The European Commission has given Ireland three months to conduct an inquiry into its application of EU Common Fisheries Policy rules writes Lorna Siggins
The administrative inquiry must “evaluate” Ireland’s “capacity to apply the rules” which govern management of fish catches within EU waters off this coast.
The European Commission says that its official request arises from “the severe and significant weaknesses detected in the Irish control system during an audit carried out by the Commission in Ireland in 2018”.
The EU audit identified shortcomings related to the “effective control of the weighing of catches of small pelagic (mackerel/herring) species, and issues related to underreporting of catches of these species”, the Commission says.
It also identified 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”, it says in a statement.
The audit of monitoring - which is conducted by the State’s Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) - was carried out by EU officials in March, 2018, in the largest fishing port of Killybegs, Co Donegal.
The auditors scrutinised weighing systems in seven fish factories in Killybegs, and analysed monitoring of the fleet of large pelagic vessels, some of which were found to have under-recorded storage capacity in 2014 and 2015.
The audit also identified the State’s failure to control a recreational fishery for bluefin tuna.
It found evidence that some tourist trips advertised over the internet resulted in bluefin tuna being “kept, landed and offered for sale” in breach of regulations.
Warnings of weaknesses in relation to pelagic monitoring had been flagged in a review of Ireland’s fishery control regime commissioned back in 2007 by the then Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.
The 2007 review by consultants had advised that weighing of pelagic fish should primarily be undertaken at the quayside. It said weighing in factories should only continue where “strict additional control assurances” were implemented.
The Commission says Ireland’s administrative inquiry should “focus on the collection of information on these specific findings to enable the Commission to further evaluate Ireland's capacity to apply the rules of the CFP, and to assess the potential consequences of any failure to do so”.
It says the three month deadline may be extended “for a reasonable delay by the Commission, on a duly reasoned request from Ireland”.
“ After that period, the Commission will analyse the information provided by Ireland and identify if any further steps or actions are needed,”it says.
In a letter some months ago to Dr Cecil Beamish of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the European Commission’s fisheries directorate, DG Mare, said that a “follow up” by Ireland to address the audit findings was “imperative” as a “matter of urgency”.
Ireland defended its approach in its response to last year’s audit, but made a number of commitments – including hiring more SFPA staff and developing a protocol with the Director of Public Prosecutions.
The SFPA noted difficulties with weighing fish at the pier, as this can affect quality, and therefore value, and the method is opposed by the industry for this reason.
It said that it “operates a broad matrix of official controls”, but conceded that “total control is not possible and no single step ensures zero-risk of under declaration”.
The SFPA referred comments to the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine. The department said the Commission's request had just been received and "is being examined".