Penalty points for fishing vessel masters ‘unfair’, committee to be told

Committee to hear EU ruling that catches must be weighed at landing ‘unworkable’

The Irish Fish Producers Organisation will argue the Sea Fisheries (Amendment) Bill ‘repeats the mistakes’ of earlier legislation introduced by the last government. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The Irish Fish Producers Organisation will argue the Sea Fisheries (Amendment) Bill ‘repeats the mistakes’ of earlier legislation introduced by the last government. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

A new system introducing penalty points for masters of fishing vessels is “unfair and unbalanced”, with “nonsensical” elements, an Oireachtas committee will hear on Tuesday.

The committee will also be told that an EU ruling meaning catches must be weighed at landing rather than at factories is “an absolute disaster” and “totally unworkable”.

The EU 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.

The European 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.

The move brought an immediate end to a derogation from the obligation to weigh fish catches at landing. The committee is undertaking pre-legislative scrutiny of the Sea Fisheries (Amendment) Bill 2021.

The Irish Fish Producers Organisation (IFPO) will tell the committee that it does not oppose the introduction of a points system to punish serious fishing infringements, but will argue the Bill “repeats the mistakes” of earlier legislation introduced by the last government.

The IFPO will say the only grounds for appeal to the High Court are on a point of law, which they say is “no doubt” being introduced to restrict the right of appeal by fishermen who fall foul of the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA).

‘Nonsensical’

It will tell the Committee on Agriculture and the Marine that the fact penalty points will be retained by the master even if they are acquitted “is nonsensical”, while a standard of balance of probability, rather than reasonable doubt, could potentially “destroy their livelihood”.

“The idea that a vessel landing 500 boxes of whitefish has to [weigh] every individual box on the pier whilst removing ice and reboxing is absolutely crazy. It has the potential to destroy our reputation for top quality seafood”. It will argue that the SFPA is “totally dysfunctional”.

The SFPA will tell the committee that its role has grown since its establishment, most recently due to Brexit. It will argue the proposed Bill is in line with obligations of member states, and allows for data sharing with the Revenue Commissioners to aid policing non-compliance in the fisheries sector.

Regarding the weighing decision, the SFPA will outline how the commission found operators did not have a weighing system fit for purpose and that audits had identified the manipulation of weighing systems. It will say the commission’s decision is a “clear marker of better standards of compliance with fisheries controls across the EU”.

The SFPO will also outline progress against some 46 recommendations made arising from a review undertaken last year of its organisational capabilities. Eight have been completed, 26 are in progress, and 15 have yet to commence as they rest on completion of other recommendations or can only be completed at certain points of the year.

Anger

However, the anger in the industry is reflected across several other submissions from fisheries sector lobby groups.

A submission from the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation argues the penalty points system could remove an indivual’s income without them having recourse to the courts. “You could potentially have the farcical situation whereby the High Court rules you are innocent, but the penalty points remain”, it will tell the committee.

It too describes the SFPA as “dysfunctional”, and criticises the commission decision as “unworkable” and warns 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 argues there have been leaks to the media, which it says suggests there is “widespread illegality” in the industry. “These accusations are unfounded, false and based on innuendo and conjecture”.

The Irish South and East Fish Producers Organisation and the Irish Fish Processors and Exporters Association also made lengthy submissions to the committee along the same lines of argument.