EU audit reveals ‘manipulation’ of fish catch weights in Ireland

Fishing organisation says having to weigh fish at landing points rather than factories ‘impractical’

Fish catches in Ireland must be weighed at landing instead of in factories after an audit revealed ‘manipulation of weighing systems’ and under-declaration by operators that interfered with the monitoring of fishing quotas, the European Commission has said. Image: iStock.

Fish catches in Ireland must be weighed at landing instead of in factories after an audit revealed ‘manipulation of weighing systems’ and under-declaration by operators that interfered with the monitoring of fishing quotas, the European Commission has said. Image: iStock.

 

Fish catches in Ireland must be weighed at landing instead of in factories after an audit revealed “manipulation of weighing systems” and under-declaration by operators that interfered with the monitoring of fishing quotas, the European Commission has said.

The European Union’s executive revoked its approval for a plan that allowed for factory weighing in the wake of an audit into Ireland’s capacity to follow the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy.

Outlining its decision, the commission said operators did not have a “weighing system fit for purpose”, that a 2018 audit had identified “manipulation of weighing systems” and that the state had not taken appropriate action to address this.

An administrative inquiry by Ireland’s Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) subsequently confirmed the audit findings.

The commission’s move brought to an end with immediate effect a derogation from an obligation to weigh fish catches at landing that Ireland had enjoyed until last week, and applies to pelagic fish such as mackerel, herring and blue whiting as well as demersal fish like whiting and haddock.

An EU official told the Irish Times the audit had found “significant weaknesses in relation to the effective control of the weighing and registration” of catches.

“The European Commission has revoked the approval for the weighing control plan due to unsatisfactory application of the rules. We are in the process of ensuring that appropriate measures are taken to strengthen the Irish control system,” the official said.

“A revocation of the Irish control plan means that operators within the fishing sector would be obliged to weigh all catches, including pelagic and demersal catches, on landing before transport. This is in accordance with the default rules on the weighing of fishery products under European Union legislation.”

Irish fishing industry figures reacted angrily to the development, saying that the obligation to weigh at landing points was unwieldy and would impose unmanageable costs on the sector.

“You have a large number of landing places right around the coast, any fish landed at any of those now has to be weighed at the point it lands, that is totally impractical and it will bring the industry to a standstill,” said Seán O’Donoghue of the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation, demanding the situation be “rectified immediately”.

“How are you going to transfer all of these scales right around the coast to the quayside?”

The SFPA said it would hold local meetings to ensure the industry is familiar with the changes required.

“The accurate weighing of catches remains the responsibility of industry. The EU’s decision, however, will involve changes to weighing practices,” SFPA chair Dr Susan Steele said in a statement.

“This decision is a clear marker of tougher fisheries controls across the EU. The SFPA takes its commitments under the Common Fisheries Policy very seriously.”

The issue was raised with Department of Agriculture secretary general Brendan Gleeson during an appearance before the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Tuesday.

Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy asked if the department intends to challenge the commission’s ruling.

He suggested that either fraud was being committed that is not being detected - though he noted this would be “widely disputed” - or the processes are not in place to give the commission the assurances it requires.

Mr Gleeson said the department has taken a number of steps to increase the resources available to the SFPA and it hired consultants to carry out a capability review. It is trying to implement the recommendations arising from this at the moment, he said, adding that a number of steps have been undertaken to improve IT systems.

He said the commission audit, followed by an administrative inquiry, indicated that “in some instances, in any event, they were not happy to rely on the efficacy of the controls over the weighing of pelagic fish”.

He said that’s the basis of the commission decision to remove the derogation Ireland had to allow for the weighing of fish away from the point of landing.

Mr Gleeson said the SFPA and department are still engaging with the commission on the issue and added: “I don’t want to say too much more about that because I don’t think it’d be helpful to the process”.

Mr Carthy asked again if the department will be challenging the findings.

Mr Gleeson replied: “What we have now is a commission decision.”

He said the SFPA - which has “absolute operational independence from the department” would have to put forward “some kind of an alternative to the existing control plan”.

“We’ll have to make sure that that is as reasonable, and as workable as possible for fishermen, of course, but it also has to address the, the control issues that the commission identified.”