“When it comes to competence, it is clear that Ireland has a highly effective and competent pelagic catching sector, a world leader in competent processing, and in between, a completely incompetent monitoring ‘authority’ who are doing their utmost to show Ireland as a shamefully unprofessional fishing industry”
The sometimes farcical and often controversial management of Irish fish landings by the Sea Fisheries Protection ‘Authority’ (SFPA) has come under focus so many times, especially in recent years, in particular reference to pelagic landings, that by now people are confused as to what exactly is going on. The following article takes a look at the problem:
Such is the complexity of this topic that it’s difficult to delve into it without suffering the reader to a 10,000-word manuscript but, without going too deep into history, the events that have led us to where we are today are clearly of Ireland’s own making and not the fault of the EU Commission as we are often told by the ‘authority’ in question.
Under EU regulations, pelagic fish should be inspected and checked for species (main catch & by-catch) and actual volume (tonnes) of the catch at the point of landing i.e. on the quayside - - and this ruling was acceptable to the majority of pelagic fishing nations as their processing facilities are located on or near the quayside and therefore landings would more or less go direct from vessel to factory and go through the inspection & monitoring process there.
Ireland however, and as the main pelagic port Killybegs in particular, did not have that situation with most of its processors based in or around the town and away from the piers, so a special EU ‘derogation’ was provided to allow for transportation of fish to the factory where the inspection process took place as normal.
This was the ‘norm’ for many years until one day the SFPA, suddenly and without explanation, announced that they would no longer send officers to undertake their duties in factories and, citing EU regulations, that ‘full monitoring’ of landings would have to take place at the quayside.
Coincidentally, and perhaps somewhat suspiciously, during that same period, the SFPA and the Department of Agriculture, Food & Marine (DAFM) participated in an EU Audit Report which the industry was denied any representation in (which despite processors and vessel owners being told that this was an EU investigation into the industry, it later transpired to be an EU focus report on the management, operations and efficiency of the SFPA) - and due to unverified information fed back to the EU Commission by the SFPA themselves of potential ‘wrongdoings’ by vessel owners and processors, Ireland lost its special derogation.
This loss was strongly objected to by Ireland as it was entirely based on theory and allegations of the potential to cheat the system - - allegations that the industry could not defend itself against when it was not shown what they were being accused of, nor how could they refute that the system could be tampered with when they were not told of the report’s contents of how such methods could even exist.
Given that one previous EU Commission report and three separate Irish Government reports had all come to the same conclusion that the SFPA were “ineffective and incompetent” it is no surprise that the final draft of this latest EU report was buried and still to this day has never been made available to the Irish fishing industry.
While trying to get to the bottom of what were the actual reasons for the derogation being removed, the Irish processing and catching sector jointly took proactive steps to prepare for quayside monitoring by investing in a project into the development of a unique state-of-the-art ‘flow scales’ system for which fish could travel from vessel to transporter via computerised fish-weighing conveyor belts that give exact weights without the catch being subjected to any damage from being crushed together out of water as they would if ‘dry weighed’.
Ignoring High Court ruling
Despite this new quayside system being nationally ISQ certified, the SFPA challenged its use and although subsequently a High Court judge ruled in favour of the industry, the SFPA still stated that they would not use it as it belonged to the industry and not to them - - to which the industry then offered to have it operated by an independent third party but this too was rejected.
As an alternative the SFPA then wanted the fish pumped from the vessel’s chilled water RSW tanks onto a ‘dry hopper’ before going into transporters - to which the industry obviously objected to because the damage to the fish being treated so roughly out of water would ruin the integrity of this valuable high quality food product.
This game of the SFPA constantly coming up with suggestions that they knew would be unacceptable to processors continued for some time until a compromise of sorts was arrived at….
The SFPA agreed to use the industry’s quayside flow scales system but purely as a ‘dewatering’ device before the fish goes into transporters - - but then introduced another unacceptable caveat that the bulk containers traveling over the weigh-bridge could not have more than 2% water within, and therefore back to the problem of crushing the fish in its own weight due to lack of water as a medium.
The SFPA are currently using the weigh-bridge tallies as their official recording weight of landings when the actual genuine figures only become available once the fish goes to the factories for processing, which obviously means that at some point there is going to be a vast accumulative difference between what the skipper thinks he landed, what the SFPA recorded, and what the factory actually finished up with.
This situation gets even worse when it comes to species by-catch.
Instead of seeing with their own eyes the actual tonnage of a by-catch that is separated and certified in the factory, the SFPA insists that the skipper of the vessel carries out random sampling of the catch whilst out fishing and then expect him to give an accurate ‘guess’ on what percentage of his haul is by-catch of a different species.
This is far from an ideal method because if the fisherman takes random samples as the fish travel along the chutes towards the RSW tanks then at that time there may be a larger, or lesser, amount of actual by-catch passing in that place at that time - - and if the fisherman takes a sample by ‘dipping’ the RSW tank then the different swim bladders of different species means that some types of fish are higher up in the tank’s water than other species and therefore once again, a totally unreliable reading is taken.
And, after all of that, when the boat comes ashore the skipper must, based on this method of unreliable sampling at sea, inform the SFPA of almost exactly (with a tolerance of 10% of the total catch) what percentage is by-catch but if he’s so much as a single percent out, then he’s dragged off to court for a ‘fisheries offence’.
This is akin to the SFPA coming on board the boat and holding up a jar of sweets and saying to the skipper “guess how many sweets are in this jar and if you guess wrong then we’re taking you to court”!
By the way, remember earlier in this article it was explained that Ireland lost its derogation because the SFPA declared it would no longer monitor the catches at the factories?
Well this summer just past, the SFPA refused to issue any Irish processing facilities with their operating permits unless these factories, at huge expense, installed flow scales, additional sampling chutes, and a host of extra CCTV systems - - now all requirements in the same factories that the SFPA have already declared that they will no longer carry out their monitoring in but want them in place for whenever they wish to do ‘random’ inspections.
Ireland’s ‘competent authority’
So here we are…. we have pelagic vessels, some of which cost around 30 million euros each, and we have processing factories that are some of the highest standards in Europe, and in between we have the SFPA - a body apparently hell bent on dragging the industry backwards from fish being caught and maintained in maximum quality condition in regulated chilled water tanks at sea to then being squashed and dry weighed on the quayside and in transportation- - - and at the end of it all, the undeniable total figures for weights and species bycatch are not being accepted by the SFPA because they reject the factories’ information and instead insist on the completely random and vague data from their own quayside monitoring system.
When it comes to competence, it is clear that Ireland has a highly effective and competent pelagic catching sector, a world leader in competent processing, and in between, a completely incompetent monitoring authority who are doing their utmost to show Ireland as a shamefully unprofessional fishing industry.
In a bid to meet the demands for quayside monitoring the Irish pelagic catching and processing sectors jointly invested in a state-of-the-art 'flow scales' system that would allow for full inspection without damaging the fish - - but the SFPA ignored a High Court ruling and refused to use it for its intended purpose