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Ireland's Regulator in Eye of Storm Over Weighing System

9th November 2023
A State-owned weighbridge is located at Killybegs Port in County Donegal
A State-owned weighbridge is located at Killybegs Port in County Donegal"

An Irish parliamentary committee may summon the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) before it to explain its weighing system, reports Lorna Siggins.

This follows a recent parliamentary (Oireachtas) agriculture, food and marine committee debate when Independent TD for Cork South-West Michael Collins called for an independent review of the current system run by the SFPA.

Collins referred to a “crisis” in the system and quoted from an Irish Examiner newspaper report, which claimed that a recording system initiated by the SFPA in December 2022 may be flawed and that 40% of by-catch sampling could be out by as much as 80%.

“That is an astonishing figure. It is out by 80%. This has a knock-on effect of leading to cuts to the level of whitefish quota and the number of whitefish species the EU says fishermen can catch in any one year,” Collins said.

Marine minister Charlie McConalogue told Collins that as minister, he is “specifically and legally precluded from becoming involved in operational matters”.

However, McConalogue said that under the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006, Collins, as a member of the Oireachtas committee, is “empowered by the committee to engage directly with the SFPA and discuss those matters directly with the SFPA through the committee”.

In a related development relating to weighing systems, Ireland’s High Court has found that the SFPA is entitled to insist that the weighing of fish catches in Killybegs, Co Donegal, should take place “on landing” and not after they had been transported to a processing factory.

Ms Justice Siobhán Phelan ruled that a derogation allowing the weighing to take place in the factory did not impact on the power of the SFPA also to require monitored weighing on landing.

The SFPA was entitled to require that any quantity of landed fish be weighed in the presence of officials before being transported despite the derogation, she said.

Ireland had a derogation since 2012 which permitted weighing at authorised premises after the fish was transported from the quayside.

The derogation was rescinded in 2021, after concerns expressed by the European Commission after irregularities were detected. An administration inquiry by the SFPA was followed up with an EU audit.

The SFPA then said that a percentage of inspections would be carried out on landing, which would involve weighing the catch at the pier side weighbridge in Killybegs and other designated ports for landings of more than 10 tonnes of fish before transport to the factory.

In October 2020, the MFV Atlantic Challenge was selected for inspection and boarded by fisheries officers on its arrival at Killybegs, where a pier-side weighing took place.

This took place “under protest” from the vessel’s master, Noel McDowell, and Killybegs Fishing Enterprises Ltd, which holds the Atlantic Challenge's sea fishing licence, and Killybegs Seafoods also agreed to the weighing under protest.

They argued that post-transport weighing was the best way to preserve the quality, freshness and value of the fish in refrigerated water, as it minimised damage caused by crushing/bruising or temperature variation.

The SFPA argued it was possible to mitigate the effects of “de-watering” and arranged for a water separator, or “hopper”, to be installed at Killybegs pier.

The Atlantic Challenge declined its use during the October 2020 inspection.

The figures sent in when the fish was later weighed in the factory showed a differential of some 11-12 per cent between the weight for mackerel recorded from the pier weighbridge and on the flow scales at the factory.

The SFPA notified McDowell of two "suspected offences" relating to the landing declaration.

The High Court challenge seeking to quash the notice to weigh on landing, used for the inspection on October 12th, 2020, was brought by Killybegs Fishing Enterprise, Killybegs Seafoods and the fishermen's representative organisation, the Killybegs Fishermen's Organisation Ltd.

The fishermen/factory applicants argued the Atlantic Challenge was unlawfully selected for monitored weighing on landing as, at that time, weighing ought properly to have occurred at the factory premises under the terms of the derogation.

They also contended that the system of weighing using the State-owned weighbridge at Killybegs Port was not fit for purpose, claiming the factory weighing scales were more accurate and less damaging to the fish.

The SFPA opposed the challenge. It argued, among other things, that where the SFPA requires weighing on landing, the derogation from the general rules did not apply.

Ms Justice Phelan said the power to require a monitored weighing on landing was not a new power, and noted that it had co-existed with the derogation –even if the SFPA did not in practice exercise that power prior to 2020.

The KFO had no comment to make on the ruling.

Published in SFPA
Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Search and Rescue: True stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116 (2022); Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004); and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010). She is also co-producer with Sarah Blake of the Doc on One "Miracle in Galway Bay" which recently won a Celtic Media Award

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About the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA)

The Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority was established on the 1st of January 2007. The SFPA is independent in the exercise of its functions, which are below.

The principal functions of the Authority are:

  1. To secure efficient and effective enforcement of sea-fisheries law and food safety law
  2. To promote compliance with & deter contraventions of sea-fisheries law and food safety law
  3. To detect contraventions of sea-fisheries law and food safety law
  4. To provide information to the sea-fisheries and seafood sectors on sea-fisheries law and food safety law and relevant matters within the remit of the Authority, through the Consultative Committee established under section 48 of the above Act or by any other means it considers appropriate
  5. To advise the Minister in relation to policy on effective implementation of sea-fisheries law and food safety law
  6. To provide assistance and information to the Minister in relation to the remit of the Authority
  7. To collect and report data in relation to sea fisheries and food safety as required by the Minister and under Community law
  8. To represent or assist in the representation of the State at national, Community and international fora as requested by the Minister, and
  9. To engage in any other activities relating to the functions of the Authority as may be approved of by the Minister.