Fishing sector being policed by a body acting outside the law

WHEN any policing body is found to be using defective or even illegal equipment, a major problem arises. How can the policing body police when it is acting outside the law itself?

Today the Irish Examiner reports that the body policing Irish fishing has been found to be using illegal equipment, which may possibly date from the time when the body was set up in 2007.

Inspections by the National Standards Authority of Ireland (NSAI) on the weighing equipment used by the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) found that it was “non-compliant” and “not fit for purpose”.

Weighing equipment is required to spot check whether trawlers are fishing illegally by exceeding quotas or engaged in other types of fraud to disguise the actual worth of a catch. It can also be used by the SFPA in prosecutions against fishers for fraud. However, it now turns out that the primary tool used by the policing body is not fit for purpose.

This comes at a time when the fishing industry is already in crisis. On May 26, a flotilla of over 50 vessels sailed up through the mouth of Cork Harbour to protest at fishing quota restrictions.

On June 23, a flotilla of over 100 vessels did likewise in Dublin. Brexit has been one blow, but this year fishermen received another — Brussels ended a derogation allowing fish to be weighed in factories. This will necessitate the purchase of expensive weighing gear to be installed at piers.

A flotilla of fishing vessels travelled to Cork City Centre as fishermen unite to raise awareness and seek the support of the public. Sisters Róisín and Clara Murphy at the demonstration. Picture: Larry Cummins

The derogation is ending because an EU audit determined that Irish controls on fishing were not fit for purpose and, as a result, fraud had been perpetrated, particularly by the big operators.

The audit found that 33 files were sent to the DPP about suspected fraud over a four-year period, but none resulted in a prosecution.

The outcome of the audit also means that quotas will be cut and up to €40m of funding from the EU will be lost.

Central to the problems is the role of the SFPA. Industry blames the whole farrago on internal SFPA issues and says any accusations of widespread fraud are groundless.

This year, Irish First Producers Organisation chief executive John Ward told the Irish Examiner that the industry was “the meat in the sandwich” in a dispute between fisheries officers and management at the SFPA.

“There was only one factory prosecuted in recent years,” he said. “We have no notion what files went to the DPP.”

Meanwhile, officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the minister, Charlie McConalogue, are engaging with Brussels in a bid to come to a resolution that will minimise the negative impact of the investigations on the Irish fishing industry.

That is the background against which it has been discovered that weighing equipment used by the SFPA has been found to be illegal. The inspections by the NSAI, which were carried out last month, have found that the equipment was never properly standardised and, therefore, was operating outside the law.

This would be the equivalent of An Garda Síochána suddenly revealing that its equipment for detecting DNA was faulty to the extent that it was illegal.

A communication sent from the NSAI to senior management in the fisheries authority lists the instruments that were inspected.

Faulty equipment

“All weighing instruments were found to be non-compliant. The feedback from all of our inspectors was that the ski scales that you have at the various sites are not suitable or fit for purpose as they cannot be levelled accurately.

“During our inspections we determined that all of these instruments were non-complaint when they were supplied to you, i.e. they have never completed their initial verifications and this is required by law before a trading instrument can be placed onto the market and put into use.”

The email notes that a statutory inspection will be carried out by September, by which time all instruments will have to be compliant or removed.

The result of the inspections infers that, since its establishment in 2007, the policing body for the fishing industry has been assessing catches and reporting to both the department and the EU using faulty equipment. It also puts into a new light claims by the industry that the real problem is with the SFPA, rather than allegations of fishers overfishing in Irish waters.

Problems with the SFPA equipment also went undetected by the EU in its recent audit, which was highly critical of the SFPA in any event.

Meanwhile, the department and minister are negotiating with the EU in an attempt to minimise the fall out for the industry. Yet nobody thought that it might be a good idea to inform the minister so he is equipped to address the matter and perhaps inform the EU officials himself before they find out through some other means.

According to a spokesperson for the department, the minister is precluded from all involvement in operational matters concerning the SFPA.

“Accordingly, the SFPA has not provided information to the minister in relation to a recent NSAI report in relation to weighing equipment.”

Cop out

The response is a cop out. Of course the minister doesn’t get involved in operational matters, but when a major issue arises that could have a direct impact on the negotiations he and his officials are conducting on behalf of the country, surely it is vital that he is put in the picture?

Instead, the EU, which has already lost patience with Ireland’s capacity to police fishing, is finding out about this matter through the media. Does that assist the minister and his officials in getting the best deal for the country?

The problems in the SFPA run deep. In recent years there have been at least two protected disclosures from staff about operational issues in the body. Internal correspondence previously published by the Irish Examiner points to a culture in which fisheries officers believe that senior management are not backing up their efforts to properly police fishing quotas at the frontline.

Management has rejected any such allegations, but the policing role takes place against a background where some perceive that the national interest doesn’t necessarily conflate with obligations to the EU.

Is it possible that some at political or permanent Government level thought it might be best for everybody to thread softly in implementing the law on Irish trawlers? If so, the EU’s response has shown that any such approach will not be tolerated.

The news that the SFPA has been using illegal equipment is unlikely to make Brussels soften its approach in determining what price Ireland must pay for its shoddy and ineffective policing of fishing.

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