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Into the lion’s den

The three representatives of the SFPA who came before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture & Marine this morning did so in a bullish if not arrogant manner to defend the organisation.

Despite the two-hour meeting opening with a list of some 25 highly relevant questions from Independent TD Michael Collins, the team of Susan Steele, Andrew Kinneen and Pat O’Mahoney had clearly decided to adopt a stance of attack being the best form of defence.

The members of the Committee who participated, Michael Collins Ind. TD, Padraig MacLochlainn SF TD, Senator Tim Lombard FG and Christopher O’Sullivan FF TD repeatedly raised the issue of the relationship between the SFPA and the industry being at an ‘all time low’ to which Ms Steele repeatedly replied that the SFPA always welcomes dialogue with all industry groups.

However, one thing that has become clear from this meeting is that the issue of ‘weighing at point of landing’ has been suspended (for now at least) and interim control plans will mean a return to the situation of weighing in factories and processing facilities as was the case pre-April 2021.

(One wonders if all the fishermen who were forced by the SFPA to purchase and certify weighing scales at considerable expense will now be reimbursed for this unnecessary cost?).

A new control plan proposal has now been submitted by the SFPA to the EU Commission will be for this system to remain in place indefinitely but it also includes allowance for ‘random sampling’ of weighing at the quayside.

According to the SFPA it will take at least ten weeks for this new control plan to gain approval from the EU Commission and in the meantime the current interim plan will be in place.

All of the Committee Members, Padraig MacLochlainn in particular, raised the matter of trust between the SFPA and the industry several times – highlighting that almost all SFPA statements and documents repeatedly talk about fraud, risk of fraud, tampering of weighing systems, and “rogue operators” whilst rarely making mention of the fact that Ireland’s fishing industry are largely compliant with the regulations – a point evidenced by Michael Collins’ quotation from a recent EU report indicating that in overall EU terms Ireland only accounts for 0.8% of all fisheries infringements.

IFSA opinion

Personally, I believe that the SFPA just bulldozed their way through this meeting and were fortunate to get away without getting some sort of sanctions imposed on them for their previous behaviour – the least we had hoped for was that they would be made accountable to this Committee for a monthly report.

And I am irritated that Susan Steele yet again got away with statements such as “we always consult with the industry”, “we try to support the industry at all times”, and “we must operate to EU regulations and control instructions”… to name just a few examples.

I would not only challenge these statements but I would be interested to know if there is a single fisherman anywhere in Ireland who could contact me to tell me that they found the SFPA to ‘be supportive of fishermen’ on the occasion of having any dealings with them.

And contrary to Ms Steele’s comments and based on feedback that I have been given by fishermen, the industry’s relationship with the SFPA can be summarised in one word – toxic.

And as for “consultation with the industry”, it is blatantly clear by their own comments that the SFPA consults with the EU Commission a LOT more than it consults with any group that represents Irish fishermen or processors.

But again Susan Steele stood firm with the repeated “our door is always open” mantra and giving the impression that fishermen are always welcome to enter into dialogue with the SFPA.

But, despite their efforts to give the impression of a fair and accessible organisation, there were a few telling comments from the SFPA during the meeting:

“It is to be expected that there will always be a strained relationship between the industry and the control authority in any country,” – Susan Steele….. “We don’t want to tar the whole industry with the same brush but its clear that we do have problems with ‘certain’ operators,” – Andrew Kinneen….. “There can be no doubt that if the opportunity is there to commit fraud then it only needs the intent to commit that fraud to result in an infringement,” Dr Pat O’ Mahoney.

To me these statements indicate that nothing has changed within the SFPA and the attitude will remain the same: ‘all fishermen are suspects and this industry is populated with rogue operators’.

And I’m puzzled as to how Ms Steele can say that the SFPA are working “very hard” on ways to improve its relationship with the industry whilst at the same time making clear by the above statements that the SFPA clearly has zero trust in those in this industry.

Finally, a somewhat confusing conversation arose over the pelagic ‘flow scales’ system in Killybegs – a state-of-the-art system that was designed and built with investment from the Irish pelagic sector, approved by the NASI and then rejected by the SFPA.

A court case then over-ruled the SFPA (at a cost of half a million euros of tax payers’ money) and which Susan Steele then said today that the SFPA will of course now adhere to the Court’s decision – but Andrew Kinneen added that the SFPA have been advised that this new system is not tamper-proof and that the capacity of fish travelling on the belt system can be interfered with via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth (???) …

So, what the SFPA are actually saying is: “we’re going to follow the court’s ruling, but we’re still not going to trust the system”.

I found this entire debate on the flow scales confusing because, as of this minute, the interim control plan means we’re back to weighing in factories and if the new control plan is accepted by the EU Commission in ten weeks’ time then we’ll be weighing in factories indefinitely – and in either case the flow scales will become a moot point, so why are they even talking about it?

The interim arrangement and the new control plan (if approved) presumably still retain the 5/7% control at the point of landing as a verification measure.

Therefore the flow scales on the pier (KER system) is a corner stone of the framework to be implemented going forward.

All the more reason why the SFPA need to get over the fanciful ideas they have about interventions either electronic, extra terrestrial, divine or otherwise!

The fact remains that this is the same equipment used in every other jurisdiction and no other control authority has a problem with it… because they trust in their capacity and competence to do the job they were employed to do!

In summary, here we have an organisation that the fishing industry and the EU Audit report (and three previous Irish Government reports) agree on as being not fit for purpose – an organisation that even the Marine Minister told the Oireachtas Committee that they had misled people over the EU Audit report earlier this year – an organisation that has repeatedly shown itself to be lacking in even the basics of mannerly interaction with people it deals with every day – and yet when they are called to an Oireachtas meeting to give account of themselves they show absolutely zero remorse for their much criticised behaviour in recent years.

Based on today’s performance there can be little hope for any improvement in the future relationship between the SFPA and the industry if that organisation faces no punishment for its attitude of “all fishermen are criminals until proven innocent, and even then treat them like criminals anyway”.

# Michael Collins Independent TD # Pádraig Mac Lochlainn TD # Brendan Byrne

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