Last week, I raised the need to make management practices on the Great Western lakes compatible with environmental directives thereby getting them back as close as possible to their natural state.

I thank the Cathaoirleach’s office for choosing this Commencement matter. In 2006, the conservation and prohibition on sale of coarse fish bye-law No. 806 of 2006 was signed by the then Minister of State, John Browne. The bye-law states a person shall not take and kill by any means more than four coarse fish on any one day in all waters. It states a person shall not take and kill by any means any coarse fish greater than 25 cm in length measured in a straight line from the tip of the snout to the fork of the tail. Bye-law No. 809 of 2006, which is the conservation of pike bye-law, states it is prohibited for a person to take or kill any pike greater than 50 cm in length measured in a straight line from the tip of the snout to the fork of the tail.

Both of these bye-laws were signed in 2006 and it is my view and that of many anglers in the west of Ireland and elsewhere that bye-laws Nos. 806 and 809 of 2006 are not compatible with the habitats directive and should never have been applied to special area of conservation, SAC, lakes. No appropriate assessment was done for these by-laws to see what effect pike, perch, roach and bream and the protection thereof would have on SACs, particularly with respect to native species of trout and salmon in SAC lakes. Anglers in the west and particularly on the western lakes would like to see the spirit of the habitat directives implemented in full, leading to a return of these waters to as close as reasonably possible to their original state.

The failure to have an appropriate assessment done for these two bye-laws can be compared to the process for bye-law No. 964 of 2018, which I initiated and was signed by the then Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, in October 2018. It was the designated salmonid waters by-law for the waters of Lough Corrib, Lough Mask, Lough Carra, Lough Conn, Lough Cullin, Lough Arrow and Lough Sheelin. The bye-law specified that the waters were designated as wild salmonid waters for the purposes of the regulations and the designated waters shall be managed primarily for the benefits of wild salmonid species. It stated that notwithstanding the prohibitions in the conservation of pike bye-law No. 809, a person shall take by rod and line from the designated waters more than four pike of any size on any day in any year during the period of the year in which fishing is permitted.

That bye-law was challenged and fell because of the lack of appropriate environmental assessments. There is a clear contradiction in how the by-laws were approached and initiated by the Department. The Department failed to defend the challenge to bye-law No. 964 of 2018 yet both bye-laws Nos. 806 and 809 of 2006 stand, despite not having an appropriate assessment done on the impact of protecting pike and coarse fish on trout and salmon species in the seven lakes I have mentioned.

There are hundreds of lakes in this country but the seven western lakes have a specific role as strong salmon and trout lakes. They deserve protection. As I have said, I did my best to provide that protection through a bye-law, which was challenged. I now want the Department to look at bye-laws Nos. 806 and 809 again to see whether they should now stand in the absence of an appropriate assessment or any assessment of the impact the protection of pike and coarse fish is having on other species, particularly native species of salmon and trout, in the western lakes.

Deputy Niall Collins

I thank the Senator for raising this matter, which emanates from a commitment in the programme for Government to designate certain lakes the Senator has named as Corrib, Mask, Arrow, Carra, Conn, Cullin and Sheelin, as salmonoid waters. The initial approach to delivering on this was to put in place a bye-law to address the designation. The inland fisheries division of the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications progressed a comprehensive draft bye-law within the established legislative processes during the first half of 2021. Later in 2021, during the public consultation process on the draft designated salmonid waters bye-law covering the seven distinct lakes, a very broad range of diverse, and often significantly divergent, views were submitted to the Department.

The Minister is acutely aware of the threat to these waters from a range of factors such as infrastructural developments, intensive agricultural practices, water quality, climate change, invasive organisms, and degraded habitats due to arterial drainage. Established programmes, managed by Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI, and its predecessors, have been in place on these State-owned waters since the 1950s. I emphasise that the lakes in question have long been designated for management primarily for the benefit of wild brown trout as a matter of policy and that this policy designation remains. However, the Minister is conscious of the need to address the full range of issues facing fish and aquatic animals and their habitat.

On foot of feedback from the consultation, it was clear that reaching broad stakeholder consensus on a bye-law would be extremely challenging. Based on this feedback and on the advice of IFI, the proposed bye-law is not being pursued. Instead, following detailed discussions between departmental officials and senior management of IFI, the Minister formally asked IFI to develop a comprehensive, evidence-based management plan for these waters to be known as the western lakes management plan. The Senator was briefed extensively on these developments and the strategy to discontinue the proposed bye-law in favour of pursuing the policy goal via a comprehensive management plan. He will no doubt be aware of the Minister’s intention to have IFI develop that plan.

IFI submitted its first iteration of the plan to the inland fisheries division in mid-October 2020 and, following detailed joint consideration, a second refined version was delivered last week. It is expected that the draft plan will be submitted to the Minister for his consideration shortly in response to his formal request for the plan. It is also intended that the draft plan will be provided to the Angling Consultative Council of Ireland, which is the group, open to all national angling representation organisations, established by the Minister for consultation on angling matters. In addition, broad stakeholder consultation will be undertaken across all disciplines of angling and with environmental and biodiversity stakeholders and other affected and interested parties.

In the context of these developments, certain stakeholders have raised, mainly by means of requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2014, the matter of the two bye-laws cited by the Senator in this matter. In the interests of clarity, those making freedom of information requests were advised by the Department that, following a search of available files from 2006, no records within the scope of the requests were located. This may indicate that the Department concluded that the bye-laws did not come within the scope of the directive and that, as such, an appropriate assessment or even an appropriate assessment screening was not necessary. It should be noted that the bye-laws in question have been in force for 16 years and, while fisheries legislation provides for an appeal of any bye-law to the High Court within 30 days of its enactment, no such contemporaneous appeal was entered in either case.

It is also important to note that the carrying out of appropriate assessments or screening assessments or the initiation of assessment processes on more recent regulations or bye-laws does not imply that the Department considers bye-laws Nos. 809 or 806 of 2006 to be non-compliant with the habitats directive.

These issues would have to be considered as regards the specific bye-laws and the matter of compliance with the EU habitats directive within the perspective of relevant EU case law. In addition, it may not be feasible to review bye-laws from 16 years ago without reviewing all bye-laws currently in force.

Legislative change required, if any, can be considered in the context of the Inland Fisheries Ireland western lakes management plan. The future application of bye-laws Nos. 806 and 809 of 2006 to the western lakes will, therefore, also be informed by the implementation of Inland Fisheries Ireland’s forthcoming western lakes management plan.

Senator Seán Kyne

I thank the Minister of State for the comprehensive reply from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. In fairness, there is a lot of information in that. The crux of it is in the last line of the second last paragraph “the initiation of assessment processes on more recent regulations or bye-laws does not imply that the Department considers bye-laws Nos. 809 or 806 of 2006 to be non-compliant with the habitats directive”. Of course, they are not saying they are compliant with the habitats directive in that case either. In my view they are not. I believe we cannot have a situation where a bye-law is challenged and thrown out because it tries to protect salmon and trout while the same bye-laws operational in those great western lakes that are designed to protect pike and coarse fish are not the subject of an appropriate assessment. We cannot have one rule being applied to salmon and trout and another rule being applied to pike and coarse fish. It is quite clear the two bye-laws in question need to be reviewed, rescinded and started again with appropriate assessment to see what impact they are having on salmon and trout in the great western lakes.

Deputy Niall Collins

The Minister is happy that the Inland Fisheries Ireland western lakes management plan will draw on the latest developments in scientific data, survey work and research to create a strategy for these waters that will protect, conserve and preserve their unique status and importance in the long term. The plan will be subject to rigorous environmental governance, including the requirements of EU directives and, critically, will take ecological, biodiversity and socioeconomic impacts into account. If legislative change is required in the pursuit of this strategy, it will be considered in the context of the aims of the plan and will encompass consideration of the wider legislation and not confine itself to a very narrow range of species, as suggested.

It is envisaged that stakeholder engagement between the State bodies, public representatives, the angling community and conservation groups will be a key component to the formulation of the management plan. It is anticipated a broad range of diverse views will again emerge from this engagement. Department officials continue to work closely with Inland Fisheries Ireland on the matter. The issues around the habitats directive must consider the salmonid species included in annexe 2 of the directive on wild Atlantic salmon and the need to protect it from threats, including human exploitation. Salmon in all waters in Ireland are afforded specific protections via established fisheries policy and annual conservation legislation. Ireland’s protection of salmon is considered best in class internationally and aligns fully with the EU habitats directive and the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization principles.

Management is based on annual scientific management assessments for salmon stocks, ensuring the harvest of salmon is only from waters with sustainable reproductive capacity, closing waters of salmon that are below sustainable reproductive capacity, opening waters to catch and release, licensing, tagging of harvested salmon, and annual legislation defining the status of each river. There is also annual legislation to regulate salmon angling and, separately, to regulate commercial fisheries. The salmon management regime also applies to sea trout more than 40 cm in length, and the potential to extend similar protections to other salmonid species will be considered to afford particular protections to salmonids in general.