Maritime column: Fishing industry up in arms as EU takes action on Irish fleet

Maritime column: Fishing industry up in arms as EU takes action on Irish fleet

Irish fishing boats are now no longer allowed to weigh their catches at sea. The fishermen must now weigh their catches on landing, with immediate effect, as ordered by Brussels and confirmed by the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA); above, the head office of the SFPA in Clonakilty. Picture: Andy Gibson

CLONAKILTY is the major State location for national fisheries administration.

The Fisheries section of the Department of the Marine is based there. So is the headquarters of the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA). The National Seafood Centre, focused on research and development of new seafood products is also located in the West Cork town.

The three agencies make Clonakilty a hub of State involvement with the fishing industry.

But two of them are at the centre of controversy and disagreement with the industry — the Fisheries section of the Department and the SFPA — over the European Commission’s withdrawal of a derogation that allowed catches of fish to be weighed at processing factories rather than at ports where they are landed.

The Commission carried out an audit of this practice three years ago, which is still allowed in six other European nations. In the middle of April, based on what it described as a “risk” of non-compliance with the Common Fisheries Policy, it withdrew the derogation. However, non-Irish boats landing into Irish ports will still be allowed to send their catches back to factories in their own countries to be weighed.

They won’t be subject to the action taken against Irish boats.

Outrage in Ireland 

This has outraged the Irish industry, particularly because the EU has not produced evidence for its decision and the Irish Government has not demanded it.

“It is customary in law to produce evidence before passing sentence,” says John Lynch, chief executive of the Irish South and East Fish Producers.

“This has not been done in this instance,” according to Patrick Murphy of the South West FPO (Fish Producers Organisation). 

“Our ability to protect the quality of fish caught is being threatened by being forced to de-ice after catching, weigh on the pier, then find tonnes of fresh ice with which to limit this damage to product quality.”

No procedural code has yet been devised for how this issue will be dealt with. The SFPA is understood to be working on it. There are 160 processing factory companies in Ireland.

“We are confident of our procedures and will strongly defend ourselves,” says Brendan Byrne, chief executive of the Irish Fish Processors and Exporters Association.

“The indiscriminate decision of the Commission is blunt, brutal and wrong. It has offered no due process, no right of appeal, no advance warning, and no disclosure of reports, documentation or correspondence that led to this draconian measure that is destroying the reputation of the Irish fishing industry.

“One case was found and prosecuted,” says John Ward, chief executive of the Irish Fish Producers Organisation.

“That is no basis for a decision that is very serious for all Irish fish landings.

“We have not been given access to any information to justify this crude action which will damage the pelagic, demersal and shellfish sectors,” said Sean O’Donoghue, CEO of Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation.

The Sea Fisheries Protection Authority at Clonakilty denied to me that it had carried out the disputed audit: “The audit was conducted by the EU Commission.”

The SFPA website says: “The findings of that audit identified irregularities, including the manipulation of weighing systems in some instances, that were subsequently confirmed by the administrative inquiry conducted by the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority.”

During 2019, the SFPA told me, its officers carried out 2,222 inspections of fishing vessels: 81% of which were on Irish-registered vessels; 10% on UK and Spanish; 7% French and 2% on vessels from a further nine different countries.

“The SFPA adopts a risk-based approach to fisheries control. All vessels are assessed similarly. Activities and fisheries considered to pose particular risks of non-compliance are monitored more closely and subject to focussed inspections at sea and in port. During 2019, as 89% of all landings into Irish ports were from Irish registered vessels, inspections were primarily focused on Irish-registered vessels.”

Marine Minister Charlie McConalogue, should “do his duty and stand up for the industry he is mandated to represent” and demand the evidence, according to the fish processors and exporters. However, advised by officials from the Clonakilty fisheries base during an online meeting with the industry, the Minister deflected all questions about the audit. The Minister’s office told me that he is “precluded from getting involved in these matters”.

Sinn Féin’s Spokesperson on Fisheries, Padraig MacLochlainn, said this is not good enough: “The Minister must ensure the immediate publication of the European Commission’s audit and the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority administrative inquiry. This is a matter of basic fairness and justice.”

This week, as the fishing industry calculated the cost of installing machinery at ports to carry out the new weighing requirement, sources drew a parallel between EU annoyance at Ireland’s criticism of the unfair way it was treated in the EU/UK Brexit fisheries deal: “Isn’t it a little odd that the decision comes now, three years after the audit and at a time when we are still fighting them over the Brexit deal?”

Susan Steele, executive chair of the SFPA has been appointed executive director of the EU Fisheries Control Agency. She will take up the post in September.

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