It was low tide in Skerries Harbour at midday last Thursday. Seaweed and jellyfish were scattered across the beach.
Inside the pier wall, 12 large vessels, mostly fishing boats, were berthed. Most sat in shallow pools of water. Three stood on a bed of sand and rock.
In his green van, Patrick Hughes drove up Harbour Road, steering left onto the pier.
As he went to park, he passed a bulletin board with six sheets of paper, displaying Fingal County Council’s draft by-laws for Skerries Harbour.
The proposed rules have been prepared for each of the county’s four harbours: Balbriggan, Loughshinny, Rush and Skerries.
It was an action generally welcomed, Hughes said. The last by-laws, adopted in 2010, had never been enforced, and the harbour needed to be properly managed.
“We know change is needed. We’ve no problem with change,” he said.
But he is concerned, he says, that among the newly proposed by-laws, some may potentially hinder the business of the local fishing community.
One prohibits bringing non-emergency vehicles onto the roadway, slipway or pier without the express permission of the harbourmaster. Another restricts leaving “goods” on the harbour.
But those who use the harbour as a base for fishing need to be able to park and leave their equipment along the pier, Hughes says.
“They’re talking about fines for fishing gear on a harbour. For 200 years, it’s been here. It’s a must. We’ve no storage. The only storage we have, we put in ourselves,” he says.
Needing to seek permission regularly to do his job isn’t realistic, he says.
None of the by-laws are final yet, said Martina O’Connor, administrative officer for Balbriggan, Rush-Lusk and Swords, recently.
Fingal County Council wants to ensure the harbour is accessible for emergency services, she said, at a meeting of the Transport and Infrastructure Management Strategic Policy Committee on Monday 4 September.
“What we’re looking to prevent is the idea that a car or a van or a lorry comes onto the pier and is parked up for a significant period of time,” she said.
Regulating a free-for-all
As Hughes leans against his van at Skerries Harbour, he is joined by Richard Gildea, a regional development officer with An Bord Iascaigh Mhara, the seafood development agency.
By-laws are needed because until Fingal County Council inherited its harbours from Dublin Port after the council’s formation in 1994, there wasn’t much effort put into managing the harbours, Gildea says. “Up until very recently, it was basically a free-for-all.”
“It’s that transition from managing a free-for-all to a well-managed harbour is the difficulty,” he says.
When Fingal County Council adopted the previous by-laws, in December 2010, they were not enforced, says Green Party Councillor Karen Power. “We didn’t have a harbour master.”
Historically, Howth had a harbour master, said Paul Smyth, a council senior executive officer, at the transport and infrastructure meeting last Monday. “Fingal has never had a harbour master working on the four harbours.”
The council hired a new harbour master, in a process that kicked off in August 2022.
“We’re in a changed set of circumstances there,” Smyth says. “And of course, with any change, people don’t feel comfortable with it.”
“The sort of laissez faire attitude that’s happened before changes dramatically,” he said. “So there is a management structure in place there as of now, having a harbour master.”
On 14 June, Fingal County Council said it was proposing a new set of by-laws, and drafts were put on display the following day, said O’Connor, at the council meeting.
Of the 43 submissions received by the council, nine were made on behalf of or by fishers associated with the different harbours, while 22 related to Skerries Harbour, she said.
One of the major suggested changes to Skerries Harbour is its size.
Under the 2010 by-laws, its boundaries extended to 100 metres beyond the quay wall. But, in the new proposed regulations, they would be set at 457.2 metres beyond the quay wall, O’Connor said.
“When our legal counsel went investigating, it turns out that when the harbour was transferred to [Dublin County Council] in the 19th century, the harbour limits were significantly further out from the shoreline than previously thought,” she said.
That reversion to the original boundary poses an issue, says a submission made by local Fine Gael Councillor Tom O’Leary, given the speed limit within the boundary is four knots, or 7.4 kilometres per hour.
That makes less sense for a larger zone, he wrote, and should only apply to vehicles with motors.
Anyone launching a sailboat has very little control over their speed if a strong wind is blowing, says Neil Cramer, a member of Skerries Sailing Club. “You’re going to be going more than four knots.”
O’Leary, in his written submission, said the draft by-laws set out that the harbour’s use is restricted to vessels that are less than 18 metres in length, something which also wouldn’t make sense in a harbour now more than three times its previous size.
Storage and parking
Worries that the by-laws would keep people from storing equipment on the piers were primarily voiced by those within the fishing community, said O’Connor at the meeting.
In contrast, “Parking on the piers was important for everybody,” she said.
People earning their livelihood at sea would like to be able to park permanently on the piers, she said.
“We’ll have to address that in terms of there’s parking to organise your business at the beginning and the end of the day, and there’s parking where cars are abandoned for days at a time,” she said.
Gildea, in a submission written on behalf of the Northeast Regional Inshore Fisheries Forum, said tightening the rules around parking was the most “worrying and ridiculous” part of the proposed by-laws.
After all, heavy equipment and fuel need to be delivered, and seafood collected – and repair and maintenance contractors need to have access to vessels, the submission said.
O’Connor, at the committee meeting, said the council does need to factor in the need of those fishing to unload equipment and catches.
“How we get that into the by-laws and how we can then work to counteract the other practices around long-stay parking is what needs to be teased in the next stage of the by-law process,” she said.
O’Connor said there was a misconception that these draft by-laws were a fait accompli, rather than a work in progress.
“We listen to what is coming back in and as far as practicable, we try to amend or accommodate the views that are coming back in, so long as it is within the ambit of what by-laws should be,” she said.
The council will now be looking at the submissions and observations made during the public consultation, said Smyth, the council official.
Then, in December, O’Connor said, a full report will be provided with an amended set of draft by-laws.