The European Commission is investigating the State regulator's system of monitoring some of the largest and most successful fishing vessels in the Irish fleet.
An audit by the EU's directorate-general for maritime affairs and fisheries is focusing on extra control measures put in place by the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority after discrepancies were detected in the multimillion euro pelagic (mackerel/herring) fishery.
It is also assessing Ireland’s system of controlling tuna, particularly bluefin tuna, caught by both commercial and recreational or sea angling vessels.
The EU sent a mission to Ireland in mid-March, as part of what it describes as a routine audit.
However, it specified that it wished to examine a number of extra control measures which were “being or would soon be” implemented by the authority to ensure the “accurate and reliable weighing of bulk pelagic catches in premises in Killybegs”.
The authority is the State’s regulator for the sea fishing and seafood sectors, and was established in 2007 with the remit of working with the Naval Service on surveillance and controls after allegations of irregularities within the industry.
In 2014 and 2015, a survey on behalf of the authority of 23 vessels with refrigerated seawater tanks found discrepancies between capacity to hold fish and documentation.
The documentation, known as "ullage tables", relates to both capacity and safety/stability factors in vessels. The tables are normally verified by the Marine Survey Office.
Risk analysis system
A second survey of some 24 vessels with capacity to switch between fisheries was then undertaken, and completed in December 2016.
Vessels in ports from Baltimore and Castletownbere, Co Cork, to Dingle,Co Kerry, Ros-a-Mhíl, Co Galway and Killybegs, Co Donegal, were checked, and the SFPA says some vessels had to be resurveyed due to modifications such as lengthening in the interim.
The authority said it “rigorously maintained its risk analysis system” that included “focused inspections at sea and in port where there is a high risk of non-compliance” and says its officers were aware of concerns regarding the accuracy of some ullage tables.
It also said it opted to work with the industry rather than attempt prosecutions. Its inspectors were issued with new certified accurate “ullage tables” in 2017.
In a statement, the SFPA said that “while a vessel may have a certain capacity to store fish on board, it does not necessarily follow that the full capacity is used – therefore it is not possible to use the ullage tables to prove that illegal catches were landed in the past.
“The official weight of any catch landed is the outcome of the weighing operation performed by the factory operator using certified weighing systems,” it said. One factory was prosecuted and fined €25,000 last year.