The EU is losing patience with Ireland’s inability to prevent lawbreaking in relation to fishing quotas.
An investigation by the EU — received by Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue late last year — has concluded that fishery controls were “unsatisfactory”.
As a result, the country faces losing tens of thousands of tonnes from its fishing quota and around €40m in funding annually.
The EU investigation reported that, during a four-year period, 33 cases of suspected fraud in relation to fishing quotas were sent to the DPP.
None of the cases was sent forward for prosecution. The DPP either determined there was insufficient evidence or too much delay in bringing the cases. The EU now wants to examine each of these cases to determine why exactly none was prosecuted.
Thehas also learned that, five years ago, a number of the biggest fishing operators in the State were found to have falsely reported the size of catches, but was told files were not going to be sent to the DPP on this occasion.
It was also informed that the value of the suspected fraud would not be calculated.
The issue was under-reporting the size of catches, both by having larger storage facilities on trawlers than permitted, and through interference in the official weighing of catches.
A protected disclosure made to thealleges that a blind eye has been turned by authorities to the persistent lawbreaking.
The disclosure is the second in recent years — from different individuals — alleging this malpractice.
“Fishery officers became very concerned about the validity of the figures being provided by the processors and the likelihood of illegal fish being landed,” the protected disclosure reads.
These concerns were raised to management at the highest levels, from late 2012 onwards.
A spokesperson for the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) “strongly refutes any suggestions that it supports, condones or enables any illegal activity”.
The latest disclosure comes against a background in which stocks of pelagic fish have been depleted in the seas around Ireland because of overfishing — pelagic fish is primarily herring and mackerel.
Late last year, the office of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine wrote to industry representatives to warn that “the Celtic Sea herring stock is at one of its lowest stock levels since 1958”.
It went on to note that excess catches would further impair the recovery of the stock.
“The Minister is now requesting that, in line with this advice, you contact your members to request that vessels refrain from fishing for sprat in the ‘Dunmore Box’ during the September to March period.”
The problems that currently arise with the EU are not new.
Back in the early 2000s, the commission was extremely annoyed that Ireland was not observing its fishing quotas under the Common Fisheries Policy.
The State's response was to create the SFPA, an independent body charged with policing fishing. Set up in 2007, it was designed to provide focus to upholding the law and to remove politics from the industry.
The authority’s brief is to oversee the industry and police compliance. Its frontline activity involves more than 60 officers checking and recording catches at the points of landing.
The biggest fleets are based in Killybegs in Co Donegal and Castletownbere in West Cork.
At the outset, there was major resistance from the industry.
Protests took place in fishing communities and politicians made repeated attempts to get the SFPA to ease off strict compliance.
At the time, fish were weighed at the piers where they were landed, but the industry objected on the basis that it was time-consuming.
Permission was given to weigh fish at the processing factories — numbering around a dozen in the State. This was agreed, even though many of the trawler operators had stakes in the processing plants.
Fairly quickly, however, fisheries officers were complaining that there were major issues around the system.
A protected disclosure made in 2017 by a fisheries officer alleged that he raised the issue in late 2012, but nothing was done about it.
One example of the knowledge of illegal fishing was contained in an email sent by a fishery officer to senior management about the problem in August 2013:
The email continued: “The figures from around the country suggest that conservatively the level of under-recording was at least 50% and the majority of vessels and processers were involved… the public has been grossly misled by the industry.”
It went on to point out that the financial advantages for the vessel owners were major.
"It is ethically and morally wrong that this illegal fish was sold throughout Europe to members of the public who have been grossly misled by the industry.”
In 2014 permits for three factories were suspended when tampering with the weighing systems was discovered.
The SFPA then wanted a CCTV camera system installed in the factories to record weighing, but this was never fully implemented. The suspensions were ultimately lifted and operations resumed.
During this period, the fisheries officers charged with policing the quotas on the ground repeatedly raised the issue of potential fraud.
In one communique between officers in July 2014, the issues were raised.
“We are strongly opposed to approving the primary weighing of pelagic fish, after transport, in factory premises,” the document read.
“We believe that the factory premises must not be SFPA approved for this purpose under any circumstances.
The memo said that the industry would resist any changes that would impinge on the “lucrative business of fish processing".
It concluded: “However, it is incumbent on us, the competent authority, to sanction only those weighing systems that are robust enough to merit official approval.”
In 2017, Killybegs-based Norfish and company director Tony Byrne were fined €45,000 for tampering with the weighing system at the processing plant.
An electrical switch had been fitted to the weighing scales, which could be used to turn off the scales at any point, allowing fish to pass over without being weighed.
This case came to light following an inspection by the National Standards Authority of Ireland. Mr Byrne also received a six-month suspended prison sentence.
The other area of recording fish catches that is open to fraud lies in the size of the tanks onboard a trawler where fish were stored.
The size of these tanks is recorded under a system called the ullage tables.
If the recorded size is smaller than the actual size or number of tanks, then the actual catch is potentially larger than the officially documented catch.
Fisheries officers raised suspicions about the ullage tables in 2014. An outside agency was commissioned to do a survey. The outcome of that survey was only made known to the industry in 2016.
Trawler owners were informed of the results of the survey, which showed that there had been a gross underestimation of catches as recorded on the ullage tables.
“SFPA has not to date submitted case files to the DPP with a view to prosecution arising from the non-compliance of inaccurate tables and the resultant under-declaration of catches from previous landings but reserves the right to do so in the future,” the authority wrote to trawler operators in 2016.
Thealso understands that, at the time, the SFPA made no effort to quantify the value of the fish that had been underdeclared, but sources in the industry put it at tens of millions of euro worth of fish annually.
An SFPA spokesperson said that the ullage tables only show the capacity of tanks on a vessel.
“They do not prove that the capacity was used, nor does the use of an inaccurate ullage table constitute a declaration,” she said.
As late as 2018, officers were still highlighting the problems that existed with weighing in the factories and how under-reporting of catch was depleting stocks.
One email sent to management noted: “The only way to ensure to compliance is to revert to weighing on landing at the pier or close to the fishery until it recovers.
Following an investigation conducted by the EU at Killybegs in 2018, there is now largely an acceptance that weighing controls must switch back to the pier.
In the meantime, reports both from the EU and commissioned from consultants have been highly critical of the SFPA.
A PwC report completed last April concluded that “the SFPA is not working effectively and requires urgent attention".
It said: "Relationships and trust have been impacted by a range of issues, including some long-standing industrial relations issues which have not been resolved... these issues are impacting on performance and the organisation is not operating as a cohesive unit.”
A report was undertaken by Deloitte in 2020 in response to the protected disclosure from the fishery officer.
It involved a team of forensic accountants and crime analysts examining the collapse of stocks of Celtic Sea herring.
There is general agreement that the collapse is due to overfishing, but one senior SFPA manager told the consultants that culpability lay not with management in the agency but with the officers on the ground.
“He believes that SFPOs [sea fishery protection officers] did not take sufficient regulation action to respond to alleged illegal activity within the fishery as is their duty as SFPOs,” the Deloitte reported stated.
The claim infers that, even though the officers on the ground expressed repeated concerns about the law-breaking to management, it was the latter’s responsibility to enforce the law.
Theunderstands that officers reject this completely on the basis that they were unable to act without the support of management to fully implement the law.
It also fails to explain how so many detected infringements never arrived at prosecution and why SFPA management failed to pursue prosecutions in other instances dating from 2016.
Everybody — from the minister to the EU to the SFPA — agrees that a serious issue has arisen over the depletion of stocks.
This occurred due to overfishing, which was illegal.
The outcome from that is pressure within the EU to effect major reductions in Ireland’s quota and to cut funding to the tune of tens of millions of euro.
Where culpability lies remains to be determined.
In 2018, an investigation of fishing controls in Killybegs was undertaken by the EU in response to concerns that quotas were not being observed and that recommendations from previous audits had not been implemented.
The Killybegs report was damning.
“The enforcement and sanctioning system in Ireland is inadequate, with the apparent lack of follow up of suspected infringements by the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) and a lack of effective, dissuasive and proportionate sanctions applied as required by article 89 of the Control Regulation,” it reported.
It pointed to the lack of enforcement:
The report concluded that there were “some severe and significant weaknesses in the Irish control system, in particular regarding the unquantified and so far unaccounted for, historical underreporting of catches of pelagic species by the Irish fleet; the impediment to an effective control of weighing operations of the continued application of the Control Plan to allow weighing in premises; the lack of effective enforcement and sanctioning of non-compliance; and the complete lack of control or enforcement of the illegal targeting, capture and landing of bluefin tuna by recreational vessels.”
Following that outcome, the commission conducted an administrative audit that was completed last year.
This highlighted that 33 cases passed to the DPP resulted in no prosecution. The EU now wants “a digital copy of the 33 files as submitted to the DPP by the SFPA” and “a copy of the detailed reason provided to the SFPA by the DPP for the decision not to prosecute in each case”.
The audit also estimates that, over a four-year period, Ireland overfished its quotas for pelagic fish by in excess of 40,000 tonnes.
The audit was received by Charlie McConalogue, the Minister for Agriculture, Food, and the Marine, in December 2020.
A spokesperson for the minister said that the findings were under active consideration and Ireland would be engaging with the commission on the matter at the earliest opportunity.
“In advance of this engagement, the minister is not in a position to comment on the findings of the inquiry and the package of measures that the commissioner has set out.”
The spokesperson said the minister was satisfied that the SFPA had the resources and capability to ensure delivery of its obligations.
“Additional funds have been allocated over recent years to strengthen the authority.”