Northern Ireland

Lough Foyle oyster farms cashing in on political deadlock

The Loughs Agency says there has been a huge upsurge in oyster farms on Lough Foyle over the past two years
Image caption The Loughs Agency says there has been a huge upsurge in oyster farms on Lough Foyle over the past two years

Oyster farmers on Lough Foyle are cashing in on the political deadlock between London and Dublin over the ownership of the lough.

But there are concerns over the risk posed by thousands of oyster trestles to boat users.

According to the Loughs Agency, there has been a huge upsurge in oyster farms on Lough Foyle over the past two years.

There are currently 30,000 metal oyster trestles on the Lough bed, compared to 2,000 in 2014.

The trestles are used to hang the oysters until they are ready to be harvested.

Because of the political dispute over who owns the lough, the authorities have no power to regulate or control the spread of the oyster farms.

That is why the Loughs Agency believes there has been such an increase.

Image caption Some of the trestles are not marked above the waterline and pose a risk to boat users

But the agency says it is powerless to act until there is political agreement between the UK and Republic of Ireland governments.

Enda Craig from the Loughs Agency Advisory Forum described the situation as "outrageous".

"If this was happening anywhere else around the coast of Ireland, government officialdom would be down on it like a ton of bricks. Thousands of trestles unregulated, unlicensed - this is a free for all, it's a Klondyke," he said.

Mr Craig said some of the trestles are not marked above the waterline and pose a risk to boat users.

"At low tide they are very visible. They're made of iron and steel, but as the tide comes in, they're covered over," he said.

"If you were a stranger here or if you weren't aware of where exactly they were, you could be coming up and these are sitting six inches below the surface of the water.

Image caption Enda Craig from the Loughs Agency Advisory Forum described the situation as 'outrageous'

"You have steel sitting waiting on your wooden boat coming up and you don't need to be a genius to work out what could happen. There's a massive safety implication here."

Sinn Féin senator Padraig McLaughlin has raised concerns with the Irish government.

He said both governments need to put their differences aside and work to resolve the problems.

"The oyster fishermen I know, who I have dealt with over the years, understand and sustain what's there, clearly unfortunately there are some who are taking advantage of this opportunity in a reckless way," he said.

"But both governments need to understand their responsibilities and they need to give the Loughs Agency, the strength they require and that regulation then needs to be implemented in partnership with the responsible oyster fishermen that are there."

This week officials from Belfast and Dublin resumed discussions around the ownership and management of Lough Foyle.

But according to the Derry-based law lecturer and historian John Thompson, the UK is unlikely to give up its claim on Lough Foyle.

"The difficulty for the secretary of the state is that the navigation of the Foyle is not in the centre, in order to navigate the Foyle you have to go down alongside the Irish shore," he said.

"All ships bound for the port of Londonderry have to almost hug the Donegal shore.

"That's why the UK is loathe to carve up Lough Foyle, they dont want ships to have to travel through Irish waters to reach a UK port."

Territorial claims over the ownership of Lough Foyle between the Republic of Ireland and the UK have ebbed and flowed since the partition of Ireland in 1922.

Last month, the issue resurfaced when David Anderson, a Labour MP from the north east of England, submitted a written question to the Northern Ireland secretary of state.

He asked James Brokenshire "whether the boundary of County Londonderry with Ireland is on the western shore of Lough Foyle; and if he will make a statement".

The Northern Ireland secretary responded with one sentence: "The government's position remains that the whole of Lough Foyle is within the UK."