The Progressive Democrats are using the survival of the salmon industry as a political football, an Oireachtas Committee claimed today.
The all-party Marine Committee today called for a three-year ban on drift-net fishing to protect future stocks of the species in Irish rivers.
Progressive Democrat TD Fiona O’Malley said at the weekend that her party felt so strongly about the issue that she was prepared to vote against the Government.
But Marine Committee member Tommy Broughan said today: “The PDs had seven years to do something about this and they did nothing.
“Now they are taking a sudden interest in the issue on the eve of our report coming out.
“It smacks of political opportunism to say the least.”
However Progressive Democrat Senator John Dardis later rejected the criticism and said his party issued a policy document on a buy-out of drift-net fishermen as far back as 1999.
“We discussed the whole issue at our parliamentary party meeting again last month and agreed on it,” he added.
The Marine Committee, which considered submissions from 45 interest groups over the last nine months, has called for a fund scheme to compensate drift-net fishermen.
The scheme would either buy out the netsmen or suspend their licences for three years in order for stocks to recover.
Drift-net fishing has been blamed for a massive decline in salmon stocks across northern Europe and the practice is currently banned in most other countries along Europe’s Atlantic coast.
Irish anglers have been seeking a similar ban for several years and claim the angling industry is on the verge of collapse because most salmon are caught before they ever reach the rivers.
Senator John Dardis welcomed today’s report but claimed it didn’t go far enough.
“I would have liked the report to go further than it has. It’s going to take more than three years for us to know if there is a turnaround.”
The report’s five recommendations will now be forwarded to Marine Minister Pat The Cope Gallagher to make a decision in early 2006.
Mr Gallagher, who told the committee earlier this year that he was not in favour of a buy-out, today referred the report to the newly-formed National Salmon Commission for consideration.
Committee chairman Noel O’Flynn said today’s report represented a ’road map’ for the future of the salmon industry.
“We’re talking about the survival of the species here and I’m sure the Government won’t be found wanting on the issue,” he added.
Mr O’Flynn said he had seen estimates of the level of compensation fluctuate between €5m and €70m.
However the Stop Now campaign against salmon drift-netting said €23m was a more realistic figure.
Senator Michael Finucane said: “If the political will is there, then something will be done.”
Green Party TD Eamon Ryan said how the Government handled the salmon issue was a litmus test for how it treated the environment.
Committee member John Perry said that a compensation scheme would pay for itself in the extra revenue from angling tourism with the salmon return to rivers.
Senator Brendan Kenneally explained that he carried out a survey of 171 drift-fishermen in Waterford Estuary and the majority supported a buy-out scheme.
West Cork TD and Committee member Denis O’Donovan said that fishermen were in agreement that the issue needed to be addressed urgently.
“The season is getting shorter. The salmon are running later,” he added.
Speaking after the report was published, Mr Gallagher said he was 'open' to any proposals to ensure the survival of the salmon industry.
He added: “However any buy-out scheme must be predicated upon a public good being identified, justified and quantified.”
He asked the Salmon Commission to give today’s report “priority in their consideration on how best the wild salmon resource may be managed, conserved and exploited on a shared and sustainable basis into the future having regard to Government policy.”