“THE FINEST COD bank on the Irish coast lies about two to three leagues to the northward of Boffin, nearly midway between that and Achill Head.”
The “great harvest” on the bank couldn’t be exploited by the Inishbofin islanders due to the small size of their boats, according to a report from 1873 by the then Inspector of Irish Fisheries, Thomas F. Brady,
Much has changed over the past almost 150 years. Not only is cod in crisis, but decades of overfishing combined with years of under-regulation have left many other species under threat.
“The oceans if managed sustainably and protected sufficiently are one of our most powerful allies in the fight against climate change,” according to Virginijus Sinkevičius, the European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries.
In order to do this, Sinkevičius said, in a recent online conference, that managing fisheries is key.
An effective control system is the precondition for an effective fisheries policy… the best policy remains toothless if not properly implemented and enforced.
That is where Ireland has fallen down in recent years, according to European Commission who found “severe and significant weaknesses” in the Irish control system.
Over the past number of months, Noteworthy has investigated Ireland’s enforcement of fisheries policy and controls. We submitted freedom of information (FOI) to multiple Government departments as well as State bodies and talked to numerous experts in both the fishing and environmental sectors. We can now reveal:
- Land and sea inspections of fishing vessels dropped by 30% in 2020, with a drop of over 60% sea boardings by the Naval Service due to Covid-19 redeployment.
- No vessels from Ireland, Scotland or the continent were willing to participate in a trial of CCTV by an Irish authority.
- The landing obligation – or discard ban – is not working for fishers, environmental groups or scientists.
- Ireland stated it had put no landing obligation specific tools in a report to the European Commission.
- A number of issues identified in a recent Commission audit had already been flagged in a 2007 report commissioned by the Government.
- A 2014 report by a Sea Fisheries Protection Officer suspected that a vessel “intentionally and illegally discharged a large quantity” of herring in Killybegs harbour.
Navy vessel boardings drop 60%
One of the important methods that Irish authorities use to enforce fishing policies and regulations are inspections of vessels. This is done by the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) at ports when the vessels land their catch, and mainly by the Naval Service at sea.
As well as numerous other checks, these inspections ensure that skippers are correctly logging the amount of fish they are catching and not discarding fish at sea that they shouldn’t. They are crucial in combating and detecting overfishing.
Last April, when Ireland indicated to the European Commission that inspections may be affected by Covid-19, the Commission wrote to the Irish Government to express their “deep concern” about continued fishing activities “in case physical inspections at sea or at landing are significantly reduced”. Noteworthy obtained this letter through the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.
A reduction in inspections, according to the Commission, would “present a major risk regarding compliance with the rules” of the Common Fisheries Policy – a set of rules for managing the European fishing fleets and conserving fish stocks.
However, Noteworthy can reveal that land and sea inspections of fishing vessels dropped by 30% in 2020 despite this Commission warning. Our analysis of SFPA annual reports shows that vessel inspections by both the SFPA and the Naval Service were at their lowest level in five years.
Sea boardings by the navy dropped by over 60% from 830 in 2019 to 309 in 2020. Though Covid-19 had an impact on this, there had already been a significant drop in boardings by the naval service in recent years, with an almost 40% decrease from over 1,200 in 2016 and 2017, to near 800 in 2018 and 2019.
SFPA inspections, which often take place at ports rather than at sea, had been higher in 2019 than previous years. However, they were down 18% last year compared to 2019.
To view an interactive version of this graph, click here.
When asked about this reduction, a Naval Service spokesperson said as part of the national response to Covid-19, Irish Naval Service ships were redeployed “to support the HSE and National Ambulance Service in running Community Testing Centres in Dublin, Cork and Galway”.
“Despite these redeployments”, the spokesperson stated that fishery inspections continued. “Over the last number of years, the Naval Service has increased the risk-based analysis of fishing activity resulting in an increase in infringements and detentions found.”
A spokesperson for the SFPA said that the Commission letter “referred to concerns should Covid restrictions significantly reduce fisheries inspections”. They added that “this situation did not arise in Ireland” as they continued to maintain its regulatory services throughout the pandemic, with some health and safety modifications.
They also referred to a risk-based approach with those considered to pose “particular risks of non-compliance” subject to “focussed inspections”. They met their 5% vessel landing and 7.5% weight targets for 2020 inspections for pelagic fish. A recent Commission audit highlighted that some of these targets have not been met in the past.
CCTV as a control
Fintan Kelly, policy officer with BirdWatch Ireland, wrote a report, A Discarded Opportunity, which stated that “the EU has failed to fully implement” the Common Fisheries Policy.
He acknowledged that the fishing sector had unique challenges caused by Covid-19 and he would have some understanding of a drop off on inspection rates, but he added that “it exposes the massive issues here with reliance on onboard inspections”.
This “is also a great argument for bringing fisheries monitoring and control into the 21st century” as if there were cameras on boats, boarding “inspections would not be as important”.
“Modern control tools” were also suggested by the Commission’s letter on Covid-19. It stated that remote electronic monitoring (REM), and in particular CCTVs, “may become indispensable” when physical checks are “interrupted or significantly curtailed”.
In response, the Government said that remote electronic monitoring on fishing vessels was “currently being scoped” and access to CCTV in Fishery Harbour Centres was being sought.
A spokesperson for the SFPA told Noteworthy that CCTV or remote electronic monitoring is not a requirement, but they would welcome it as a tool to monitor compliance. They added that there is currently no legal basis for fisheries regulators in the EU “to enforce non-voluntary CCTV on fishing vessels”.
This may be possible in the near future for some vessels, as new fisheries control regulations – passed through the European Parliament in early March – includes CCTV as one of the many control measures.
This will now be further debated by EU Member States, the Commission and Parliament before it is fully implemented. If passed, cameras and remote monitoring could be mandatory on vessels deemed as ‘high risk of non-compliance’ and voluntary on others by 2026.
Green Party MEP, Grace O’Sullivan, who is on the European Parliament’s Committee on Fisheries (PECH), has been involved in the drafting of this regulation for almost two years. The Greens voted against the regulations in the end “even though there was a lot of good stuff as [they] felt there could be loopholes” which could potentially “contribute to overfishing”.
To help with an uptake of these control measures, O’Sullivan said “fishers will want to see advantages for compliance”, including financial support.
No vessel willing to participate in trial
There has been pushback in Ireland on the implementation of CCTV with a pilot project run by the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority in 2018 “excluding CCTV” after failing to get people to volunteer to participate, even when they “attempted to tender for fishing vessels to be paid” a daily rate to take CCTV equipment on board.
Instead, the authority “embraced other aspects of remote electronic monitoring” such as sensors, according to a presentation they made on the pilot last year.
A spokesperson for the SFPA told Noteworthy that “extensive efforts were made by the SFPA to find a participating vessel of the required class”. The authority contacted all Irish pelagic producer organisations and all Scottish producer organisations as well as most on the continent. “However, no vessel was willing to participate in the trial.”
Sean O’Donoghue of Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation, a pelagic producer organisation and one of Ireland’s most active when it comes to registering its lobbying efforts, said he “only supports CCTV in certain circumstances”.
He would “go along with” the measure that it would be mandatory for high risk vessels and felt the Parliament “took a wise decision” in not making it mandatory in other circumstances.
“There is already remote electronic monitoring and we’re fully supportive of that,” added O’Donoghue.
“Most Irish vessels have CCTV on them already,” according to Dominic Rihan, Director of Economic and Strategic Services at seafood development agency, BIM. “They use it because the man in the wheelhouse needs to see what the men on the deck are doing.”
He felt that this type of monitoring “only tells you part of the story” and having CCTV on a vessel will not help implement the landing obligation. “It’s a deterrent… but it isn’t the answer that everybody thinks it is.”
Ireland relying on ‘traditional control tools’
One reason for the Commission’s push for “modern controls” is because of the landing obligation, also known as the discard ban. It requires fishers to record all catches and prevents discarding of certain fish. This key element of the Common Fisheries Policy was fully implemented in 2019.
Before this was implemented, unwanted catches were thrown back – or discarded – into the sea either dead or alive. Lisa Borges of consultancy company FishFix explained this is usually because they are smaller than the minimum size required so cannot be sold for human consumption or they are over quota or have no quota for that species of fish.
The landing obligation only applies to species which are subject to quotas – measures which limit the amount of that particular stock which can be landed at port. Other fish continue to be discarded and there are lots of different exemptions to this rule also.
The benefits were supposed to be that an accurate account of all quota species caught by fishers would be recorded in ports but Borges said – in practice – this didn’t work “because they were afraid of closing the fisheries”.
However, BirdWatch Ireland’s recent report on the landing obligation found there is “sufficient evidence” to suggest it “has not been fully implemented in Irish waters and illegal discarding continues”. It stated:
Illegal discarding will contribute to ongoing declines in overfished stocks, preventing or delaying the positive environmental and socio-economic benefits that will accrue as stocks recover.
Kelly told Noteworthy that there’s been “a total lack of leadership to ensure that it has been implemented”.
From conversations with Noteworthy this policy does not seem to be working for anybody. Both environmental groups as well as representatives of the fishing industry spoke of multiple issues – both in implementation and enforcement of the landing obligation. One key issue is the difficulty in monitoring discarding of fish at sea.
Noteworthy obtained a February 2020 report through FOI that Ireland sent to the Commission for its assessment of the implementation of the landing obligation. You can read this detailed report here.
Ireland’s report stated “robust at sea monitoring” was central to Ireland’s implementation of the landing obligation and to find out if fishers were correctly logging their discards.
It stated that two suspected infringements relating to the landing obligation were detected at landing in 2019, but no infringements were detected at sea in 2019. A spokesperson for the SFPA told Noteworthy that one suspected breach was found last year- this time at sea.
This report also showed that Ireland was relying on “traditional control tools” to ensure compliance with the discard ban. It stated that no landing obligation “specific control tools” such as CCTV or remote electronic monitoring have been put in place.
A SFPA spokesperson said that it “has a limited regulatory toolbox with regards to the enforcement of sea-fisheries and seafood safety regulations” but it continues to seek to improve these capabilities.
The Commission compiled the reports from all Member States and found low compliance with the landing obligation across them in its assessment last year.
“Control of the landing obligation remains a challenge that has not been resolved,” it concluded. From an audit series, it found “Member States in question have not adopted the necessary measures and that there is significant undocumented discarding of catches”.
Flaws in the discard ban
“The notion of having a discard ban or landing obligation for every single stock under quota is utter madness,” according to BIM’s Rihan.
He cited Norway – which since it is outside the EU has its own fishing laws and regulations – as a better model for implementing and enforcing a discard ban. “The Norwegian system is far from perfect, but what it did do is change the culture.”
He suggested it would have been better to use a simpler model starting with one stock such as cod and saying that “all cod catches have to be landed to start” and then building it from there.
Then “you start to build a culture around that” where you introduce selectivity measures such as fishing gear that reduces unwanted catches or closures of certain fishing grounds.
“There is a fundamental flaw in the landing obligation”, according to O’Donoghue from Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation. He felt that prior to it being enforced, the industry was focusing on avoiding and minimising unwanted catches, which, he said “there was huge momentum behind”.
The industry representative said that once this policy was agreed, the industry, Member States and Commission were “left carrying the baby”.
What’s the difference between landing a dead fish and actually discarding them at sea? In both instances they’re dead.
‘Choke stocks’ are one of the main objections by the industry to the landing obligation. This is when one species of fish in a mixed fishery is doing a lot worse than others.
For example, because of the poor state of cod in the waters off Donegal as well as in the Celtic Sea, scientific advice recommends that none are caught and it is given a zero total allowable catch (TAC). However, when vessels are fishing for other species such as Haddock, cod is often caught as it is a mixed fishery.
If the zero TAC was implemented, “every fishery off the waters of Donegal… would be closed within a day because if you caught one cod, you couldn’t go to sea again”, said O’Donoghue.
To address this ‘choke’ situation, in recent years the Commission has allowed fishers a certain amount of quota to catch species such as cod, even though scientific advice was set at zero. In addition to this, there was also an increase in the total allowable catch – and resulting quotas of many other fish stocks – to allow for the landing in ports of fish that would have been previously discarded.
Because of these additional quota allowances, recent research from FishFix’s Borges on the unintended impact of the European discard ban argued that continued discarding – and lack of enforcement – could actually result in an increase of overfishing. This would in turn impact future fishing opportunities in the EU.
“If that damages the stocks, then the stocks are adjusted accordingly,” Patrick Murphy of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation (IS&WFPO) told Noteworthy, as stocks are assessed every year.
However, Borges told Noteworthy that the landing obligation is supposed to incentivise a change in behaviour of fisheries to avoid unwanted catches. However, topping up the quotas to account for discards just maintains “the status quo” and allows vessels “to continue fishing as before”.
‘Severe and significant weaknesses’
Issues with enforcement of fisheries controls have been identified by a number of reports and Commission audits over the past 15 years.
The most recent Commission audit in 2018 detected “severe and significant weaknesses” in the Irish control system, according to a Commission statement in 2019.
The Commission identified shortcomings related to the effective control of the weighing of catches of small pelagic species, issues related to underreporting of catches of these species, the inadequate and ineffective sanctioning system for offences committed by operators and the lack of control and enforcement of bluefin tuna catches by recreational vessels.
The final report of the most recent Commission audit in 2018 was requested by Noteworthy through FOI but not released. However, Noteworthy has seen a copy of the report and though the report is not publicly available, its findings were reported at the time by The Irish Times.
The 70-page document is very detailed but some of its main findings in terms of enforcement and control were:
- Cases of “detected or suspected tampering with weighing systems for in premises conducting official weighing of catches of bulk pelagic species” were highlighted.
- Underreporting of tank volumes on vessels was examined – an issue that was made public by The Daily Mail in April 2018. A tank survey, commissioned by the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, found larger storage capacity than recorded in official documentation of many vessels, with an equivalent storage space which would fit 750 tonnes of underreported mackerel on one Irish vessel. However the report added that “no infringement procedures have been initiated against vessel operators for carrying inaccurate capacity documentation”.
- Hooks were also found in tanks “which may be used to suspend [a] net to retain catch and distort” tests by the authorities.
- The report found that two incidences of significant quantities of dead pelagic fish accumulated in Killybegs harbour could indicate that “the discharge of fish from vessels in the port has occurred in the past”. A link to a dive inspection of Killybegs Harbour in 2013 was included. This found over 1,200 tonnes of waste fish on the seabed at berths. A large fish spill in 2014 was reported in the media and investigated by the SFPA, so this was probably the other case the report alluded to.
- Other issues identified with the control system included risks regarding paper based systems for crosschecks of data relating to landings of fish as well as not meeting inspection benchmarks for a number of fish species.
This “past reliance” on inaccurate weighing operations and inaccurate vessel capacity “clearly impeded Ireland from accurately monitoring catches and quota consumption”, according to the report, with Ireland having “not corrected the associated data submitted to the Commission”.
Not the first time…
A number of findings of the 2015 Commission audit as well as the more recent 2018 follow-up, were already identified in a review commissioned by Government in 2007, which Noteworthy obtained through FOI (and you can read here). The recommendations also included automated cross-checks and weighing of pelagic fish primarily at the quayside.
An annual naval service inspection target of 1,900 boardings was also recommended by this 2007 review, which is far greater than inspection numbers in recent years.
More recently, a review of organisational capability of the SFPA in April 2020 which concluded that the authority “is not working effectively and requires urgent attention”, also highlighted issues previously found in the audit. It found that “crosschecks of data relating to landings are still not recorded electronically, but a solution was being worked on as part of VALID project”.
When asked for an update, a spokesperson for the SFPA said the rollout of this “fully automated crosscheck system” is nearly complete. This will make it easier to “identify vessels with a higher risk of non-compliance”. However, some of the required crosschecks continue to be manual as the data, such as transport documents and weigh records, are “paper-based”.
The review also found that the SFPA has no IT or Data Strategy. These are currently “under development” with plans to be complete “within the next few months”, according to the spokesperson.
In addition, a number of internal SFPA documents were an important part of the Commission audit – such as the vessel tank survey – which revealed serious compliance issues in the industry.
Through FOI, Noteworthy requested access to the results of this tank survey – which found larger storage capacity than officially recorded on a number of vessels, but this was refused by the SFPA under section 32 of the Act as it could “prejudice or impair”, amongst other things, “the apprehension or prosecution of offenders”.
Noteworthy did get access, through FOI, to correspondence between the Marine Survey Office, which certified the new measurements, and the SFPA in regards to this survey. These emails list the 42 vessels surveyed between 2014 and 2017, all of which were in the pelagic fleet.
In their most recent correspondence to the Marine Survey Office in 2018, SFPA’s Director of Operations, Seamus Gallagher, stated that “a number of vessels were identified as having a through hull discharge capacity from within the vessel’s tank spaces”.
The discharge capacity, whereby fish and water could be pumped outboard from within the tank space, is prohibited [under EU law].
Gallagher wrote that the SFPA contacted the operators to “verify that they had undertaken remedial measures to ensure that fish discharges under the waterline cannot be undertaken by them”. There were five redacted vessels listed – three in Killybegs and two in Castletownbere.
The 2018 EU audit also mentioned these features, stating that though it is unable to verify they were definitely used, this “compellingly indicates a historical systematic under-declaration of catch within the industry”.
There was a suspected fish discharge incident around the time of the initial tank surveys. Noteworthy was granted access, with redactions, to a 2014 report by a Sea Fisheries Protection Officer from the SFPA where he suspects that a vessel “intentionally and illegally discharged a large quantity” of herring in Killybegs harbour. This report included a number of photos of the fish spill – read it in full here.
This report details the landing of a vessel – whose name is redacted – in August 2014. After landing at the port, the master of the vessel “appeared very surprised to learn that his fish were to be weighed on landing” as he had expected the herring catch to be weighed in a factory “which had been the norm” previously.
Just over a week after this and with “no other pelagic landings” occurring since that one, “large quantities of fish” floated ashore in Killybegs harbour.
The officer suspects that the vessel discarded herring under the water from its tanks “to avoid detection for having under-recorded in his logbook the actual quantities” held onboard.
I suspect that [redacted] did not consider that his catch would be weighed on landing and instead expected that he would land his catch to [redacted]’s premises for official weighing and processing and that his unrecorded surplus [herring] would be unrecorded in the Official Pelagic Weighing Record of that premises.
Because of a number of suspected offences, the officer then recommended the vessel be considered for “very high risk classification”.
When asked if any action was taken as a result of this report, such as prosecution for illegal discharge or the vessel being classified as ‘very high risk’, a spokesperson stated:
“The SFPA have no record of a prosecution of the vessel in question and the enforcement of dumping at sea is under the remit of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).”
Commission’s ‘package of measures’
Following the 2018 audit, the Commission undertook a formal administrative inquiry to evaluate Ireland’s capacity to apply the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy.
Correspondence about the inquiry between the Commission and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) was not granted to Noteworthy under FOI, but a spokesperson for DAFM said that the findings deem “the Irish control and sanctioning systems as unsatisfactory” and the EU Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, “has put forward certain specific measures to address the issues raised”.
The Minister will shortly be commencing a process of engagement with the EU Commissioner. 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.
As part of its recommended “package of measures”, the Commission found that Ireland overfished a combination of mackerel, horse mackerel (scad) and blue whiting by over 42,000 tonnes between 2012 and 2016, and advised that amount is to be taken from future quotas. These are all pelagic species of fish.
In a statement to Noteworthy – not in relation to the audit, but on their compliance and enforcement work – a spokesperson for the SFPA said that “Ireland’s pelagic fisheries are amongst the world’s most valuable fisheries”.
Due to an “increased risk of non-compliance in pelagic fisheries”, specific checks are required and the authority “devotes a significant portion of its inspection resources” to this task, according to the spokesperson. They added that because of the method used by these fisheries to pump fish ashore, it “involves practical challenges when it comes to trying to verify the quantity of fish”.
The Commission measures also included the removal of the exemption to permit pelagic fish, such as mackerel, to be weighed in factories. “This will require that all fish are weighed on the quayside,” according to a DAFM spokesperson. The SFPA told Noteworthy that currently 5% of pelagic vessel landings “are being controlled at quayside”.
Related to pelagic fish weighing, there are currently two High Court cases pending by the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation as well as different fish processors in relation to the weighing of pelagic fish on the quayside and ownership and operation of these weighing scales.
The Commission also suspended €25 million in EU co-funding, with a total of €37.2m at risk if suspensions continue and affect future funds.
Finally, it “commenced infringement proceedings against Ireland as a result of Ireland’s failure to establish points systems for masters of sea fishing vessels who commit serious infringements of the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy”. Ireland was the only EU Member State up to recently to not have this legislation in place.
- Read more about the politics and lobbying surrounding this issue by both the fishing industry and Fianna Fáil politicians since 2018 in this bonus article which reveals the politics at play behind the scenes >>
‘Mutual trust is essential’
Both O’Donoghue from Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation and Murphy from Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation told Noteworthy they have not received a copy of the report from the 2018 Commission Audit.
In an email, Murphy said he could not comment on the audit findings or the recently reported measures by the Commission due to not being aware of the contents of the report or being consulted about it. O’Donoghue said he is “quite annoyed” about this. “Here we are again, being accused of something and we are not being given the opportunity to see the report”.
When asked about this a spokesperson from the DAFM said the Commission advised the Department that “no documents relating to the administrative Inquiry could be made public”.
Noteworthy also requested a number of documents from the Commission including the 2015 and 2018 audit reports as well as more recent correspondence on the inquiry, all of which were refused.
In their response to us about this, a Commission representative wrote:
The disclosure of these documents at this point in time would negatively influence the dialogue between the European Commission and the Member State concerned, for which a climate of mutual trust is essential in the frame of an administrative inquiry.
The letter stated that such a “climate of mutual trust” is essential to enable them to “resolve the issue without having to refer it to the Court of Justice”.
In their latest statement to Noteworthy on the issue, a DAFM spokesperson said that the Department is actively considering the inquiry findings “with a view to commencing negotiations” with the Commission “at the earliest opportunity”.
This investigation was carried out by Maria Delaney of Noteworthy, the investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers with support from the Noteworthy general fund to cover additional costs.
You may be interested in a proposed investigation we recently launched - SHORED UP - where we want to investigate if our laws can catch up with the commercial use of our coasts.