EU’s move to crack down on Ireland’s fishing controls could expose fishing firms to legal problems

The European Union has decided to cancel a derogation for Ireland on how the country’s catch is weighed, a move that could presage a series of legal cases against fishing firms for past practices.

The E.U. wants fish caught in Ireland weighed on the pier rather than in factories, but the fact that some of the factories in the key fishing port of Killybegs are located a mile inland makes an alternative system hard to build without damaging fish in handling, according to Irish Fish Producers Organisation CEO John Ward.

“It’s problematic to say the least, we have to go back to the E.U. for an alternative proposal,” Ward told SeafoodSource. He said that he is now waiting for meetings with the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA), a state agency charged with enforcing E.U. rules.

Ward, who also sits on the consultative committee of the SFPA, said in 2012 Ireland received a derogation or opt-out from E.U. rules because its fish-processing factories are in many cases located inland, rather than on the pier. Fish have been pumped into tankers of water and then brought to the local factories to be weighed and processed.

But the E.U.’s new and updated control plan is for “all fisheries products,” the implications are far-reaching for the entire industry, said Alex Crowley, secretary general of the National Inshore Fishermen’s Association (NIFA) which represents inshore fishermen.

“Our priority focus now is to put practical solutions in place that will ensure our members will be compliant, but even then, the situation will be far from ideal," he said. "Therefore, getting a revised control plan in place in a manner that hopefully will prevent similar from happening in the future is something we see as a priority in the medium term.”

An investigation last year by the European Commission followed what it termed “severe and significant weaknesses” detected in the Irish control system during a 2018 audit carried out by the Commission in Ireland. The investigation centered on the “effective control of the weighing of catches of small pelagic species, issues related to underreporting of catches of these species, the inadequate and ineffective sanctioning system for offenses committed by operators.”

The E.U. has said it wants to look at 33 cases of suspected underweighing which weren’t prosecuted by Ireland. In 2017, Killybegs-based firm Norfish and company director Tony Byrne were fined EUR 45,000 (USD 54,210) for tampering with the weighing system at the company’s processing plant. 

Fishing representative bodies have blamed lack of weighing in some cases on an absence of SFPA inspectors to collect the information. Meanwhile, regional SFPA inspectors have been at odds with their upper management, with a 2020 report by auditing firm PWC pointing to dysfunctional internal workings at the agency. Protected disclosures by SFPA inspectors have suggested underreporting of catches at Irish ports was as high as 50 percent. A separate 2020 report for the Irish government by Deloitte has detailed fraud leading to overfishing of herring stocks in the Celtic Sea.   

The move to end Ireland’s derogation appears to be part of a wider E.U. effort to improve the enforcement of controls on the bloc’s wild-caught seafood. Conservation organizations have long lobbied the E.U. to take a tougher stance on fisheries enforcement through its Common Fisheries Policy. Fintan Kelly, policy officer at BirdWatch Ireland said his organization “is very concerned about the serious flaws in the monitoring and control of E.U. fisheries and, in particular, the severe and significant weaknesses in Irish fisheries control.”

“The absence of effective enforcement of the law is contributing to overfishing, wildlife bycatch, and environmental degradation,” Kelly told SeafoodSource. “Without adequate control, fishing limits, the discards ban and laws designed to protect wildlife and fishers are meaningless.”

The European Parliament could also be aiming to cover itself after it recently proposed an increase to the margin of tolerance in what fishermen are allowed to report – currently, they are allowed a 10 percent margin of error, according to ClientEarth Fisheries Lawyer Nick Goetschalckx. ClientEarth, an environmental non-governmental organization, criticized that move, saying it would “even further open up a pathway to massive overfishing and undermining the E.U.’s Common Fisheries Policy.”

“This might be one of the reasons why the [European] Commission considered it opportune to be stricter on weighing issues,” Goetschalckx said. “These estimates are just that – estimates – which are subject to a 10 percent margin of tolerance for errors. Their accuracy is, moreover, very poorly controlled.”

The E.U. isn’t just targeting Ireland, as it also recently sent letters of formal notice to the Netherlands and Belgium over issues related to weighing and registration of catches.

“In particular, the Netherlands fails to implement an effective control, inspection, and enforcement of essential aspects of weighing, transport, traceability, and catch registration with respect to landings of frozen and fresh pelagic and demersal fisheries carried out by E.U. and third-country fishing vessels in Dutch ports,” the letter to the Netherlands said. “As a consequence, the Commission considers that the Netherlands does not ensure a proper control of the landings in their ports, which may lead to overfishing and non-compliances with quotas.”

After cajoling its member-states to implement the bloc’s fisheries control rules for years, the E.C. appears to have lost patience and is cracking down, according to Goetschalckx. At stake is the ability for the E.U. to set scientifically sound quotas based on reliable data.

“The procedures are usually collaborative, but when the Commission sees that insufficient progress is made by the member-state, [it] might decide to start an infringement procedure,” Goetschalckx said. “Implementation of the control rules is the cornerstone of sustainable European fisheries. Indeed, the control regulation is about counting the fish taken out of the sea to make sure that scientific assessments are reliable and total allowable catches [to be] sustainable. To count the fish, we need to have reliable figures provided by weighing of the fish at landings on certified scales. However, there are many derogations to this general weighing rule which are, moreover, poorly implemented and monitored. This means that, in practice, the numbers that are used to do scientific assessments, to set the total allowable catches, and to ensure traceability of seafood are the estimates recorded by fishers in the fishing logbook.”

In Ireland, the authority of the SFPA is limited by “the inadequacy of the tools at their disposal,” according to Kelly, the Birdwatch Ireland policy officer, pointing to the E.C.’s letter to Ireland, which said fisheries controls employed by Ireland, such as inspections at sea and at landing sites, as well as aerial surveillance, are “ineffective at ensuring control and enforcement of the landing obligation at sea and are limited in promoting a culture of compliance among all operators and fishermen.”

Kelly said there are now technological solutions available, such as CCTV, that could be placed onboard vessels to improve compliance.

“These tools have been proven to work and to be cost-effective,” Kelly said. “Efforts to introduce CCTV into Irish fisheries has been strongly opposed by the fishing sector and it’s now time that these measures were made mandatory for high-risk vessels.”

Photo courtesy of Lukassek/Shutterstock


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