Inishowen's indigenous inshore fishermen are being “conned” out of their traditional oyster fishery by Loughs' Agency mismanagement, a Greencastle fisherman has claimed.
Speaking to Donegal Live, Liam O'Brien said the fishermen had also been failed by their politicians and were in danger of being “demoralised” out of Lough Foyle.
The crux of Liam O'Brien's allegation is the vexed question of the Loughs' Agency's legal authority to licence oyster fishing on the seabed of Lough Foyle or mussel fishing on its foreshore.
This is compounded by the fact no oyster fishing licences have been issued for the Foyle for this month, even though oyster fishing has already commenced on the Swilly. As a result, the Foyle fishermen are planning to “fish in September in protest”.
Speaking on behalf of what he described as the “disgruntled” inshore fishermen of Lough Foyle, Mr O'Brien said: “If the Foyle fishermen don't go to sea this month, their fishery is gone.”
He added: “The Loughs' Agency claimed the Foyle oyster fishery from the indigenous fishermen under legislation drafted in 2008. However, the fishermen have since become aware that the Loughs' Agency has no legal right to licence the seabed or the foreshore of Lough Foyle.
“However, the Loughs' Agency never obtained permission to licence the seabed or the foreshore from Crown Estates, which actually owns both.”
The Crown Estate is a collection of lands and holdings belonging to the British monarch's public estate.
The Loughs Agency was set up as one of the north-south bodies under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Mr O'Brien added: “We believe the Irish and British Governments are currently in the process of negotiating a 'management agreement' or a long term lease of the Foyle with the Crown Estate, which will enable the governments to enact legislation, as tenants, regarding the future function of the Loughs' Agency.
“Back in the day, the Loughs' Agency consulted with the native oyster fishermen, claiming it was going to regulate and enhance the fishery. At that time, we used to run an eight month fishery 24-7 and our fishery was sustainable. A small minority, 5%, of the native oysters were taken out. The fishermen agreed to it. We introduced the weight into the fishery, which meant the juvenile oysters were not being fished and stocks were not being depleted. We had our fishery,” said Liam O'Brien.
According to Liam O' Brien, the quantities of juvenile oysters currently being taken from Lough Foyle and not being replaced is having a detrimental effect on the fishery.
Liam O'Brien explained that, although the native oysters grow very quickly in their shell, according to the measuring rings used to gauge their size, they are still juvenile oysters.
He added: “Effectively the juvenile oysters do not weigh enough, they do not have enough meat content, which means they should not be fished. To add insult to injury, those oysters that are being fished are not being marketed as Lough Foyle oysters. They are going to France and being put in trestles to be grown as French oysters. The Foyle fishery is a surrogate for other countries. The Loughs' Agency is not helping us to market our product. It is not even talking to us.
“The Lough Foyle fishery does need regulations. However, anything positive the fishermen wanted to introduce was dismissed by the Loughs' Agency. It does not market or promote our oysters. We feel the Loughs' Agency wants to suppress our fishery, in order to get us out of the Foyle altogether.
“We only need to look at the example of Belgium, which stopped its fishery for two or three years and enhanced it as a result. Belgium has a decent fishery now and is bringing prime oysters to the market, in direct competition to the Foyle fishermen. If we cannot get to sea soon, we will lose our market share. It is frustrating and demoralising.
“The fishermen now talking about going to fish in September in protest because, if they look at what is being shown to them, the Loughs' Agency does not have any authority over the seabed of Lough Foyle. We would be breaking no laws, any more than the oyster farmers on the shore of Lough Foyle. We have been told by the Crown Estate, in writing, that it never gave our fishery rights to the NI Assembly at any time,” said Liam O'Brien.
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