Leading Journal of the Irish & UK Fishing Industries

Patrick Murphy, CEO of the IS&WFPO, reflects on the current state of the Irish fishing industry

How lucky we Irish people are to have such rich marine resources on our doorstep.

These are resources that, as in Norway, could provide Billions of Euros in revenue to our economy every year and most importantly, create sustainable Jobs and food security for this generation and for every generation to come in Ireland.

The question I ask is whether we should protect the rights of the Indigenous Irish Fishing communities who live in our coastal towns and villages and who are heavily dependent on accessing this rich Irish resource that has provided both a living and a way of life for generations of Irish people over centuries past?

A lot of talk recently has been about how fishing is destroying our Oceans. Not pollution and not climate change but the act of fishing itself, an act that has been carried out for thousands of years right back to the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee and beyond, these fishermen who were chosen by Christ as his first disciples. One could say that this just shows how very far down the pecking order we have fallen over recent times!

I can however prove that it is not we fishermen and women who are destroying our oceans. On the contrary it is we who protect and who are our oceans’ custodians. While we catch and land fish under the weight of a truly enormous amount of governing Regulation and while we even have a separate Police Force dedicated to monitoring our fishing during every minute of every hour of every day, we Fishermen and women are watched in our every move, regardless of whether that be in our Ports of landing or on the High Seas.

This separate Police Force is known as the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) and it is the designated competent Authority in Ireland under EU Legislation. The SFPA is completely independent from our Minister and from our Department for the Marine who have no role whatsoever in their operations.

The SFPA is answerable only to the EU Fisheries Control Agency that was set up under EU Legislation and is headquartered in Vigo in northern Spain. Oversight of Irish fishing boats and of Irish Fishermen and women is not, however, restricted to this independent non-governmental Agency only.

Such oversight also extends to the European Fisheries Control Agency (EFCA) in Vigo whose operations and personnel are also wholly independent of both our government and of the Irish political system. The EFCA can also stop, detain, inspect and arrest our Fishing vessels at any time of the day or night and their Inspectors can board our Fishing vessels on every day of the year, just like the Sea Fisheries Inspectors in our Irish Naval Service can stop, board, detain and arrest any Fishing vessel while it is at sea during fishing operations or in Port after fishing operations or while a Fishing vessel is stopped and laying over for the night while at Sea.

The owners and operators of Irish Fishing vessels must comply with all of the Regulations for Irish Sea Fishing vessels stipulated by both Departments of Marine and of Transport under the watchful eye of the Marine Survey Office which conducts regular inspections on board Fishing vessels whenever they arrive back into Port.

These Inspections are conducted on top of the mandatory Inspections requiring a Fishing vessel to meet the highest standards for the condition and sea-worthiness of such vessels including all of its equipment, from its safety equipment to its Life-saving equipment to its Navigation equipment right down to what is legally required to be present and certified up-to-date in its First Aid box.

The Irish Marine Survey Office (MSO) is also responsible for the implementation and inspection of the Safe Manning Document that is required to be present on board all Fishing boats and where, based on the vessels size, it has a legal responsibility to be discharged at all times both for the number of crew on-board and for the adequate and proper qualifications of all such crew so they can legally sail and fish in the seas around our shores.

The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) is another State Agency that holds powers over our fishing Industry. They also are empowered to conduct Inspections over both our Fishing vessels and their Crew making Sea Fishing unique among all Irish Industries. The WRC is the only State Body that will conduct inspections over every single Fishing vessel in our Fleet with every boat receiving at least one such visit.

During these visits and inspections, all Employment documents relating to the crew together with all records relating to their Working hours and their hours of Rest are required to be available for inspection in circumstances where the records relating to each and every day are required to be recorded with the Signatures of both the Crew member and the Skipper required to be present to prove that they are correct.

We also have the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) to cope with for it is vested with very considerable powers over Fishing vessels. The HSA can also inspect Irish Fishing vessels to see whether the standards that are set out in both Irish and EU Regulations are being adhered to and that all proper documentation is written and recorded up to date and present on the vessel.

Of course, Irish Fishing vessels are also subject to an Garda Siochana with each and every Garda Officer being empowered to act as a Sea Fisheries Inspector. This is another Law-enforcement organisation of the State whose personnel are empowered to visit and board our Fishing vessels and on occasion, they assist our Naval Service, our SFPA, the EFCA, the WRC, the HSE and MSO in their Inspections and in their Investigations into a Sea Fishing-boats’ Operations while also engaging and assisting with the formal Interviews of a Vessel’s Operators and Crew.

The collection of Scientific Data is a legal requirement for all vessels and each Fishing vessel must, during selected Fishing expeditions, at the option of the Marine Institute, take a Scientific Observer on board or must train the crew to conduct self-sampling inspections of their Fishing activities and provide this information together with the Scientific samples gathered to the Marine Institute, throughout the year.

The next State Agency that monitors a Fishing vessel is an arm of our hard-pressed (and underpaid) Naval Service through its Fishery Monitoring Centre (FMC) situated at Naval HQ in Haulbowline in Cork Harbour. The FMC monitors all Irish and EU-flagged Fishing vessels from Haulbowline throughout every hour of every day of the year by Satellite, using systems such as the Vessel Monitoring System – known as VMS or Automatic Identification Systems (AIS), and all of this coupled with the legally required monitoring, control and reporting system introduced and operated by our Sea Fisheries Protection Agency known as ERS or Electronic Reporting System, known generally across our Industry as the Electronic Log-book.

To give just a summary of what is required whenever an Irish fishing boat is going to sea or returning to Port following a Fishing Trip: The Skipper is obliged by law to inform the Naval Service on its 4-hour window of departure or arrival back into Port and when they leave port, they are tracked by the Vessel Monitoring System – VMS, giving details of the speed and direction of the vessel, all of which is transmitted automatically throughout each day.

The Skipper makes his entries into the ERS listing Crew complement while inputting details of the types of fishing nets he or she has on board and the mesh sizes of the nets down to the thickness of the twine, the area of operation the skipper choses to shoot the boat’s nets in, followed by the catch data of the daily hauls, species by species and the Fish Hold Plan that tells any Inspector or Naval Officer or SFPA Officer the location on board of the different species of individually recorded boxes of fish in the hold.

Before any vessels can land a single fish on the pier side, four hours’ advance notice of Landing must be given to the SFPA to allow them time to travel to the pier to carry out a full inspection of all documents, log entries, crew list, species of fish and the quantities of the fish caught during the expedition. This is followed up with an inspection of the factory to where the fish has been transported while the Sales Documents of the fish sold by a boat is also inspected.

All of the foregoing is no longer deemed sufficient regulation by our EU Commission and EU Parliamentarians as a new Fisheries Control Regulations has just been approved by both the Fisheries Committee of the Parliament and by the EU Council of Minister prior to it being considered and passed by the Full Parliament, either at end of July or in September next.

This new Fisheries Control Regulations provides for the Remote Electronic Monitoring of Fishing Vessels through installation of onboard cameras that can be accessed by the Control Agencies as and when they chose to sit and watch the ship and its internal operations at any hour of the day or night, live from their offices ashore.

There is no need for anyone to lecture a fisherman about climate change. These men and women who were designated as essential workers during the Covid pandemic faced mountainous seas hundreds of miles from land when others believed that even medical treatment in the best of our hospitals wouldn’t save you.

Our fishermen are no criminals, just exceptional people vilified by those who would buckle at the thought of doing an honest day’s graft, those who ply their trade on the preaching of fear of impending doom and the end of all life on our planet.

The reality is fishermen are constantly striving to improve their safety at sea while spending their hard-earned money, not on Ferraris or Porches but on their fishing vessels, improving the comfort for their crews, hiring the best in the business to improve the technology they use for navigation and tracking of fish, and installing equipment for processing and freezing the fish to keep it as nutritious as possible for society to eat and enjoy.

These fourth, fifth, even sixth generations of coastal fishermen who are passed down their skills from Father & Mother to son & daughter in an Industry most are born into are now seeing their reputations ravaged, their contribution dismissed and finally, their way of life taken from them and from their future generations to be lost forever – the cost of which will be borne by all of society when they wake up to the fact there are no more Irish-caught fish on the counters or fridges to eat, when fishing enters folklore and no more.

Irish fishermen do not want to give up and they have, for decades worked with scientists to create sustainable fisheries. Why? because they see themselves as custodians and they want their traditions to be respected and fish stock be kept in a healthy state for their sons and daughters and for the broader society. Evidence of this can be seen here below where fishing nets are designed to let small fish escape and only the larger ones are caught in the nets and kept for the markets.

Not only is this sensible adapting of gear welcomed and embraced but other scientific research is carried out, with ongoing studies of high survivability for fish species released back into the wild to be caught another day.

Restocking of our rivers is also supported by our fishermen. Not only our rivers but also our seas where work is ongoing to help the most vulnerable of species that are dramatically affected by Climate change, well known species such as Cod.

Our fishing fleet has been targeted and decimated in the past 20 years forcing Fishing families to abandon their livelihoods and sail up our main rivers like the Vikings, not to plunder and pillage but to seek help from our people and to show to us all what we as an Island Nation are about to lose.

When we are forced to leave this indigenous industry in the not-too-distant future, who will take our place on our Seas and who will be left to reap the benefits of our rich fishing grounds?