THE European Commission has ruled that Ireland cannot be trusted to police its fishing quotas under the Common Fisheries Policy.
The commission has issued a ruling withdrawing a special derogation to this country to weigh fish at factories because the authorities can’t guarantee that fraud will be detected.
The derogation had been in place since 2012 following extensive lobbying by the fishing industry. However, following a damning audit that highlighted manipulation in weighing systems and misreporting the size of catches, the commission has now ruled that fish must be weighed at the point of landing.
Further penalties in the form of the loss of thousands of tonnes of the state’s fishing quota and the withdrawal of up to €40m in funding from the commission are expected to follow as a result of the audit.
Marine Minister Charlie McConalogue was given the audit report in December but the commission has only now made its final ruling.
The development is “absolutely crazy” and has left the industry in a “tremendously difficult situation,” according to the Irish Fish Producers Organisation CEO John Ward.
“We’re holding an emergency board meeting over this and we are hoping to engage with the Government,” he said. “We have made loads of representations to the minister about this.”
The ruling from the commission states that the factory operators did not have a “weighing system fit for purpose … and the audit identified manipulation of weighing systems".
"Moreover, although aware of these shortcomings, Ireland did not take appropriate measures to address such non-compliance, in particular by withdrawing the permission to weigh after transport.”
The ruling also said the plan adapted by Irish authorities “does not minimise the risk of systemic manipulation of weighing pelagic catches in Ireland and the under-declaration of catches by operators".
“Therefore, Ireland could not guarantee an effective control of landed quantities of catches and minimise the risk of non-compliance with the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy. The failure to ensure appropriate weighing also puts at risk the accuracy of the data reported that are essential for control purposes and monitoring of the uptake of fishing quotas.”
Mr Ward disputes the results of the audit on which the ruling is based pointed to fraud being perpetrated by the major operators. The audit highlighted that 33 cases of suspected fraud in recording quotas or weighing controls were sent to the DPP over a four-year period yet none were prosecuted. It also estimated that Ireland had overfished its quotas for pelagic fish (principally herring and mackerel) by over 40,000 tonnes.
“There was only one factory prosecuted in recent years,” he said. “We have no notion what files went to the DPP.”
He said the industry is “the meat in the sandwich” in a dispute between fisheries officers and management at the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority. The commission audit followed complaints of alleged fraud by fisheries officers. Last month thereported that two officers had made protected disclosures in recent years about management failures to properly police the industry.
Authority chair Susan Steele said it will be contacting industry representatives about the changes that are required. “The accurate weighing of catches remains the responsibility of industry,” she said. “The EU’s decision, however, will involve changes to weighing practices. We will be working to ensure that industry can introduce these efficiently and in a way that assures compliances with EU regulations.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Agriculture said the commission decision was an “operational matter for the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority and the minister is precluded from getting involved in these matters”.