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The Master and licence-holder of a Killybegs trawler have had an unsuccessful challenge against the SFPA pier-side weighing requirement

Irish Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority 2023

A fishing vessel Master and a licence holder who contested the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) requirement to weigh fish catches “on landing” in Killybegs, Co Donegal, have had their challenge rejected by the High Court, according to a report in the Irish Examiner.

The court ruled that the SFPA was justified in insisting on the weighing of fish catches “on landing,” despite a derogation that permitted weighing in processing factories. Ms Justice Siobhán Phelan clarified that the derogation did not diminish the SFPA’s authority to demand monitored weighing at the landing site.

In accordance with the EU Common Fisheries Policy, fish catches must be weighed for compliance. However, Ireland had held a derogation since 2012, allowing weighing at authorized premises after the fish had been transported from the quayside. This derogation was revoked in 2021.

In 2019, the SFPA altered its practices, prompted by concerns raised by the EU Commission about the derogation’s operation. These concerns were connected to detected irregularities, some resulting in prosecutions and convictions in the Donegal Circuit Criminal Court. They also triggered an administrative inquiry by the SFPA at the EU Commission’s request, followed by an audit by the Commission.

As a result, the SFPA decided that a portion of inspections would be conducted on landing, involving the weighing of the catch at the pier-side weighbridge in Killybegs and other designated ports for landings exceeding 10 tonnes of fish, before transportation to the factory.

In October 2020, the MFV ATLANTIC CHALLENGE was subject to an inspection upon its arrival in Killybegs. The fishing vessel’s master, Noel McDowell, and Killybegs Fishing Enterprises Ltd, the holder of ATLANTIC CHALLENGE’s sea fishing license, contested the pier-side weighing, as did the fish processing factory, Killybegs Seafoods Unlimited.

Fishermen argued that weighing fish after transportation was the best method to preserve their quality, freshness, and value. This approach minimized damage due to crushing, bruising, or temperature variations, as the catch remained in refrigerated water during transportation to the factory.

The SFPA contended that it was feasible to mitigate the impact on quality, freshness, and value when weighing occurred outside the factory premises, even with the effects of “de-watering.” In December 2019, the SFPA had provided a water separator or “hopper” at Killybegs pier. However, during the October 2020 inspection, the ATLANTIC CHALLENGE chose not to use it.

Subsequent weight measurements at the factory indicated an 11-12% discrepancy compared to the weight recorded on the pier weighbridge for mackerel.

The SFPA later informed Mr. McDowell of two “suspected offences” related to the landing declaration. In February 2021, Mr. McDowell, Killybegs Fishing Enterprise, Killybegs Seafoods, and the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation Ltd, representing the fishermen, initiated a High Court challenge to annul the “notice to weigh on landing” used in the 12 October 2020 inspection.

The fishermen and the factory applicants argued that the ATLANTIC CHALLENGE had been improperly selected for monitored weighing on landing, contending that weighing should have taken place at the factory premises as per the derogation’s terms. They also claimed that the weighing system using the state-owned weighbridge at Killybegs Port was unsuitable, asserting that the factory weighing scales were more accurate and less detrimental to the fish.

The SFPA opposed the challenge, arguing that the derogation from the general rules did not apply when weighing on landing was required. Ms. Justice Phelan affirmed that the authority to demand monitored weighing on landing was not a new power and had coexisted with the derogation, although it had not been practically exercised by the SFPA before 2020. She found no flaw in the selection of the ATLANTIC CHALLENGE for monitored weighing on landing.

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Brian J McMullin Soliciors Killybegs
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