Editorial comment by Cormac Burke, Chairman of the Irish Fishing and Seafood Alliance (IFSA)
“The SFPA is no longer about protecting sea fisheries but rather protecting their own jobs at the expense of the industry. This is like a fire brigade starting fires themselves in a bid to ensure that people see that they’re doing their job and to justify their own existence”
Up until quite recently Ireland’s Department for Agriculture, Food & Marine (DAFM) was widely known for decades as the ‘Department Against the Fishing Industry’ — a well-earned reputation that has faded slightly with the political decision finally taken earlier this year to dissolve a long-standing regime within that department.
But currently Ireland’s Sea Fisheries Protection ‘Authority’ (SFPA) have, with very good reason, become known as the ‘Sea Fisheries Persecution Authority’.
History shows that, rather than be proud of presiding over the most compliant fishing industry in Europe (and arguably the world), the SFPA are instead hell bent on securing prosecutions – no matter how trivial.
It appears that internally this is their measure of success. Their over-zealous overlords in Clonakilty are on a crusade to discredit the industry in order to justify their own existence.
So instead of saying to the political leaders of this country and to the senior officials in the EU Commission “look how perfect our industry is because we are so good at our job” they say “look at these fishing industry crowd of cowboys; we need to be on our guard constantly and we need as big a budget as possible and as many staff as possible to have any chance of controlling them!”
At this moment in time there are at least two Irish pelagic vessels that have ‘criminal’ prosecutions pending for being outside of their 10% tolerance of the pre-landing notification of the estimate of their catch.
Worse still the deviation is on their estimate of the bycatch quantity rather than the estimated total catch.
This normally amounts to a very trivial number.
In such cases in the past, skippers received an ‘official warning’ and were called to a cautioned interview with the Senior Fisheries Officer to explain their deviance from the 10% tolerance, and this is generally still the system in all other EU Member States.
This usually involves a perfectly reasonable explanation of the difficulty of accurately estimating the volume of bycatch when you are pumping at the rate ‘X’ tonnes per min and with heavy seas and big swell and also the difference in the mix of fish from the top of the bag compared to pumping the last fish from the bottom etc.
As well as the skipper highlighting that he is only obligated to give an estimate and not an absolute assessment of the catch composition, as identified in the following excerpts from EU regulations:
All operations are governed by EU Council Regulation No. 1224/2009
Under Article 14 it states the following...
Under paragraph 2(f) “the fishing logbook shall contain the estimated qualtities of each species in kilograms live weight”.
Also, under paragraph 4. “Masters of community fishing vessels shall also record in their fishing logbook all estimated discards above 50kg of live weight equivalent in volume for any species”
The vitally important word in both of these EU regulations is ESTIMATE
Therefore according to these EU statements, the SFPA are chasing prosecutions that in no way indicate any wrongdoing on the part of the skippers of vessels except for the crime of being human and failing, under extremely challenging conditions, to arrive at an estimate that is close enough to perfect for the SFPA.
So where is the ‘level playing field’ that the EU Commission repeatedly claim exists when it comes to all matters relating to catching, and monitoring, of EU member state vessels?
And the same EU Commission must realise that it is guilty of turning a blind eye to the fact that the European Fisheries Control Agency (EFCA), headed up by the ex-chief of the SFPA, is aiding and abetting the SFPA’s current corrupt and unjust measures of abuse of the system which go far and beyond anything in operation elsewhere in the EU.
It has now even reached the stage that most Irish pelagic skippers have resorted to taking mobile phone footage of the fish being pumped in the expectation of needing this as evidence to avoid prosecution and becoming a criminal!
Furthermore the SFPA are at this time taking legal action against several Irish fish processing factories for the infamous ‘Derry landings’ (when vessels landed into Derry instead of Killybegs and then transported the fish by road) - - in this case the SFPA are claiming that these processors “did not follow correct procedures and issue appropriate paperwork for the landings to reflect weighing at the point of landing”.
Clearly once again this is another case where the SFPA are seeking to catch the industry out on a technicality to secure prosecutions for the sake of their own PR agenda.
The SFPA is no longer about protecting sea fisheries but rather protecting their own jobs at the expense of the industry. This is like a fire brigade starting fires themselves to ensure that people see that they’re doing their job and to justify their existence.
And, using the same analogy, they are setting fires to keep themselves cosy and warm all winter without any thought or care for the collateral damage that they are causing around them.
Identifying underreporting of fish landings is no longer the SFPA’s job - - that is why they don’t want to be in cold wet factories – - instead they are looking for the small print and legal technicalities to justify their existence.
Instead of protecting the industry the SFPA’s mandate is to frustrate, persecute and victimise every sector at every possible opportunity.
At what point will our Government and Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture and Fisheries investigate and call to task the strategy of this quango (Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation) that clearly needs to be disbanded and reformed as a body that realises it exists TO SERVE and to work FOR this industry - - and not to arrogantly believe that the industry exists to serve them.
In 2009, just two years after the SFPA was established, the Government announced that it was to abolish 41 of the previously appointed quangos or ‘State agencies’ in Ireland due to the vast costs involved in their operations and for their lack of value in providing a beneficial, co-operative existence with the sector in which they were working, and yet the SFPA, despite being repeatedly shown in various Irish and EU official reports as being incompetent and often described by the industry as “out of control”, has managed to escape any real ‘root & branch’ review or in-depth investigation thus far.
[In relation to this I myself was a guest / observer at a hearing of the Joint Oireachtas Committee when some highly pertinent questions were posed to senior SFPA officials by TDs and Senators and they were simply allowed to get away with refusing to provide an acceptable answer.]
There continues to be very many challenges and issues for the Irish fishing industry to overcome at this time but, as we enter what looks like it will be a general election year, it is vital that the voters in every coastal community in this country make the issue of the disbandment and reformation of the SFPA as a matter of urgency a critical issue for candidates from all political parties.
** Please share this article as much as possible so that as many members of the general public as possible might get some understanding of the intimidation and abuse that Irish fishermen are suffering - - an abuse that MUST BE brought to an end!