Seafood processors in Donegal believe that an EU decision to stop weighing of fish in factories is going to cripple the industry, leading to hundreds of job losses, and costing the local economy millions.
According to a Bord Iascaigh Mara (BIM) study, the industry contributes 1,835 jobs to south-west Donegal, both directly and indirectly.
On April 13, the EU Commission decided to withdraw Ireland’s control plan for landing and weighing of fish within factories - a move that fish processors say is a devastating blow to their industry.
They believe they are being treated unfairly and are calling for strong political will and leadership to save their multi-million industry. The withdrawal of the control plan will see fish that was being weighed in their factories now being weighed on the piers and at harbours – in open air without any control in places where little or no facilities exist.
The Chief Executive of the Irish Fish Processors & Exporters Association, Brendan Byrne said: “This is going to have a devastating effect on how processors can operate on a daily basis, it defies logic that this was allowed to happen.
“What is being asked of the fish processors is impractical and downright impossible to perform, to say the very least, the idea that all catches must be weighed at the landing port is crazy.”
He estimates that up to 500 jobs could be lost in Donegal.
Seafood processors say the new regulations give no consideration regarding the necessity to maintain what is known as the cold chain for seafood, or for food safety measures, and the availability of ice or chilled sea water for replenishing or preservation of the catches that otherwise would need to be maintained in ice. The move, they say, will cost them the multi-million euro Asian market where the catch has to be perfect in terms of standards and quality. They also feel that trawlers will turn to other ports where the manner in which their catch is better treated, work will take less time and not devalue their catch. Those in the industry are adamant that they are being treated differently to other EU countries where the controls are different.
Calls for common sense to prevail
The Chief Executive Officer of the Atlantic Dawn Group, Karl Mc Hugh, has called for common sense to prevail as authorities try to change the process involving how fish is being weighed at Ireland’s largest fishing port. The outcome of the Brexit negotiations has left the fishing industry in Killybegs reeling and with the first tranche of the Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement cuts being applied this year, coupled with a decrease in the amount of fish being landed into Irish ports, the future seems bleak for many in the industry.
85% of fish caught in Irish waters by non-Irish vessels
The Chief Executive of the Irish Fish Processors & Exporters Association, Brendan Byrne, said: “At present for every 100 fish caught in Irish waters only 15 of the fish are caught by Irish vessels or in other words 85% of fish caught in Irish waters is by non-Irish vessels.”
Fish processors in Killybegs have the means to weigh the fish at their factories. The systems, they say, are the same as are in use in other EU member states. They have also worked hard to establish markets to sell their fish into but fear changes that are introduced regarding how fish is weighed will send the volatile industry over the cliff edge.
Bleed the town dry
Kenny and Shaun Ward of the long-established company Ward Fish said the current recommendation to change the weighing system will destroy the industry as, they feel, it is impossible to implement.
“It will make it unattractive to both foreign and Irish vessels. It will bleed the town dry,” they say, adding that the industry generates money in areas across the county.
They feel that they have faced into a perfect storm: “It’s the perfect storm. We have had Covid-19, we’ve had Brexit but this is the biggest nail of them all.2
They depend on boats landing with raw materials and with no fish being landed - there can be no jobs.
On April 13, the EU Commission decided to withdraw Ireland’s control plan for the landing and weighing of fish within factories. This means that all fish being landed has to be weighed as it comes off the vessel. Fine Gael Deputy Joe McHugh said the decision of April 13 has eroded confidence in the fishing industry adding that he also feels there is a real threat of job losses within the industry. He did state he would like to see Government intervention on the matter. He said it is one of the commitments in the Programme for Government to look at the restructuring of the SFPA. He said the industry has been working with the Department of the Marine and the SFPA in trying to find a solution to the issue of weighing fish. The industry has offered more inspection, for example extra CCTV in the factories, in order to ensure more transparency, the public representative said.
At the worst possible time
Meanwhile, the Sinn Féin spokesperson on fishing, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn said the development is a very serious one and comes at the worst possible time when they are dealing with the huge loss of fishing quota following the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. “It is astonishing that our fishing industry has not been provided with the European’s Commission’s 2018 audit and the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) administrative inquiry that has led to this decision. How can an accused person, or in this case, an entire industry, defend themselves if they have not been presented with the evidence.”
Mr Mac Lochlainn said that the leaking of the reports have suggested a widespread illegality in the fishing industry - an accusation that seafood processors say is unfounded.
'Nothing to hide'
Mr Karl Mc Hugh said there was ample opportunity for the SFPA to have made arrangements with the EU to address the control plan being introduced.
The SFPA has primary responsibility for the regulation of the sea fisheries control and food safety of fish. Mr Mc Hugh said they have ‘absolutely’ nothing to hide and are happy to allow any reasonable level of control that doesn’t adversely affect the quality of fish and does not affect the efficiency of operations, to be introduced and implemented.
“And yet, there seems to be a reluctance on the part of the SFPA, in particular, to accept the measures we have proposed or even to engage proactively to agree on those measures with a view to having them approved by the EU.
“One of the most fundamental questions is that the control plan that was revoked was approved in 2012 and the control measures within that plan bear no resemblance to the control measures we are subject to today. In 2015, there were significant enhanced controls introduced that we have all accepted and embraced,” he said.
Many in the industry feel frustrated with the regulatory body. Factories have CCTV cameras which SFPA officers can monitor 24/7, the weighing devices are sealed and accessible only by National Standards Association Ireland personnel.
“The Irish fishing sector is the most regulated in all of Europe, they use the same weighing machines as the French, Danish and Spanish and there are no issues in those countries,” Mr Byrne said.
The SFPA informed sea processors that the manner in which they weigh fish will change by June 1 - a request that is felt cannot be met.
Mr Mc Hugh said on April 16, they were informed they were to have certified weigh in systems on the pier by June 1: “And the certification body has said there is no way we are going to be able to have weigh in systems set up within that time frame.”
Angered by the move
Mr Mc Hugh questioned why they are not being given a transitionary period to move from the previous control plan to the new control plan - if there was an insistence that it had to be revoked.
Seafood processor John McGuinness said that they are angered by the move, that the industry welcomes regulations that maintain ‘a level playing field for everybody’.
He said: “We are very angry at how this has developed. We are fortunate in that we have this quiet summer period. If this had happened on January 1 it would have been a complete disaster. These summer months will quickly dissipate.
“There is no physical way to weigh all the fish on the pier, as the SFPA suggests, when we are busy with landings. If we drain the water out of the tankers like the SFPA wants us to do and run it over the weighbridge on the pier we will completely damage the quality of mackerel and horse mackerel. The third species Blue whiting is so delicate that it will just have to go for fishmeal. We cannot even consider doing it for human consumption.”
Fish processors feel that communications needs to be better between the Government, SFPA and the sector.
“There is no physical way to weigh all the fish on the pier, as the SFPA suggests, when we are busy with landings. If we drain the water out of the tankers like the SFPA wants us to do and run it over the weighbridge on the pier we will completely damage the quality of mackerel and horse mackerel. The third species, blue whiting, is so delicate that it will just have to go for fishmeal. We cannot even consider doing it for human consumption.”
Deputy Pringle urges stronger stance with EU
Independent TD Thomas Pringle agreed with the fish processors on the transitory period. He said: “The Government should have but FF/FG have never stood up for our fishing communities and have always kowtow to the EU in relation to fishing.
All those associated with Killybegs industry say they currently weigh fish in a controlled environment, compliant with all food hygiene standards but yet are being told to go back to the pier and weigh in an uncontrolled environment where they break the cold chain and allow a perishable commodity to suffer a reduction in the quality.
“Fish processors are being placed in an impossible position where if the remove their catch from the chilled sea water or ice as the case may be with some catches within minutes a rapid decline in fish quality will occur, this was confirmed by the SFPA in a recent Oireachtas Committee meeting on Marine,” said Mr Byrne.
Brendan Byrne noted: “The 2006 Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act which set up the SFPA is seriously flawed and has led to a dysfunctional organisation.This has been confirmed by independently commissioned reports, such as, the Wolf Report of 2012, Moran assessment and the Price Waterhouse Coopers report of 2020 but what has been lacking with all these reports into the SFPA is the political will to do anything about it.”
Mr Byrne added that the lack of political will to address this situation has left the industry on the verge of collapse.
A statement from the Department of the Marine states that the Marine Minister Charlie McConalogue is precluded from getting involved in matters relating to the Irish control authorities.
"But if that is the case then we have a situation whereby the rule enforcer the SFPA is not answerable to the rule maker which is the Irish Government and the general public will find that difficult to understand," said Mr Byrne.
In a statement issued by the Department of Marine, it further states that the Minister is satisfied that the SFPA has the resources and capability of delivery of the legal obligations set down.
“Additional funds have been allocated over recent years to strengthen the authority and staff members have increased … and further recruitment is planned for next year. In addition, an independent organisational capability review was carried out for the SFPA in 2020 and is currently being implemented to strengthen the effectiveness of delivery of its functions.”
Seafood processors argue that while the minister cannot get involved in operational matters he can change and effect policy in relation to the industry.
Many of the seafood processors have spent years building up a reputation for Irish seafood markets, the Asian market being one that is hard to obtain. Donegal seafood processors would have competed with other counterparts from Denmark, Norway and Scotland at trade fairs in China and Japan over the years.
They have made successful inroads into the market, a success story they feel is being jeopardised by the new control plan.
“We know in our more sophisticated markets, particularly in the far east that they won’t even entertain a discussion about purchasing our fish if they can see that it has been handled in that way - if it has been removed from the refrigerated water it is suspended in - it‘s been subjected to extra handling and the process of refrigeration after catching takes a longer time period then they are not going to be interested,” Mr Mc Hugh said.
Mr John McGuinness said that decades have been spent gaining a foothold on the Asian market and now fears the industry could slip away. He added that they also stand to lose the high-end markets in France, Germany, Holland and Belgium and fears they will end up selling to west Africa at low prices.
At present there is only weighbridge on the pier and if there is a large number of landings on the pier in one day, it could take 24 to 48 hours till all fish would be put through the weighbridge; a process, processors say, could see work grind to a halt at the pierside.
“This actually beggars belief that you would have a situation where all of the companies have invested heavily in the highest standard of equipment and infrastructure in their factories … The SFPA has 155 employees and there are eleven factories in the whole country and the SFPA cannot devise a system where they have control over the weight of fish passing through these factories? That's an indictment of itself,” Mr Mc Hugh said.
Deputy Pringle said: “There is the distinct possibility that boats will now insist on landing in Norway or Scotland and that will have a negative impact on the work available in the factories here.”
The factories at the moment are empty, no fish are being processed but the fish processing season is to begin in the next 90 days, or so. The industry feels that the clock is ticking and they need this issue dealt with, as soon as possible. Deputy Pringle feels that the only thing that will help this sector is a fair negotiation of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) which is due next year: “Without negotiation of the CFP to achieve a fair distribution of fishing stocks communities will never achieve a fair crack of survival.”
Reduced hours - redundancy
A tremendous economy exists in Killybegs and seafood processors feel they need a Government that recognises the potential of that resource and the need to protect the industry for future generations.
Seafood operators in Killybegs typically invest more capital back into their businesses than any other port in Ireland, this has been a consistent pattern of this for over 20 years.
“We just cannot understand why a minister cannot step and intervene on these matters. We cannot accept that. He cannot abdicate responsibility on such an important matter that has such far reaching implications for his industry,” Mr Mc Hugh said.
Seasonal workers will see reduced hours if the same volume of fish is not being taken through the port. Reduced volumes of fish coming through the port will see long term employees being made redundant. Sea processors feel that boats will be left to rust in the harbour if it doesn’t merit reinvesting in them.
David Gallagher of the century old Gallagher Bros (Fish Merchants) Ltd said that they are signed up to Origin Green. The overall ambition of the Origin Green programme is that Irish food is the first choice globally because it is trusted as sustainably produced by people who care. Those who sign up make measurable commitments for the purpose of verification to maintain the integrity of the business.
Mr Gallagher said that a vessel which could land with five or six hundred tonnes of fish onboard will be transported via tanker to the factory, using the refrigerated water onboard but the new rules mean that water must be separated at pier side, and fish weighed there, new chilled water must be obtained, creating twice the current demand for water. He said that the move adds to waste of energy and water - which is contrary to the Origin Green initiative of Bord Bia: “Now, we are expected to take that catch ashore, take it to this factory where we have to use fresh drinking water, add salt into it, the chlorinated drinking water can bleach mackerel - the black stripes and gills can go white,” he said.
“There would be huge costs to create more slush ice using drinking water, not counting the carbon footprint,” he said.
Some seafood processors have concerns that the new proposed method could impact water locally. A tanker of fish which comes off the boat is suspended in refrigerated sea water (RSW). Mr Gallagher said that draining tankers of fish will affect the quality of fish:“The top layer will get progressively worse than the bottom layer which is held in the water all the time.”
At present, €70,000 is being spent on fresh water in fish processing. He said that this figure will be doubled if the RSW is taken away.
Fears of water shortages
Martin Meehan of Premier Fish expressed concerns that Irish Water has already notified the sector that no additional water capacity exists in the town supply for the quantities of water required. He called for leadership on the issue. He said the introduction of weighing at the pier works against sustainability and will hinder them from meeting their Origin Green requirements.
Micheal O’Donnell of Island Seafoods said that while they pride themselves on quality food he feels that the quality is now dictating it anymore.:“Now with a stroke of a pen it’s gone.”
He feels strongly that there is a lack of leadership on the issue and called on the minister to represent the Donegal industry.
Tony Byrne of Norfish said that he feels the relevant authority in Ireland has worked against them for a long time: “This wouldn’t go on in the beef factories. It would only go on for one day,” he said.
Brexit has had a grave impact on the seafood industry and has questioned the sustainability of the business for future generations.
“Mackerel is our most important species both by value and by volume so essentially the outcome of Brexit has undermined the bedrock of our businesses,” Mr Mc Hugh said.
Over the years, the fishing industry in the south of the county has helped generate much-needed cash into the local economy: “It’s not just the catching vessels and the processing businesses, it’s all the ancillary services like the net manufacturers, the engineering services, hydraulics, electronics, shipbuilding, ship repair, refrigeration services right down to the hotels, the supermarkets that supply food for the vessels. There are huge ramifications.”
The fishing quota is not only the lifeblood of the industry but also the lifeline of the industry, he said.
Fishing rights were sacrificed, he feels on joining the EU and fishermen have a low entitlement of fish in their own waters, and for that to be undermined even further is not acceptable, he said.
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