‘Severe weakness’ in fishery controls

File image.

Ireland may face penalties in light of damning EU audit report. The European Commission is seeking a meeting with Irish officials this month over a damning audit of the State’s monitoring and fishery controls of the €1bn mackerel industry. In a letter to Cecil Beamish of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the European Commission’s fisheries directorate, DG Mare, says that “follow up” by Ireland to address the audit findings is “imperative” as a “matter of urgency”.

Ireland may face penalties over the final EU audit report, which identifies “severe and significant weaknesses” in the Irish control system for pelagic (mackerel, herring, blue whiting) catches.

Warnings of such weaknesses had been flagged in a review of Ireland’s fishery control regime commissioned back in 2007 by the then Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.

The EU report highlights “inadequate” sanctioning of infringements which “often go unpunished” due to the cost and length of procedures in a “purely criminal sanction system” which has no administrative alternative.

The audit also identifies the State’s failure to control a recreational fishery for bluefin tuna, with evidence that some tourist trips advertised over the internet resulted in bluefin tuna being “kept, landed and offered for sale” in breach of regulations.

The audit of monitoring, conducted by the State’s Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA), was carried out by EU officials in March 2018, in the largest fishing port of Killybegs, Co Donegal. The auditors scrutinised weighing systems in seven fish factories in Killybegs, and analysed monitoring of the fleet of large pelagic vessels, some of which were found to have under-recorded storage capacity in 2014 and 2015.

The auditors highlight that “no infringements have been cited by Ireland for this non-compliance, nor has any enforcement action been taken against the vessels”.

The report questions why the SFPA did not alert the State’s Marine Survey Office about the discrepancies, which might have led to prosecutions by that body.

It also says there was “no attempt made by the Irish authorities to quantify the level of historic under-reporting of pelagic catches”.

The EU audit notes several cases of suspected manipulation of weighing systems, one of which was successfully concluded in the courts in 2017. It says weighing of fish should “ideally” be done on piers or point of landing to prevent under-reporting. It finds that only one “benchmark” for inspections of mackerel, herring, blue whiting, and horse mackerel was met for 2017 in breach of regulations.

It notes that the dual role of SFPA inspectors as both seafood health officers and fisheries control officers “clearly creates a significant draw on resources, away from fisheries control duties”.

It also notes that previous EU audits had highlighted the lack of automated crosschecks of data in Ireland.

The 2007 review for the Department of Marine had said weighing of pelagic fish should primarily be undertaken at the quayside However, the SFPA notes difficulties with weighing fish at the pier.

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