The Department of Agriculture, Food, and Fisheries’ refusal to release the accident report on the loss of 230,000 salmon in a February 2014 storm has been annulled by the Information Commission, Peter Tyndal.
Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney’s Department had refused to release the report on the grounds that it was an 'internal communication' and that the public ‘interest would not be served by the disclosure’.
In its appeal to the Information Commissioner, FIE claimed the release is ‘a matter of extreme public importance not only in the light of the circumstances of the Gerahies incident, but also because of the failure of the Department to carry out its regulatory functions properly in ensuring compliance with aquaculture licensing conditions aimed at preventing the escape of fish.’
In response to a case taken by FIE to the High Court after a year’s delay, the Information Commissioner gave an undertaking on 6 July 2015 to the Court to rule on the case ‘within a week’.
The Department was ‘strongly of the view’ that the release of any parts of the deliberative process of advising the Minister what action to take ‘would be premature and would unduly constrain the Minister in respect of any action which he might deem appropriate.’
However, at a meeting in June 2015, the Department told the Information Commissioner that it was ‘not in a position to make a specific recommendation to the Minister and, at present, no proposal for action is under consideration’.
‘I do not accept’, the Information Commissioner wrote in the ruling on 13th July, 2015, ‘that the connection between the requested information and an ongoing, seemingly indefinite deliberative process provides an adequate basis for refusal.’
As to the public interest, the Commissioner wrote that ‘it is not enough to interpret AIE by national law alone but must be interpreted in the light of the Directive and indirectly the Aaarhus Convention.’
‘I also consider’, he concluded, ‘that there is a very strong public interest in maximising openness and accountability in relation to how the Department of Marine and the Marine Institute carry out their functions under the relevant legislation governing the aquaculture industry.’
A previous Report on the loss of 80,000 salmon in Clew Bay in 2010 blamed the disaster on Simon Coveney’s Department’s failure to enforce licensing conditions.
The Report stated ‘if a more rigorous/frequent mooring inspections programme had been in place it is possible – even likely - there would have been earlier detection which would therefore have avoided the November 2010 failures.’
A note by an Assistant Secretary on the Report states: ‘This Report clearly points to the fact that adequate systems in relation to certification, maintenance, inspection, repairs and records need to be in place for this type of installation’.