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IRELAND MUST STOP THE SFPA ROT!


SFPA to repeat bullying tactic of hitting out when under pressure as Killybegs’ pelagic skippers to be hauled into court for incorrect ‘guesstimates’ of volume of catch onboard 

 


“One would not need to be a cynic to conclude that the SFPA are manufacturing prosecutions in an attempt to justify their own existence. They are wasting tax payers’ money and the time resources of a court system that is already over capacity by creating a trial without an actual crime committed”


 

“This is like a load of different coloured marbles being poured into a big jar and then the SFPA expect you to estimate, within 10% of the correct figure, the exact number of marbles and how many of each colour there are in the jar …. And if you’re wrong then it’s off to court to face punishment for your ‘crimes’! - - - - Ireland’s ‘state-of-the-art’ fisheries monitoring, SFPA style…”

 

- Cormac Burke, IFSA

 

 

At the very time when a recent Sunday newspaper article exposed the Sea Fisheries Protection ‘Authority’ (SFPA) as applying a strategy of little or no control and enforcement on foreign vessels in Irish waters whilst enforcing hugely excessive measures on Irish vessels, it now transpires that this ‘authority’ are dragging a group of Irish pelagic skippers into court next week (Monday 8th July) on trumped up charges (accumulating from the past three years) that could endanger their actual skipper’s licenses and leave decent hard working fishermen with a criminal record.

 

Once a skipper records his catch into the electronic logbook whilst at sea he must, based on EU rules, give a ‘guesstimate’ of the exact volume and breakdown of the catch no less than four hours prior to landing…. And, if his guess is outside of a set 10% margin of tolerance, then he is deemed to be in breach of the EU regulation that states:

the permitted margin of tolerance in estimates recorded in the fishing logbook of the quantities in kilograms of fish retained on board shall be 10% of the total quantity of all species recorded in the fishing logbook”.


So it is clearly an estimate, and in every other jurisdiction throughout the EU this is translated into local law enforcement as a minor administrative ‘slap on the wrist’ if an incorrect ‘guess’ is submitted by the vessel master.


But according to the SFPA, this is a “serious crime” where the villainous perpetrators can be charged in court, become a criminal and have ‘penalty points’ imposed on his licence, threatening his livelihood and tarnishing his reputation as an honest upstanding citizen.


One typical example is if a pelagic vessel comes into to port and the skipper has given the SFPA an estimate of having 600 tonnes of mackerel with 5 tonnes of herring as bycatch but it transpires that there was in fact 6 tonnes of herring on board, then the SFPA will neglect to consider the fact that this miscalculation was in reference to ONE TONNE of fish out of a total of 600 but will instead dramatise the event by taking the one tonne as a percentage of “mis-reported catch” in relevance to the estimated 5 tonnes of herring and will issue a major sensational media statement of a vessel having “20% over the reported landing figure” without of course mentioning the fact that a) this relates to the bycatch and b) that its an error out of a total of 600 tonnes.


And, it should be remembered, that in such scenarios, the skipper is charged, dragged off to court, possibly receive a conviction, and have a criminal record for the rest of his life.



The situation is so farcical that if the SFPA are to continue to adopt their unreasonable interpretation of the regulation then skippers will be prosecuted for landing too little fish as it is known that the pre landed estimates for some boats have been more than 10% under the actual landed volumes.


To put all of this into comparison, this is like a load of different coloured marbles being poured into a big jar and then the SFPA expect you to estimate, within 10% of the exact figure, the exact number of marbles and how many of each colour there are in the jar …. And if you’re wrong then it’s off to court for you to face punishment for your ‘crimes’!

 

The fact that once this fish is landed in port it is taken to a processing facility where the exact weights are made available to the SFPA for their EU landing data reports, this is deemed not acceptable to the ‘authority’ and they instead focus on the figure that the master of the vessel was forced to guess.


So to be very clear, there is no effort of misappropriation or underreporting of fish; there is no attempted deception; there is no illegal gain; and there certainly is no intent of wrongdoing on the part of the skipper or his crew.

 

In these latest cases the SFPA intends to go back two to three years to include any and all instances when a skipper was slightly off in his estimate and, considering that penalty points could be applied for each occasion, it is possible that at least some of these skippers with a lifetime’s experience at sea could actually loose their licences.

 

(Worth repeating at this point that other EU Member States also ask the vessel master for his estimate before landing but only if his suggestion is wildly outside the 10% tolerance margin do they instigate a notice - - but said ‘notice’ comes in the form of a warning only and no one is hauled off to court to have penalty points imposed.)

 

In one of the current cases, despite these charges being submitted by the SFPA to the DPP since 23rd February last, the summons was only delivered (by phone) to the ‘accused’ last Friday, to appear in court next Monday.

 

 

Farce

Meanwhile, again refusing to accept the irrefutable recorded weights and constitution of catch from the processing factories, the SFPA conduct ‘random sampling’ while a pelagic boat is landing…

 

Therefore if, for example, an RSW tank of a vessel has 200 tonnes of mackerel in it and there is ONE cod and by sheer coincidence that cod comes out of the chute when the random sample basket is being done, then an (unknown) percentage of the 200 tonnes will be recorded as being a cod ‘bycatch’ (and will probably see the skipper face a further charge for not reporting that he had cod on board!).

 

It is this type of wild randomness of control measures that makes a farce of Ireland’s entire fisheries monitoring regime which likes itself to be seen as the most strict in the EU but is in fact the most incompetent method of monitoring of any Member State.


The SFPA are insisting on estimates being used as an absolute measure of catch that are only used as a means of verification in other states.

 

 

A charade

It has become clear that the narcissistic attitude of the SFPA has led them to believe that they are above and beyond the highest legal and constitutional powers in the land, and to some extent, successive governments have allowed this continue - - but they should not be above the powers of the EU Fisheries Commission and yet, with the backing of their superiors in the European Fisheries Control Authority (EFCA), the SFPA are permitted, if not encouraged, to employ a strategy of enforcement against Irish fishermen that greatly exceeds that of other EU Member States.

 

One would not need to be a cynic to conclude that the SFPA are manufacturing prosecutions in an attempt to justify their existence. The are wasting tax payers’ money and the time resources of a court system that is already over capacity by creating a trial where there is no crime.

 

Indeed the SFPA were ‘up to their neck’ in the 2018 EU Audit Report that allegedly held Ireland in breach of a host of regulations until it transpired that incorrect Irish vessel ullage tables (i.e. vessel carrying capacity calculations) had been provided to the EU by the SFPA and later, to cover their embarrassment and their level of deception, the SFPA, DAFM and the Irish Government of the day, ensured that the said same Audit Report was never published and has been forever locked away from the prying eyes of the Irish pelagic industry who are still trying to clear their name to this day.

 

As recently highlighted in an IFSA article this week, several Irish pelagic vessels no longer land their catches into Ireland while many non Irish pelagic vessels have refused to return to Killybegs - all because of what they report as ‘harassment’ from the SFPA on previous occasions and in turn, this has led to a severe lack of critical raw material for the Irish processing sector, many who are now on the verge of closing permanently.

 


Comment

The SFPA are supposedly answerable (on some level at least) to the Oireachtas Joint Committee for Agriculture, Food & the Marine, and two years ago I was a guest at once such hearing  - - but when any of the Oireachtas Committee members (Michael Collins Ind. TD, Padraig MacLoughlainn SF TD and Pearse Doherty SF TD to name just three on the occasion of my attendance) posed any ‘difficult’ questions to the SFPA senior officials, they just whispered amongst each other and then pronounced that they were refusing to answer the question on the grounds that it was an ‘operational matter’.

 

The reality is that this industry, and many TDs in Dáil Éireann, have no confidence in this body to act as an impartial fisheries control authority and there are many questions unanswered as to who and why a definitive strategy against the Irish fishing industry continues to be employed.

 

It has become clear to everyone in the industry, fishermen and processors alike, that no matter how many new SFPA rules and regulations this industry complies with and adheres to, it will never be enough and that it appears that there is no point in the SFPA plan that will ever see Ireland reach the time when it is not facing some new disastrous regulation or other until an ‘end-game’ of closing down this industry is finally reached.

 

The following words should, but do not, exist in the SFPA modus operandi; “fair, equitable, accountable, reasonable, realistic’…. I could continue but I believe the point is made.

 


Action

I propose that the Minister announces an immediate and urgent reform of the SFPA.


This must be a root and branch review from the ground up that delivers meaningful change.


It must include the industry as key stakeholders in the process.


Transparency, accountability and proper oversight must be at the very heart of this reform.


The starting point for this reform must be the infamous ‘Dempsey Act’ - (the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006) that established the SFPA and created the framework to allow them to act with absolute impunity.

 

At the end of the day, people must understand that the Irish fishing industry is not looking for any ‘soft’ approach from the SFPA in Irish fisheries control & enforcement but only seek to be policed in equal measure to the fishing industries in all other Member States, and not be constantly treated as criminals in our own country.


Call it what you will… “harassment, coercion, bullying, oppression, intimidation” or a combination of them all – enough is enough… it must be stopped!

 

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