Over 300 fishing boats were on course for the country’s main ports today to stage a protest to demand changes to the controversial Fisheries Bill.
Boat owners are furious about proposals in the new Bill to prosecute them in the courts for fishing offences, which they claim is a criminalisation of ordinary people trying to earn a living.
The Irish South and West Fishermen’s Organisation (ISWFO) warned the proposals could lead to heavy legal costs, fines of up to €200,000 and the confiscation of their fishing equipment.
Manager Jason Whooley said the demonstrations were to highlight the Government’s plans to introduce far-reaching and totally unacceptable legislation which will do nothing to tackle the real problems facing the sector.
“Our fishermen on a daily basis are dealing with probably 800 pages of EU legislation. In everybody’s working day, week, month, year, mistakes will be made, letters will be sent to incorrect addresses,” he said. “The punishment is not fitting the offence we feel the punishment here is bordering on draconian.”
Mr Whooley said the fines already in place in Ireland and the new higher ones proposed in the Bill were out of line with the rest of Europe.
“It is quite simple if fishermen get fined anything like that they are out of business,” he said.
Around 300 boats are ceasing fishing and are sailing to ports in Cork, Waterford, Galway and Dublin as part of a national protest organised for tomorrow. Some boats were travelling for over 40 hours to reach the ports. Mr Whooley said the protest would not block ports and the vessels would sail back out of the docks after two hours.
The campaign is being organised by the ISWFO, the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation, the Irish Fish Producers’ Organisation and the Irish South and East Fishermen’s Organisation.
Mr Whooley said the proposals to confiscate a fisherman’s catch and fishing equipment could be compared to a farmer’s herd and milking parlour being seized if they went over their milk quotas.
“If this was other sectors of the industry there would be more than protests,” he said.
Fishermen have been campaigning for administrative penalties, such as fishing bans or a penalty points-style system, to be used instead of the courts.
But the enforcement system proposed under the Sea Fisheries Maritime Jurisdiction Bill, which is currently going through the Dail, is still based on court prosecutions.
The Bill, which is intended to update ageing legislation, will create a Sea Fisheries Protection Authority to stop illegal fishing and the depletion of fish stocks.
Mr Whooley said the Government had promised to amend the Bill fundamentally as it passed through the Oireachtas. However, he said the proposed 102 changes do not come close to establishing the type of system needed to manage the fisheries industry.
Fishing industry leaders urged a significant number of Government backbench TDs who have opposed the Bill to stand up and take action.
The Minister of State for the Marine Pat the Cope Gallagher has modified the Bill by removing the navy’s proposed power to fire into fishing boats and linking fines to the size of the boat.
But he has told fishermen that according to legal advice from the Attorney General, a system of administrative penalties cannot be used.
Mr Whooley said he understood the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Marine had received legal advice which contradicted this.
The Joint Oireachtas Committee has also heard from the EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg, who said he was in favour of administrative penalties.
Mr Whooley said most fisheries offences in the EU are dealt with by on the spot type fines.