Cormac Burke, chairman of the Irish Fish and Seafood Alliance pictured in Killybegs
Up to €1.2 million has been lost to the Killybegs fishing industry this week, it has been claimed.
And this could rise to a projected €50m loss this season if a controversy concerning landing fish locally is not resolved.
That's the opinion of two of the port's fishing organisations - the Irish Fishing and Seafood Alliance and the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation - following a decision by the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) to refuse to allow a Danish vessel to land a catch of blue whiting intended for human consumption at a local processing factory - something the SFPA disputes.
It is understood that up to four Scandinavian vessels opted not to land their catches in Killybegs over the last seven days.
Fishermen and related businesses rely on these visiting vessels for work at a time when increasing fuel prices and Brexit are already causing major problems for the port.
Four vessels were not able to land in Killybegs
Since Thursday of last week, a total of four Scandinavian vessels have opted not to land their catch in Killybegs as a result of existing landing regulations.
This is estimated to represent a loss of approximately €320,000 a vessel or roughly €1.2 million in revenue to the local industry.
One of them is understood to have landed its catch in Derry thereby incurring extra costs as a result.
Locals in Killybegs feel that not alone was it devastating for the fish processors who have had to close their plants and lay off around 60 workers, but they also fear that it has damaged the reputation of Killybegs, which could drive off Danish and Norwegian boats they rely on due to the small quota Irish boats are forced to operate under.
This latest crisis began when the pelagic flagship of the Danish fleet, the 89-metre MV Ruth, one of the most modern fishing vessels in Europe, arrived in Killybegs last Thursday afternoon with 1,270 tonnes of blue whiting intended for human consumption. The catch was to be processed locally and then exported to Africa where there are currently food shortages and this supply of fish is seen as vital.
When such vessels are in the blue whiting season and catching for human consumption, they intentionally do not fill their refrigerated seawater tanks with the fish and keep these tanks well flooded (up to 50% water/fish) to ensure that there is no crushing of the fish and they retain their high quality before processing.
According to industry sources in Killybegs, the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) insisted that MV Ruth should land its catch without water and that each lorry container of fish goes over a weighbridge with no more than 2% water - thereby turning this prime human consumption fish into soup as the volume of fish would crush themselves without water.
Blue whiting is also often landed in Killybegs for the local fishmeal factory and although this is also going to produce important products such as meal and fish oil, the need for water retention is not as great as it would be for processing for human consumption.
Rather than see this waste of a perfectly good, and valuable, fish commodity, the skipper of the Ruth took the decision to leave Killybegs with its catch still on board and head back to Denmark.
Naturally, this has annoyed the industry and related businesses who rely on these visiting vessels for work at a time when the Irish fleet has already exhausted their small blue whiting quota and has tied up - this avenue of business may now be lost permanently.
Chief executive of the Killybegs Fishermen's Organisation, Sean O'Donoghue (above) said it was like a game of Russian roulette.
“Skippers don’t know until they arrive in Killybegs whether they are going to be chosen to be monitored or not so many vessels could decide if their catch would be better landed elsewhere.
“If it isn't resolved by the time of autumn fishing and next year, I could see us losing in the region of €50 million because of this.”
He added that even though only 5% of landings or 7.5% of a species might be weighed when they land, many skippers will be wondering if they should take that chance.
“They will be saying it is easier to land in Norway or Denmark where they wouldn't have this hassle. The minister and the SFPA have to stand up to the European Commission and tell them they are acting illegally. They need to get off the fence,” he said.
Mr O'Donoghue said the KFO is going to continue to use the fully certified, validated flow scales at Killybeg pier as prescribed by the High Court.
The chairman of the Irish Fishing and Seafood Alliance, Cormac Burke said the fishing and processing industry had no problem with the percentage of monitored landings by the SFPA.
“The EU rule is that 5% of vessels landing must undergo random monitoring and the industry doesn't care if that's 5% or 10%, that has nothing to do with this particular incident.
"The trouble in this case was the lack of common sense on the part of the SFPA when they tried to force a vessel to land its fish without the medium of water when this fish was supposed to be going for human consumption. Obviously its own weight without water would completely crush the fish.”
He added all other EU nations adhered to the 5% rule for random monitoring but none of them forced dry landings.
He refuted the SFPA's claim that it offered the master of the MV Ruth the option to land using an industry-owned process but this was turned down.
“What they offered was to put the fish into bulk containers with 2% water and dry them over a weighbridge and that's not enough, you would destroy the fish.”
He also claimed Minister McConalogue was "completely incorrect" when he said the situation that had arisen in Killybegs was a result of a finding of an investigation in 2018.
“The audit of 2018 to which he refers was into the functioning of the SFPA and not the industry. The situation we have now came directly as a result of an EU administrative inquiry held in 2019 when it was reported to the commission that the SFPA was refusing to monitor at the point of processing.
"The EU audit report that came as a result of that is in the hands of the minister, department official, and the SFPA but the industry continues to be denied any sight of it," he added.
The Irish Fish Processors and Exporters Association (IFPEA) CEO Brendan Byrne (above) said the failure to permit the landing of fish from a Norwegian vessel reflects badly on Ireland.
He said last week in total 112 workers were sent home notwithstanding the other opportunities to attract other vessels to the port which were lost.
"These opportunities would effectively create more employment opportunities for the seasonal staff in the port and give them much needed income.
"These seasonal workers work hard for their money, and due to the seasonal nature of fishing and the reduced quota opportunities, each day they can obtain work is critical for them. This is completely lost on those that implement and enforce these nonsensical rules, rules we add, that are in no other EU Member State.”
Mr Byrne said alternatives do exist.
“The High Court under a ruling handed down by Justice G Simmons compelled the SFPA to approve the pier side weighing system. Had the SFPA opted to use this weighing system, which the SFPA has both approved and used over the past year and correctly weighed over 14,000 tonnes of fish – then this issue would never have arisen. The SFPA unreservedly accepted this judgement ruling.
“Alternative solutions need to be reached and implemented without delay, and the mentality of forcing the impossible on the fishing sector needs to cease. The Irish fishing industry has absolutely no difficulty with control or monitored landings but it is essential that the rules apply across the EU equally and fairly and that is simply not the case at present,” he said.
SFPA and minister claim they are following the rules
The Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) has claimed in a statement that it is not at fault for the ships leaving Killybegs.
The SFPA confirmed that on March 31 it sought to undertake an inspection which would include supervising the weighing before transport of a fishing vessel, at Killybegs harbour.
“Such weighings are required by the interim Control Plan as approved by the European Commission,” it noted.
The statement continued: “The interim control plan allows for the weighing of up to 92.5% of catch in a factory or processing facility after transport, provided that 7.5% is weighed upon landing prior to transport on non-industry owned, non-industry operated devices.
“The SFPA confirms that the master of the vessel and the operator objected to the process for weighing upon landing, as set out in the Interim Control Plan.
“The master of the vessel and the operator were offered the use of an industry owned water separator which would preserve the quality of the fish during the process.
“They opted not to avail of this and subsequently the master of the vessel chose to leave port.
“The SFPA intends to notify the relevant regulatory authority of the EU member state in which this vessel is flagged of this interaction.”
The statement added that as the competent regulatory authority for sea-fisheries and seafood, the SFPA continuously monitors the activity of all vessels operating in Irish waters throughout their fishing operations within the Irish EEZ and promote, verify and enforce compliance of EU and national regulations.
“The SFPA has been actively working to secure approval of a formal control plan to enable the derogation of weighing of fishery products after transport in Ireland, which addresses significant EU Commission concerns surrounding Ireland’s control measures and the risk of non-compliance with the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy, particularly in pelagic bulk landings to Ireland, which resulted in the Commission’s revoking of Ireland’s weighing-after-transport Control Plan in 2021.
“A formal control plan has now been submitted by the SFPA to the European Commission with a view to achieving permanent approval.”
This has been backed up by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Donegal TD, Charlie McConalogue (above).
He said a new control plan was in place up until the end of April and a requirement is that 5% of overall landings had to be weighed on non-industry weighing machines.
He added that Ruth was to be part of that EU imposed 5% and if he had not succeeded in getting the temporary Control Plan in place that 5% would have been 100%.
“The SFPA is now engaging with the European Commission in relation to putting a permanent control plan in place over the next month or so the existing temporary one can be replaced.”
He claimed that if the SFPA plan was not approved everything would have to be weighed not just 5%.
“I will engage with the commission to ensure that a control plan is in place and that we don't have a situation that did arise last year where the commission revoked our control plan which meant that as a result of the challenges they had with what was happening primarily in Killybegs, every pier and harbour regardless of how small had no control plan to work off and had to weigh everything on landing.
“Obviously, that posed massive challenges to fishermen right across the county and it's not a situation we want to be in,” the minister added.
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