Press Release

IFI CEO Francis O'Donnell's Opening Statement to Joint Oireachtas Committee – Environment and Climate Action

IFI’s mandate and biodiversity practices

Fish species form an essential part of the biodiversity of waterbodies (i.e. lakes, rivers, estuaries and coastal waters). For example, fish are an important link in the food chain in all waterbodies and serve as food for other fish, for birds such as herons, cormorants and white-tailed eagles, and mammals such as otters and even humans, all while adding to the biodiversity of waterbodies. Certain fish species such as juvenile salmon and trout serve as an essential host in the life cycle of the endangered freshwater pearl mussel. Fish are also an important indicator of water quality and ecosystem health and are considered sentinel species. 

Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI) is the statutory authority tasked under section 7(1) of the Inland Fisheries Act 2010, with responsibility for the protection, management, and conservation of the inland fisheries resource and is one of Ireland’s core environmental agencies. IFI’s role relates to all fish species in fresh water and their habitats, to all aspects of the aquatic environment, such as water quality, biodiversity and hydromorphology and all factors that influence biotic communities within water bodies. The conservation of valuable water resources and protection and enhancement of biological diversity are core components of IFI’s legislative remits. IFI also protects bluefin tuna and sea bass as part of a service level agreement with the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority. This delegation of functions is pragmatic and extremely beneficial in terms of species protection and value for money for the taxpayer. 

Inland Fisheries Ireland’s environmental role is delivered primarily by a network of Environmental Officers based in the six River Basin Districts. The environmental function can broadly be broken into three main themes: (1) Regulatory and enforcement (incident management, expert witness and planning/licence/compliance), (2) Expertise, knowledge and industry experience and (3) Stewardship and advocacy. IFI staff are empowered to enforce the Water Pollution Acts 1977 and 1990. IFI undertakes and commissions applied research in relation to biodiversity and conservation; specifically to assess the conservation status of fish species, to monitor the status of fish stocks, and to explore environmental issues that have an impact on fish and their habitats. IFI provides scientific research and management advice to the Minister for the Environment, Climate Action and Communications. Ireland has approximately 74,000 km of rivers and streams, 12,200 lakes and an extensive coastline, all of which fall under IFI’s jurisdiction. 

IFI’s activities (i.e. protection, conservation and development, environmental enforcement, angling support, education and outreach, research and stakeholder engagement) align with several recommendations made by the Citizens Assembly report and thus IFI should be considered a key agency in the protection and restoration of biodiversity in our freshwater and coastal waters.  IFI is responsible for the enforcement and implementation of existing national legislation and bye laws directed at the conservation of fish species and the habitats within which they reside.  For species like, the European eel and Atlantic salmon, which are under considerable conservation pressure, IFI has directed its resources to provide focussed conservation measures, which includes habitat restoration, evidence-based fishery management, legislation and enforcement of protection against poaching. The latter remains a constant risk and is very resource intensive. 

IFI has a long history of assessing the health of rivers, lakes, and estuaries through the monitoring of fish stocks, which in more recent years have expanded to national programmes supporting reporting on the status of fish populations regularly through a national monitoring programme which in turn informs restoration and protection measures.  These data support IFI’s role in implementing the Water Framework Directive (S.I. No. 722 of 2003) (i.e. protection and restoration) and Habitats Directive (European Communities (Natural Habitats) Regulations 1997 (S.I. No. 94 of 1997)) (conservation of fish species and other species of fauna and flora habitats and the biodiversity of inland water ecosystems).

IFI has supported a recent review (Irish Red List 2023) of the extinction risk of freshwater fish species and certain trout ecotypes in Ireland. Using the latest international guidelines IFI found that 43% of fish species are threatened. One fish species (i.e., European Eel) has been classified as Critically Endangered, one species (Pollan) has been assessed as Endangered, nine species have been classified as Vulnerable. They include (Arctic char, twaite shad, Killarney shad, ferox trout, gillaroo trout, sonaghen trout, croneen trout, dollaghan trout and Atlantic salmon). Two fish species were found to be Near Threatened (Sea lamprey and Sea trout). Sea trout experienced a dramatic collapse in 1987 along the west coast of Ireland and have not recovered in that geographical area.  

Francis O'Donnell

Francis O'Donnell, CEO of Inland Fisheries Ireland

As part of IFI’s climate change mitigation research programme IFI scientists and colleagues have also established that Arctic char is the most vulnerable species to climate change of all the fish species present on the island. This is followed by salmon, pollan, gillaroo trout, sonaghen trout and Killarney shad. Seven fish species are listed in the Habitats Directive and their conservation status was assessed in 2019 as Bad (four species), Favourable (two species) and one unknown status. 

Over generations many Irish rivers have been severely impacted by human activity, mainly to facilitate land drainage. In some cases, the natural habitats on which a huge variety of fish and wildlife rely has been removed or damaged and cannot be replaced.  Each year, IFI staff survey a number of these channels and develop river habitat restoration plans, which aim to restore these rivers to something close to their natural state.  IFI has pioneered the implementation of riverine restoration programmes in Ireland, using evidence-based measures and through various funding streams, in partnership with stakeholders and other state agencies. These riverine restoration interventions are a key tool in the protection and restoration of freshwater aquatic systems and therefore biodiversity.  

IFI has led the development of a river barrier assessment tool and is currently mapping the extent of barriers to fish migration nationwide through IFI’s National Barriers programme. The mitigation of barriers and the restoration of free-flowing rivers can enable the protection and restoration of natural biodiversity in our catchments. With the support of the Department of HousingLocal Government and Heritage and the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications, IFI has developed a National Barriers Mitigation programme.  This programme will be supported by the establishment of a new capital programme to remove where possible and mitigate the environmental impact of river barriers. The plan includes four pilot barrier mitigation projects that are being progressed to trial methods for dealing with different implementation challenges. 

IFI and collaborators are undertaking an applied climate change mitigation research programme to focus on the impacts of climate change on inland waters. This programme is bridging a knowledge gap related to the impacts of climate change on Ireland’s fish and their habitats and will also provide data to support investigations on the decline in overall freshwater biodiversity. The evidence supplied will enable IFI and key partners to design the best ways to protect and sustainably restore freshwater ecosystems, and biodiversity, currently under pressure from many areas, increase resilience to the adverse impacts of extreme weather and allow strategic prioritisation of conservation and protection measures. We already know that water temperature within catchments is reaching lethal levels for salmon and trout during summer periods. These catchments would have originally been shaded by deciduous forests allowing for refuge in the past. Anthropogenic activity has resulted in the removal of natural tree cover which destabilises riverbanks which in turn interrupts ecosystem processes needed for all species that reside in or close to river corridors.

IFI has a strong focus on the protection against and management of aquatic and riparian invasive species.  Over decades, IFI has supported the development of biosecurity protocols and invasive management methodologies to protect our catchments from this growing threat. IFI staff and funding has been engaged to tackle these invaders; for example, IFI continues to manage the highly aggressive submerged aquatic plant species Lagarosiphon major (Curly leaved waterweed) in Lough Corrib.  This invasive plant has the capacity to take over large areas of this lake and other lakes impacting greatly on plant and animal biodiversity.  We clearly need legislation in this area that prevents the movement of boats without proper sanitation certification. The Shannon system has ten nonnative species at present and their spread to other water bodies is inevitable if legislation and enforcement is not undertaken. Critically, there needs to be an all-Ireland approach to this issue as invasive species often use transboundary river corridors to invade. 

Inland Fisheries Ireland and its staff are passionate about the protection and conservation of our native biodiversity, this goal is fully aligned with statutory legislation to conserve, protect and develop the Inland Fisheries resource.  As an organisation we are committed to expanding our efforts to restore and protect our environment and enforce legislation where necessary, particularly where it can support the restoration of aquatic biodiversity. 

Equally we believe that serious consideration needs to be given to expanding the powers of Authorised officers to enforce environmental and wildlife legislation in a wider context. This would benefit Irelands aquatic and terrestrial environments and the species that rely on them including humans. A significant review of the financial penalties associated with wildlife, water quality and habitat destruction is now required to deter those involved if we are to stem the reduction in Irelands biodiversity loss for future generations. Enforcement in this area should be viewed as a positive thing as the natural world belongs to all citizens.