TAXPAYERS in Northern Ireland could be left to foot the bill for millions of pounds in EU fines unless urgent action is taken to protect dwindling salmon stocks.
The warning comes despite the recent announcement from a Stormont minister calling for a voluntary cessation of legal coastal netting and killing of salmon by anglers.
Ulster taxpayers are already facing huge EU fines – thought to be in the region of £100 million – imposed on the Department of Agriculture over mistakes made on single farm payments.
In a letter sent from the DCAL minister Caral Ni Chuilin to the department’s committee, the minister acknowledged that research has shown that rivers here have failed to reach their conservation limits since 2002.
She also revealed that the ongoing study found that the drift nets and bag nets operated off the north Antrim coast were intercepting mixed stocks of salmon bound for rivers in both the DCAL and Foyle jurisdictions.
Ms Ni Chuilin said: “Based on this suite of scientific research the department considers that the continued exploitation of Atlantic salmon in the DCAL jurisdiction is currently untenable.
“Authorising such exploitation would be inconsistent with the department’s obligations under European habitats directives.
“This could lead to significant infraction fines being imposed by the European Commission.”
Ms Ni Chuilin said the call for a voluntary end to netting and the killing of fish by anglers in 2012 would give her department time to find an alternative solution.
DCAL has already received letters from anglers and conservationists in recent months calling for the banning of the coastal nets.
But Ulster Unionist MLA Robin Swann told the News Letter that he believes that the voluntary measure will not remove the threat of massive European fines.
“The research has shown that these nets are breaking the directives, and unless they are stopped completely we are still leaving ourselves wide open for fines which would likely run into millions which you and I will end up paying,” he said.
“This is a hugely important issue when we see how much salmon angling contributes to tourism south of the border.
“Yet in Northern Ireland this exploitation is in effect being allowed to continue and ruining any potential for what is a lucrative angling tourism sector.”
The North Atlantic Wild Sea Salmon Fishermen’s Association (NAWSSFA), which represents six commercial nets fishing along the coast, claims that “anglers catch more salmon than nets-men” each year.
They accused DCAL of “discriminating in favour of sports fishermen by differentiating between licences for anglers and people fishing with nets”.
“Declining salmon stocks are a matter of concern for all of us and we are keen and prepared as previously advised to DCAL to work closely with the department to ensure positive measures are taken to protect the long term future of salmon stocks on an equitable, fair and just basis,” the netsmen said in a statement.
It is also believed that DCAL – who are responsible for licensing the nets – does not have the power or legislation in place to stop the commercial nets.
When the News Letter put this to DCAL, a spokesman replied: “At this stage, the department is seeking the voluntary cooperation of stakeholders to conserve salmon stocks. DCAL will continue to monitor the situation to determine if further measures are needed.”
Today, representatives from both angling and conservation groups will meet at Stormont to discuss the crisis at an information event hosted by the Ulster Unionist Party.
One of those groups – titled No Salmon Nets – voiced their frustration over the DCAL minister’s recent statement.
“We want these actions to be compulsory and not voluntary.
“With ever-decreasing salmon runs in recent years we feel that in this modern age there is no longer any place for the commercial netting and exploitation of wild salmon in this country,” a spokesperson for the group said.
TUV leader Jim Allister was also critical of the move.
“I do not see how this will stop infraction fines from Europe – if these nets are allowed to continue breaking these directives for another year, then we will likely to still be fined,” he said.
“There is also an issue of why the Department who have this scientific evidence do not simply refuse to issue licences to those who want to use the nets in the first place.
“That would seem to be a very straightforward way to protect the fish and stop any fines.”
- Read more in Monday’s News Letter