Source : Maria Delaney

Navy boardings find 10 fishing vessels almost fully crewed by migrant fishers

Standard sea fishing boat licence conditions require at least 50% EU crew.

By Maria Delaney

Noteworthy with design for HANDS ON DECK - Fisher on vessel wearing protective clothes and gloves holding a net, with a catch of Dublin Bay prawns in the background.

AT LEAST 10 fishing vessels checked by the Irish Naval Service this year had less than the required number of EU nationals on board.

Standard sea fishing boat licence conditions require that at least half of the crew must be from the EU.

Four boats had more than 75% of crew from outside the European Economic Area (EEA), with one entirely crewed by Egyptians when they were boarded by the Naval Service.

Another – whose last port of call was Kinsale in Co Cork – had 80% of its crew from the Philippines and Egypt, as recorded in two separate inspections of the vessel which took place in May and August. 

One boat’s crew changed dramatically over the course of a month, with three Irish crew at the start of March but one Irish, one Egyptian and two Filipino crew members by the end of the same month.

It is unclear from the reports what employment permissions these workers held or if any were undocumented.

This information was compiled by Noteworthy when analysing navy reports of fishing vessel inspections in 2022. These were obtained through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request for navy inspection reports that refer to issues relating to migrant workers in the fishing industry.

  • Noteworthy is the crowdfunded community-driven investigative platform from The Journal that supports independent and impactful public interest journalism.

We were supplied with a full list of all Irish fishing vessels inspected at sea, both those with and without non-EEA workers on board – a total of 117 inspections from 2020 onwards.

These broke down to 18 inspections in 2020, 26 in 2021 and 73 in 2022 – dated up August this year. 

During the first eight months of this year, 33 of the inspections listed crew from outside the EEA on the fishing boats boarded by the Naval Service. Of these, 77 workers were from the Philippines, Egypt, Indonesia, Ghana and India.

Another five crew members were UK citizens and were listed as the only non-EEA crew on three vessels. These were not included in our analysis as our HANDS ON DECK investigation focused on fishers who require work permissions.

Less than 10% of the fishing fleet are permitted to recruit crew through the Atypical Working Scheme for non-EEA fishers. This scheme received strong criticism following reports of exploitation and trafficking in the sector.

  • The first part of our HANDS ON DECK investigative series – OUT NOW – investigated trafficking in the fishing industry in Ireland.

Through FOI, the investigative team obtained full access to 29 of the remaining 30 reports that listed non-EEA crew, with one refused due to an ongoing case with the DPP.

We found that 10 vessels had more than 50% non-EEA crew recorded in 11 navy inspections. This equates to 15% of inspections at sea of Irish fishing vessels during the period January to August 2022. 

 Migrant worker numbers unclear

“That will tell you the crisis the industry is in,” said Patrick Murphy from the IS&WPO who represents vessel owners. He said that this can happen when skippers are stuck for crew “and a phone call is made” as otherwise “they don’t have a full complement”.

Murphy said that this is how the problem is solved in Castletownbere. “It’s a practical solution that gets around the crazy law that says – we have to have 50:50.” That law was fine when there were “people in Europe who wanted to go fishing” but “now, there’s nobody”, he added.

“If something isn’t working, you fix it. You don’t just ignore it. But you don’t punish somebody for it being broken.”

The IS&WPO say there is a need for 160 workers in the industry, but a recent cross-departmental review group that examined work permissions for fishers, stated that it was “not aware of any formal analysis, assessment or report… in relation to the need for non-EEA workers in this specific sector”.

Michael O’Brien, fisheries campaign lead at the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) said that “time and time again” they have “been grappling with how many non-Europeans are in the Irish fishing fleet”.

He said this group encompasses those who have come in through the Atypical Working Scheme for fishers – which the recent review group stated numbered 337 at the end of last year.

A further “150 or so that were in the scheme at some time” – with many of those are still in fishing “as we have regular contact” and those who have always been undocumented. That’s “a significant cohort of non-EEA fishers”, he said.

This void may be filled by BIM who has recently completed an analysis of the fishing labour force. A spokesperson for the State agency said that “the final report will be published in the coming weeks”.

This “includes proposals to address the main challenges concerning recruitment and retention of crew in the Irish fishing industry”, they added.

Detaining vessels ‘not appropriate’  

Only one of these 11 vessels with less than 50% of EU crew received an infringement from the navy for “Less than 50% Irish Crew”, according to the inspection reports we analysed.

Screenshot of Navy Fishing Vessel Inspection Report that says: Crew; Countries/crew: Indonesia 1, Ireland 1, Philippines, 1; Total Crew Number 3; EU Citizen 33.33%, Non-EU Citizen 66.67%; Comments: Skipper has been made aware that there is less than 50% EU crew onboard. He has then informed us that a Lithuanian crew member will be joining the shop Saturday 13/8/22. There are some details of the crew members from Indonesia and the Philippines redacted.
Source: Navy Fishing Vessel Inspection Report 2022

The infringement was issued to a large fishing vessel registered in Cork during an inspection last August. The three crew members were from Ireland, Egypt and Indonesia.

When asked about this, a spokesperson from the Defence Forces said that the “database of foreign nationals who have been successful in their application for work permits” is not accessible “onboard a trawler”.

“Therefore, it is not an appropriate course of action to detain a vessel at sea for this offence alone, as gathering crew members’ nationalities is not a clear indication if a fish vessel meets its licensing requirement.”

The spokesperson said that breaches are directed to the Workplace Relations Commission “by way of a monthly return” which includes navy inspection findings “for onward investigation as deemed fit”.

Hands on Deck


As part of this investigation, our team examines how the Irish justice system is ‘failing’ migrant fishers who report exploitation. We also reveal how recently announced reforms in the fishing sector are leaving the most vulnerable workers behind.

Have a listen to The Explainer x Noteworthy podcast on the investigation’s findings.


Design for HANDS ON DECK - Fisher on vessel wearing protective clothes and gloves holding a net, with a catch of Dublin Bay prawns in the background.

By Maria Delaney of Noteworthy

This cross-border investigation with Geela Garcia in the Philippines and Louise Lawless in Ireland was supported by’s Modern Slavery Unveiled grant programme.

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