. I am sure that you have seen that operation yourself, Chairman.

The Chairperson:
Yes, I have.

Fr O Kennedy:
The eels that are caught in Lough Neagh on any morning are in Holland that night and on sale as smoked eels the next day.

The Chairperson:
Might we enjoy some smoked eels in Toome the day that we visit?

Mr Shannon:
Absolutely, I am looking forward to that.

The Chairperson:
I thank you both, but we have to move on.

Mr McNarry:
The smoked eels will have to be included in our expenses, and we will have to ensure that the BBC is told about it.

The Chairperson:
David, I am glad that you are here to keep us right.

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