The quality of fresh fish landed in Irish harbours will be adversely affected by European Commission demands for a move to pier-side weighing of catches, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
The new system is being introduced in the wake of a European audit of Irish fisheries and its weighing systems which has been the focus of hostility from across the industry.
Once introduced it will see the process of weighing catches switch from inside processing factories and auction halls to piers, a move that critics say will affect the quality of the produce and possibly risk contamination.
At an Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture and the Marine on Tuesday, John Lynch, chairman of the Ireland South and East Fish Producers Organisation (IS&EFPO), described the move as "disastrous", particularly for those landing smaller amounts carefully stored under controlled onboard conditions.
“When the fish is put onto the pier you no longer have these facilities immediately to hand and you will not have…where all the fish has to be stacked on the pier and then sorted and weighed…enough ice to re-ice all of this fish,” he said.
“This will affect the quality of the product but it actually will also potentially affect the condition of the product to the point that it may deteriorate enough to actually get contaminated and affect public health. That is a fact of what is going to happen.”
Patrick Murphy, chief executive of the Irish South & West Fish Producers Organisation, said the issue was a "Damocles sword" hanging over the industry. He described the prospect of moving fish from one box to another and searching for ice on piers that may not have the capacity to produce it as "incredible".
Earlier Andrew Kinneen, a member of the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA), the regulator responsible for introducing the new measures which has come under intense criticism from the industry, conceded quality was an issue.
“There’s no doubt there’s a risk that the quality of the fish may be affected by what I regard as extra handling but I would like to assure the Senator (Tim Lombard) that it wouldn’t come to the point, to my knowledge anyway, that you would be talking about a risk to human health,” he said.
SFPA chair Dr Susan Steele also explained to the committee that full catches would not have to weighed in all cases, just samples. Suitable, easy to clean equipment would have to be used, the re-icing process would have to be done as quickly as possible and crew members would have to have a "reasonable standard of hygiene", she said.
The switch from factory to pier-side follows a 2018 European Commission audit of the Irish industry which found “manipulation of weighing systems” and under-declaration by operators that interfered with the monitoring of quotas. Details of the audit came to light last month and its emergence in the media further angered the fishing sector which complained it was not privy to its content.
Although the move was immediate, the necessary changes are underway with no specific timeframe. It will affect pelagic fish such as mackerel, herring and blue whiting as well as demersal fish like whiting and haddock.
“Weighing of fish is a very important part of the fisheries management system,” Dr Steele told the committee. “Under EU law the accuracy of the weighing of catches landed is the responsibility of the operator.”
However, the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation said the “bombshell” decision to move weighing to harbours, ahead of transport, was “totally unworkable”.
“It will destroy our reputation on the markets and deliver a catastrophic blow to the Irish industry from which it may not be able to recover,” it said in its statement to the committee.