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Clear as mud !

Following last Tuesday’s meeting between the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) and the Oireachtas Joint Committee for Agriculture & Marine the only thing that is now clear is… that nothing is clear.

Having arrogantly made their case, the SFPA’s comments can more or less be summarised as “this is what we do and we have no intention of changing anything”.

But so many questions that were raised at that meeting remain unanswered, or, if they were answered, then it was not an acceptable response.

Here I would like to raise some of the many important issues that the SFPA evaded giving any real explanation to:

1. When asked by the Committee Members if the SFPA had played ANY part in the leaking of anti-industry propaganda to the media, both Susan Steele and Andrew Kinneen vehemently denied any such allegation (and, in my opinion, since it has already been established that the industry did not have possession of the EU Audit Report and therefore could not themselves have leaked any such data, the SFPA saying they did not leak it means that they are directing any such possible blame off themselves and on to the Department of Marine – and so the same question needs to be put to that Department by the same Committee).

I think it also needs to be noted that the SFPA (and indeed the Minister) regularly refer to the EU Audit report as being critical of the industry (i.e., a point which has been the basis of the ‘leaks’ to the media) --- do these people think we have already forgotten that we have discovered in recent months that this report WAS NOT critical of Irish fishermen but of the SFPA themselves and declared them not fit for purpose.

2. When challenged on the relationship with SFPA and the industry, Ms Steele gave the throwaway remark that it is accepted that there will always be ‘tension’ between a regulator and the industry in any country.

This, I feel, is practically saying that this situation is ‘the norm’ across Europe – this is completely untrue as many other EU fishing nations report of having a GENUINE good working relationship with the industry, and clearly the regulatory body in those countries support and help their fishermen and not treat them all as criminals.

Which brings me on to Andrew Kinneen’s remark on the same topic – “there is a good level of compliance in the industry but we still have problems with ‘certain operators” – a compliment given with one hand and immediately taken away with the other.

Show us the evidence – if there are ‘certain operators’ working outside the law then we want to know about it – and we want to see the proof upon which you are basing an excuse for the SFPA to operate in such a high-handed and almost Gestapo fashion.

Aside from anything else, by making such a statement and then being unable to produce any evidence to base it on, the SFPA are making defamatory remarks about reputable industry operators and should be taken to task by the industry’s legal representatives for such libellous comments.

3. When repeatedly asked for clarification on the levels of budget and staff in the SFPA compared to other EU nations, Ms Steele kept avoiding giving an answer other than to say the Irish regulatory body was not the strongest in the EU but she did confirm staff numbers in excess of 150 (up from 77) and a budget of €28 million (up from €11 million).

She added that some 18 SFPA officers were based in Killybegs alone but when asked by several TDs as to numbers of control officers in other EU countries the reply was that this information was not available.

Well as usual, whenever the SFPA say certain information is ‘not available’ to the industry the IFSA always finds that data can always be found if one looks hard enough:

A reliable contact in Spain has this week informed the IFSA that there are 14 Spanish fishery inspection officers with responsibility for 10 different ports of landing – given the comparison in the size of the Spanish fleet in relation to Ireland this makes for interesting reading AND makes very clear why the SFPA are not willing to make the fact known that Ireland has more than ten times the number of fishery officers than Spain.

4. The weighing issue – what a nightmare this has become for everyone concerned.

Firstly, without anyone pulling them up on it, the SFPA continue to blame the EU 2018 Audit report for the removal of Ireland’s derogation that allowed weighing to take place in factories, but they make absolutely no reference to the fact that it was the SFPA’s own contribution to that Audit report in which their officers said they would no longer agree to undertaking weighing in factories that left the EU Commission with no other choice than to insist on weighing at the quayside.

My own opinion, for what its worth, is that when the SFPA pushed for weighing at quayside, the target for the disruption was clearly the pelagic industry but then, too late, they realised the chaos this will cause for demersal and shellfish quality.

This was further evidenced in the fact that they then went to the EU with a new Control Plan to allow weighing in factories for everything except pelagics, only for the EU to remind them that EU Member States can only ask for a single control plan for all landings and in this case, the SFPA were asking for two separate ones – and so this proposal was rejected.

Besides the embarrassment of this EU Commission rejection, the incompetent SFPA are now forced to formulate a new Control Plan to allow for a reinstatement of the original derogation but with the addition of ‘sampling weighing’ at the quayside on the odd occasion.

But, as formally stated by Susan Steele at the Oireachtas meeting, an interim control plan to allow all weighing in factories as before will be put in place for the interim period of ten weeks until the EU Commission approves the new Control Plan proposal.

However, only hours after this meeting did the industry discover that the new Control Plan proposal will not be submitted to the EU Commission until next September and the ten-week interim period will begin at that point.

This has been yet another clear case of the SFPA misleading the Oireachtas Committee yet again and, with no public statement issued on their website since June 4th, the fishing industry are left in complete limbo and have been given no formal instruction on what system they are supposed to adhere to between now and September.

5. Last but certainly not least is the attitude of the SFPA towards fishermen – a topic widely covered and safe to say this is a toxic relationship.

But I am told repeatedly by fishermen of many cases when they are harassed and given verbal instructions by SFPA officers in a clearly threatening manner.

My advice on this is (a) demand to see identification and request the name of the officer involved; demand to see the intended purpose of any inspections etc in writing; and ignore all verbal warnings and instructions as these are not lawful unless they are provided to you in writing (either email or hard copy) and signed by the SFPA officer involved – this is your legal entitlement.

What the SFPA aren’t telling us

On behalf of IFSA members throughout Ireland, I have a separate question for Ms Steele and her cohorts at the SFPA:

Why have you not informed the Oireachtas Joint Committee, or anyone else in the industry, about the new loophole with regards foreign vessels landing in Ireland – a loophole which the SFPA is well aware of?

Most people by now know of a bi-lateral agreement between France, Belgium and Ireland that vessels from these countries can land in Irish ports without being liable to the ‘weighing at point of landing’ system but this agreement does not include Spain.

However, through my research I have learned that, being shrewd operators and with a government who supports them and doesn’t work against them, many Spanish vessels landing in Irish ports are now using French registered lorries to transport their catch out of Ireland – as long as they have a bit of paper saying that the first point of sale is to a buyer in France then this is perfectly legal under the new Control Plan proposals that the SFPA intend to present to the EU Commission.

So, all a Spanish company needs to do is register a post box address in France and issue the lorry drivers with letters showing a French company logo and return to the system of shipping their fish direct from Ireland to Spain – job done, no weighing at an Irish pier, carry on as before.

How in the name of God can the SFPA justify turning a blind eye to this whilst at the same time make comments at the Oireachtas meeting regarding so-called ‘rogue operators’ in the Irish industry?

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