Irish fishing industry puts up strong united front against the Fisheries Bill and SFPA operations
Yesterday’s Joint Committee Oireachtas sessions on the Sea Fisheries (Amendment) Bill 2021 and on the SFPA were of great importance to the future of the fishing industry and, it must be said, it was hugely gratifying to see total unity amongst the four producer organisations (POs) and the IFPEA in their calls for more reasonable demands in relation to the infamous penalty points system and for an operational review of the SFPA and their recent introduction of the ‘weighing at point of landing’ regulation.
Whilst the IFSA, which represents some 71 Irish commercial fishing vessels and thousands of people in Ireland’s coastal communities, were not included in the delegation debate which was aired live on Oireachtas TV, the voice of unity from the IS&EFPO, IS&WFPO, IFPO, KFO and IFPEA was loud and clear in unanimously declaring that the fishing industry will simply not accept the unjust and draconian measures that are being forced upon them at this time.
From the viewer’s perspective it was a pity that the same people could not have been allowed participate in both sessions of the debate – with the first session including SFPA Chair Susan Steele and Authority Member Andrew Kinneen (both absent for Session 2) and several TDs - during which time Ms Steele made comments that later proved incorrect (for example, that Ireland would have “to return to a system of weighing at point of landing as they did 10 years ago” – Ireland has never previously weighed at point of landing other than for small amounts of cod during a CFP stock recovery programme).
Ms Steele also said that although the weighing at quaysides regulation had come in already, an action plan on this system would have to be sent to the EU and that it would be a minimum of two months before an official control system would be in place and, in the meantime, ‘interim measures’ would be put into operation --- however, when later cross examined by Deputy Thomas Pringle TD, Ms Steele denied making any reference to interim measures.
The SFPA Chair also gave a hint that the so-called ‘infringements’ and overfishing by the industry which are detailed in the 2018 EU Audit report (which no one in the industry is allowed to see) “relate to incorrect ‘ullage tables’ (tank capacity of pelagic vessels)” – an issue which has long since been resolved through official recalibrations by the industry but which Ms Steele referred to as “showing systematic infringements” by Irish fishermen.
The second session was of much more relevance to the industry as PO representatives Patrick Murphy, John Lynch, John Ward, Sean O’Donoghue and Brendan Byrne of the IFPEA were allowed voice a very strong case against elements of the Sea Fisheries (Amendment) Bill 2021 and of the SFPA in general.
Before tackling the penalty points system which is part of the new Bill, all of the industry spokesmen referred to Susan Steele’s repeated comments in the first session that the SFPA “consults with the industry at all times and on all matters” as being complete fantasy and, as in the announcement of the quayside weighing regulations on April 13th, there has never been any prior consultation with the industry --- as one industry spokesman said, “making a regulation announcement to the industry or informing the industry, with zero notice, is NOT a consultation”.
With participating TDs Padraig MacLochlainn, Michael Collins, Chris O’Sullivan and Senator Tim Lombard all asking questions of the industry representatives, it was perhaps Patrick Murphy of the IS&WFPO who put it best when stating that the fact that the new penalty point system on skippers of vessels means that if the accused fights his case in the High Court and is later declared innocent then he is STILL given the penalties then this means that fishermen are not being afforded the same level of justice that every other Irish citizen is entitled to.
Speaking on behalf of the processing and export sector Brendan Byrne said that the SFPA had, in the previous session, given “a shocking mis-representation of the industry” and added that in the 2012 Wolfe report and again in the 2020 PwC report the SFPA were shown to be a ‘flawed entity’.
Mr Byrne further highlighted three issues of concern in (a) Shellfish were never a part of the original Control Plan but now the SFPA are including it in the new pier weighing regulations; (b) The allegations against pelagic and whitefish vessels in the EU 2018 Audit report are widely suspect due to the refusal to show the said report to the industry; (c) EU law states that in such a case of a Member State being accused of fishing infringements then there “will be discussion and consultation with that State and those involved and a plan of action will be formulated” – none of which has happened, said Mr Byrne.
Raised several times by all parties present, including some of the TDs, was the issue of repeated ‘leaking’ of anti-industry reports to at least three national media outlets and, as put by John Ward of the IFPO, “who had the most to gain from such leaks? Certainly not the industry – which only leaves the obvious people, Ireland’s ‘permanent government’ i.e., the civil servants”.
Senator Tim Lombard and several TDs felt strongly on this issue and correctly pointed out that the leaking of certain data from the 2018 audit report could not have come from the industry if the industry, as confirmed by Department of Marine and the SFPA, has never been shown this report and therefore this leak can only have come from those with eyes on the report – the EU Commission or Ireland’s own administrative bodies.
If proven true then this, said the TDs, is a case for the Data Protection Regulator and requires urgent further investigation at Government level.