Private Members Motion – Seaweed



Speech by Minister Damien English – Minister for Housing and Urban Development

I wish to thank Deputies Connolly and Pringle for bringing this Private Members’ motion before the House today. While it is a motion that I cannot fully support, I think it is an opportune time to have a debate on this issue and I very much welcome this opportunity to listen to your views on this subject. In particular, I am anxious to hear your concerns regarding issues around traditional seaweed harvesting which is one of the central messages in the motion which we will debate today.

At the outset of this debate, I would like to reiterate, as I have on a number of occasions in this House, my concern regarding issues relating to traditional seaweed harvesters. Indeed, it was for this specific reason that my Department placed “on hold” the applications we have received from various companies who sought to harvest seaweed until my Department has an opportunity to thoroughly research and clarify all of the legal issues involved. Indeed, the 2015 report by the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht highlights clarity around this issue as being key to enhancing the potential of the sector.

At the outset, it is important to note that the Government has set out its policy by which Ireland’s marine potential can be realised in our integrated marine plan: Harnessing our Ocean Wealth (HOOW). HOOW has three high level goals, of equal importance, (i) a thriving maritime economy, (ii) healthy ecosystems and (iii) engagement with the sea. Within this plan, to support the goals are eight enablers covering such areas as governance, clean – green marine, research, knowledge technology and innovation. Within the eight enablers areas are 39 further issues for action.

In the area of seaweed, it is important that I set out clearly my responsibilities. Under the Foreshore Act 1933, I have responsibility for regulating activities and development within the foreshore area. The foreshore area stretches from the high water mark out to a distance of twelve nautical miles – a total area of approximately 39,000 sq kilometres. This area is considered State property under the State Property Acts. The Foreshore Act controls development within this area and we are approached by individuals, companies and organisations pursuant to this legislation seeking consent for developments such as marinas, slipways, coastal protection measures and port development. Consent is also sought for activities such as one day events such as horse racing, sand or gravel removal and the harvesting of seaweed.

I do not have responsibility for the regulation or development of any industry that utilises the foreshore space, although I can insert specific clauses in foreshore leases. It should also be noted that I do not have, contrary to some who argue otherwise, the means under the legislation to sell either any area of the foreshore or to sell seaweed rights. Consent to applications under the Foreshore Act is given by way of a lease to confer exclusive use (generally for long term semi-permanent or permanent development) or a licence for non-exclusive use (generally shorter term, non-permanent activities such as one day events, telecommunications cables or seaweed harvesting). During the period of the lease, the area remains the property of the State with the lessee paying rent to the State.

The role of my Department in relation to the harvesting of wild seaweed is to regulate the activity in accordance with the Foreshore Act. In carrying out this task, there is a need to ensure that the resource is suitably managed, with the twin aims of protecting the marine environment and allowing for a sustainable level of harvesting.

While it is not directly relevant to the issues of traditional seaweed harvesters, I am aware that a delegation from West Cork is making its views known today outside the House. My officials have met with them and I look forward to meeting with them in due course. It is disappointing that an Eco Eye programme took a very one sided view of the issue of the licence in Bantry Bay, which was granted by the then Minister John Gormley in 2011. Accordingly, I welcome the recent ruling by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland in relation to the complaint it received regarding this programme and acknowledged “that the programme did not include a range of perspective on the topic sufficient to meet the requirements of fairness, objectivity and impartiality, in a context where it was evident that there were other views, including the views of the complainant.” While I appreciate that this Group have a number of concerns regarding the licence, it is disappointing that the programme did not mention the baseline study and monitoring programme which were specifically included in the terms of the licence to underpin the sustainability of the resource.

  1. Seaweed as a Resource.

Seaweed represents a valuable natural resource that if sustainably harvested can maintain and stimulate further economic development in coastal rural areas. While this has always been the historical position of seaweed in Ireland, to contribute positively to economic growth, we have moved from a position of using seaweed mainly for food, as fertilizer and as an animal foodstuff to a position where we have enhanced applications and uses for seaweed.

Seaweed is now the raw material in cutting edge bio-pharma products such as animal pro-biotics, anti-coagulants in blood products. There are Irish companies using seaweed or seaweed derived products in bio-pharma and other areas such as body care, cosmetic products and artisan foods.

To maximise the economic potential of this valuable resource, these are the sectors that we must look to support. If we wish to encourage further high value growth, to provide high quality jobs at both graduate and PHD level, in the areas of research and development, technology and advanced production process and sales and marketing then investment is needed. Companies based in Ireland such as Oileann Glas Teoranta (OGT), Bioatlantis, and Brandon Bioscience have made significant investment in these areas and are already producing high value products that compete in global markets.

  1. Applications and Interaction with Traditional Rights.

I can confirm that my Department is currently in receipt of 17 applications for licences under the Foreshore Act to harvest wild seaweed on hand of which 13 are from companies who wish to harvest and process seaweed. The applicants produce products that range from artisan food products to animal health products to high grade fertiliser. While assessing these applications we discovered that certain rights to harvest seaweed exist in coastal communities, particularly along the western seaboard, in the same geographical area that the companies had applied for.

To learn more about the extent and nature of existing rights to harvest seaweed, my Department engaged with the Property Registration Authority of Ireland to determine the number of appurtenant rights specified in Land Registry folios. On foot of this request, the PRAI provided my Department with aggregate data detailing the extent of the rights in seven of the western seaboard counties: Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Clare, Galway, Mayo and Donegal. The data showed that there were approximately 6500 rights relating to seaweed spread across those seven counties. However, while there is not a definitive number of those engaged in traditional harvesting of seaweed estimate are that somewhere between 250 to 400 of these rights are currently being exercised.

My Department has also undertaken work to establish the implications of the interaction between these existing seaweed harvesting rights and the applications for licences by companies and my officials have met with the Attorney General’s Office on a number of occasions to examine these issues. Once this work is complete, it is my aim to bring clarity to the regulatory regime applying to wild seaweed harvesting, seeking to balance the existing rights of traditional harvesters and commercial potential, while also ensuring sustainability of the resource and compliance with the State’s obligations under domestic and EU environmental law.

  1. Private Members Motion.

The Government cannot support a motion that looks to focus on the issue of seaweed or the development of the seaweed industry while only concentrating on a singular viewpoint: that of the traditional seaweed harvester. Any regulatory regime must take into account the interests of a multiplicity of stakeholders.

The private members motion by Deputies Connolly and Pringle does not reflect the symbiotic relationship between traditional harvesters and companies. Quite simply, both entities need each other. The main source of raw material for companies comes from the seaweed harvested by traditional harvesters while the main income derived by traditional harvesters from selling seaweed comes from companies.

It is in this context of listening to all views that I have agreed to meet with the different stakeholders to hear their viewpoints. I recently met with a processor of seaweed and had hoped at this point to have met with Coiste Cearta Cladaí Chonamara, a group of traditional harvesters from the Gaeltacht area in Connemara and the Ascophyllum Nodosum Processors Group (ANPG) who represent a number of the larger producers. However, given the recent weather conditions these meetings have not yet taken place. I hope to meet both of these groups and the Bantry Bay group in the next couple of weeks.

It is also our view that the need to prevent the over-exploitation of this valuable resource while also providing for an environment that will support the growth of jobs in local area is the principle that must underpin the regulation of wild seaweed harvesting. All leases and licences granted by my Department under the Foreshore Act include clauses specific to sustainability of the resource, environmental protection and compliance appropriate to the activity and the area in which it is granted.

  1. Counter Motion.

I believe that the counter motion that I am proposing on behalf of the Government today will allow for the interests of all stakeholders to be taken into account. It acknowledges the importance of wild seaweed harvesting in rural communities particularly along the western seaboard. It recognises seaweed harvesting as one of the sources of income for some families in rural communities, it also however recognises that to continue to grow the seaweed industry in Ireland we must look to the production of high value products that will provide graduate and PHD level opportunities in these communities. It focuses not only on traditional harvesters but also on those companies that have the ability to turn a naturally occurring marine resource into cutting edge products which can be supplied to global markets.

The counter-motion also highlights the fact that all harvesters of seaweed, whether they be a traditional harvester or a company equally share the responsibility for ensuring the sustainability of this valuable natural resource.

It notes and reaffirms the on-going work of my Department to progress the Maritime Area and Foreshore (Amendment) Bill which will bring much needed reform to the regulation of all development and activity regulated under the Foreshore Act 1933.

I would like to take this opportunity to once again assure everyone that no decisions have yet been reached on the commercial seaweed harvesting applications which have been received by my Department. These 17 applications are essentially on hold while my officials continue to work on this complex legal issue. I wish to re-affirm my commitment to the work necessary to bring clarity to the regulatory regime in relation to wild seaweed harvesting and while this work is now in its final stages, I hope to be in a position to make an announcement in the next two months.

Finally, while I cannot support all aspects of the motion today by Deputies Connolly and Pringle, I am very conscious of the traditional role played by seaweed harvesters up and down the west coast of Ireland over many generations. I am very aware of the economic value and the positive economic contribution which their efforts have made to their communities. I also respect the heritage of seaweed harvesting and the way in which they have protected and safeguarded the resource through sustainable harvesting practises. I am deeply conscious of all of these aspects and the integral part that seaweed harvesting has played in people lives along the western seaboard. As I have outlined earlier, I look forward to hearing about these issues at first hand when I meet with representatives of traditional harvesters shortly.

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