State-sponsored harassment of Irish fishermen
- - no such thing as ‘coincidence’ in this industry
Although on the face of it these feel like quiet times in the Irish fishing industry, there are (as always) things going on in the background - things that don’t always make the headlines but nonetheless things that should be raising questions.
Editorial Comment by Cormac Burke
With the EU/Norway blue whiting talks apparently having reached an impasse (for now at least), and while the inshore sector and the polyvalent fleet awaits the Minister’s review of the herring fishery in the northwest, it would seem that all is quiet, other than an industry that’s patiently awaiting the appointment of the new head of the Department of Agriculture. Food & Marine (DAFM), with genuine concerns that it might be a case of ‘more of the same’ with regards the 25-year poor attitude towards fishermen — unless a completely unbiased candidate with no previous connection to the old regime gets the job and is allowed to give this industry fresh impetus.
But, as a lifetime observer of the goings on in this industry, I cannot help but notice something aside from all of the above taking place - something with far more sinister undertones, and yet something that shouldn’t surprise any of us:
The original target for the Minister and the DAFM’s decommissioning scheme was around 59 vessels and it appeared that, due to the current climate and loss of vast amounts of quota due to the fumbling by Ireland of the BREXIT negotiations, it looked likely that there would be enough applications to meet this target — until the actual miserly terms & conditions of the scheme became known and given that these terms were a far cry from any real ‘compensation’ for owners voluntarily scrapping their vessels - resulting in 57 applications becoming just 34.
Taking this into account, isn’t it strange now that the SFPA have greatly increased their activity in some southern ports in recent weeks and months - the same ports where many of the 23-odd previous applicants (those who withdrew from the scheme) work out of.
This increase in ‘monitoring’ activity has been reported to the IFSA many times in recent months and apparently at least one (or often two) of the three EU fisheries monitoring vessels has been working off the south west, south and south east coasts almost permanently in recent times.
It was reported last January that the European Fisheries Control Agency (EFCA) had chartered three new patrol vessels for fisheries monitoring and control in European waters and that all three vessels would fly the Portuguese flag, and would be deployed primarily for fisheries patrols.
Making the announcement in January, EFCA head Susan Steele (formerly head of SFPA) said that following the mandate from the EU institutions to “strengthen EFCA ́s operational capacity for assisting Member States and the European Commission in the monitoring, control and surveillance of fisheries, as required by the Common Fisheries Policy, EFCA had reinforced its fleet”, adding that “these are the only patrol vessels (Ocean Guardian, Ocean Protector and Ocean Sentinel) whose operations are managed by an EU agency”.
And yet, despite the vast area of the EU waters that need to be monitored, these vessels seem to be based off Southern Ireland and, it is reported, the number of ‘random’ boardings and inspections is hugely disproportionate in terms of numbers of Irish vessels versus those of other Member States inspected.
Indeed were it not for the Irish Navy recently arresting two German fishing vessels for illegal fishing, it would appear that the EFCA’s efforts have brought nothing only grief for the Irish fleet in what can only be described as ‘State-sponsored harassment’.
And more to the point, shouldn’t those in the EU Fisheries Commission be asking the EFCA how can it justify the huge cost in having two out of its three EU-funded vessels spending months working in one small area off the south of Ireland and they should demand to see what percentage of irregularities or infringements it has found in this apparent ‘mission’ and to give reason for such heavy activity in one tiny fishing area out of the thousands of miles of EU waters that need protecting.
So now we must ask why the sudden need to ramp up pressure on Ireland’s southern demersal fleet?
Have the SFPA suddenly become understaffed in this region compared to other years and now need the assistance of EFCA?
Has fishing activity, or even the slightest suggestion of any type of law-breaking by Irish vessels, suddenly increased in this area compared to other years?
Is the fishing area off Southern Ireland particularly worse for fisheries infringements than any other region in EU waters?
The answer to all and any of the above questions is obviously ‘no’.
The only thing that’s different at this time, in this year, is that these southern ports happen to be home to the majority of the 23-odd vessels who’s owners changed their minds when they discovered that they weren’t getting a fair deal out of the decommissioning scheme - leaving the Minister and the DAFM civil servants with a problem - so wouldn’t it be a convenient time to suddenly make their lives hell whilst these fishermen try to continue to carry on their work and therefore put pressure on them to rethink their decision not to decommission their vessels?
If you think this is only conjecture and conspiracy theory, then ask yourself why Ireland has been (more or less) the only EU Member State not to use available EU funds for a fleet fuel subsidy scheme at the same time as the DAFM need 60 boats to be scrapped?
Why would they give any form of fuel subsidy that might help a vessel owner survive at the same time that they (the Minister and the DAFM) want these vessels to ‘go to the wall’ and run into bankruptcy and have no little choice other than accept the offer of a decommissioning scheme (albeit a poor and unfair one)?
Despite both Charlie McConalogue and Michael Martin being directly asked in Dáil Éireann by various TDs (in particular Michael Collins Ind TD and Padraig Mac Louhlainn SF TD) why they won’t utilise this subsidy fund, neither of them actually gave an answer that began with “we won’t pay it out because…..” but instead waffled on about task force reports and schemes and at no point answered the question that was put to them.
Personally I have no doubt that if Ireland wasn’t in the midst of the almost ‘forcing’ of a decommissioning scheme that pays its applicants so poorly that we would have seen a fuel subsidy scheme introduced twelve months ago.
It’s worth noting that in my very first month as a fishing industry newspaper editor (1999) I ran with the front page headline of “Irish fleet soft targets” and reported on the fact that only 10% of vessels inspected by the Irish authorities off the south and west of Ireland were non Irish while our own boats were getting boarded several times within the same trip.
In that scenario it was simply laziness in that the authorities found foreign vessels too much bother with paperwork and hence they avoided boarding them but, in needing to keep their inspection numbers up, boarded Irish vessels at every opportunity —- but in this current situation it is a much more worrying cause and one that looks like a direct assault on Irish vessels in making life as difficult as possible for them for reasons that have very little to do with fisheries ‘monitoring and control’.
If this is proven to be the case and there is even the slightest hint of collusion between the Minister, DAFM, SFPA and the EFCA then this is abuse of power at the highest level.