Ireland will have tens of thousands of tonnes of fish deducted from its quotas in the coming years and faces losing up to €40 million in European funding after an EU investigation into the State’s application of Common Fisheries Policy rules.
The findings of the formal administrative inquiry undertaken by the European Commission were delivered to Minister for the Marine Charlie McConalogue before Christmas.
The commission found that Irish systems for controlling and sanctioning compliance with the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) were “unsatisfactory”, and put forward a “concrete and specific package of measures” to address issues, a spokesman for the department said on Monday.
The decision to conduct the inquiry was taken in 2019 after a commission audit the previous year in Killybegs identified serious deficiencies in the Irish fisheries control system. European officials believed these threatened to undermine the objectives of the Common Fisheries Policy.
A draft of the 2018 audit, previously reported by The Irish Times, found Ireland's system for inspecting and monitoring catches was lacking, and pointed to incidences of the suspected manipulation of weighing systems, some incidents of under-recording of storage capacity and a lack of enforcement action for non-compliance or infringements by vessels.
Mr McConalogue is set to begin an engagement with the European Commission on the inquiry and the package of measures. The spokesman said Mr McConalogue would not comment prior to this.
However, it is understood that an analysis by the commission has concluded that during the period 2012-2016, Ireland overfished its quota of mackerel by 28,700 tonnes; its horse mackerel quota by 8,100 tonnes and blue whiting by 5,600 tonnes. Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevicius has told Ireland that Brussels will open a "payback procedure" for the overfished amounts, which will be taken from future quotas.
The system for weighing catches of fish will also be shaken up as a result, with a derogation that allows catches to be weighed in factories removed, meaning fish must now be weighed on the quayside at landing.
Measures will be taken to sanction detected infringements, and Ireland must work with the commission on a plan to solve the issues identified, including those arising from automated cross checks, risk analysis and a national control plan.
The commission has also commenced infringement proceedings against Ireland due to its failure to introduce a points system to punish infringements by the masters of fishing vessels, which would see them lose the right to fish for repeated breaches.
Arising from this failure, the commission has suspended €25 million in EU co-funding for Ireland’s European Maritime and Fisheries Fund Operational Programme, with a total of €37.2 million “at risk” for the full period of the programme. It is expected that Brussels will continue to suspend funds until the points system is introduced, sources said.
In 2019, the commission said there were “severe and significant weaknesses” found in its 2018 audit, including “issues related to underreporting of catches of these species, the inadequate and ineffective sanctioning system for offences committed by operators”.
Ireland was told last year to provide more information to Brussels, to enable it to evaluate the Republic’s capacity to apply the rules of the CFP and to assess the potential consequences of any failure to do so. Ireland sent the required data to the commission in February of last year, and the commission responded in December. The findings of the report are understood to relate to the possible underdeclaration of catches and sanctions for such practices, as well as investigation into weights processed by factories in the same timeframe, the effectiveness of Ireland’s sanction and control systems, and the control of recreational fishery of bluefin tuna. On the final point, it is understood no further actions were found to be required.
The Irish Times previously reported that a draft of the 2018 audit highlighted a lack of effective enforcement and penalties, and that a lack of investment in fishery protection meant that Ireland met just one of eight benchmarks to "fully inspect" landings of bulk pelagic species (mackerel, herring, horse mackerel and blue whiting). The draft audit, which was conducted in March of 2017 in Killybegs, said this "undermines the ability to ensure an effective control system". It focused on weighing systems in seven fish processing factories in Killybegs and the monitoring of vessels in the fleet, some of which were found to have under-recorded storage capacity in a survey for the State's Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) in 2014 and 2015. The audit recorded three cases of suspected manipulation of weighing systems, one of which was successfully concluded in 2017. It criticised the fact that Ireland had not cited any infringements for non-compliance or taken enforcement action against vessels.
While Ireland has introduced, via statutory instrument, a system to give effect to a points system for licence holders, Mr McConalogue is finalising the heads of bill for pre-legislative scrutiny which would implement a points system for the masters of vessels.