Thursday, 3 June 2021
Maritime Jurisdiction Bill 2021 [Seanad]: Second Stage
Verona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
Our fishing industry has been on the receiving end of many body blows in the last 50 years. There have been increased regulations, reduced quotas, the opening of our waters to outside competition and many other impacts. In fact, the whole treatment of the fishing industry by this and previous Governments has been a disgrace. We have abdicated all responsibility to the EU. When I or other politicians raise the serious concerns of those in the fishing industry, we are usually met with handwashing, buck-passing and finger-pointing. We are told that nothing can be done about an issue because it is an EU matter. That seems to be the stock response when dealing with fishing. We have to wonder what is the point of having a Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine at all. The Minister deflects to the EU, and if that does not suit, then he deflects to the regulatory authority, the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA. This cannot be the ongoing situation.
In late April, I highlighted the lack of joined-up thinking when it comes to issuing licences for marine activities. Two separate licences for two separate activities are granted by two separate Departments. These are granted for activities in the same waters which are ultimately in conflict with each other. I reiterate what I said then. The fishermen of Wexford, Duncannon and Kilmore Quay want to be able to head out and earn their living, and not to have to arrive home to find a threatening "cease and desist" letter waiting for them in their postboxes from some billion-dollar cable-laying conglomerate. This is one example of where our fishing industry has been treated with disdain. There has been no consultation and no engagement in this regard.
We now have an issue concerning the regulations, in which we are expecting fishermen to weigh their fish on the quayside. The control plan mechanism was in place because the Department signed up to something that was completely unimplementable in the first place, without consultation with the industry and, subsequently, it had to be derogated. Overnight, the fishing authority, the SFPA, is now stating that it is up to the fishermen themselves to provide the quayside weighing mechanisms and, in so doing, is turning the whole industry on its head by demanding that fish be weighed on the pier or quayside. By way of comparison, the Road Safety Authority, RSA, does not require hauliers to provide weighbridges to weigh their trucks on the roadside. Yet, the SFPA expects the fishing industry to do just that.
Burdens are being placed on the people in our fishing industry which we would simply not dare to place on those in other industries, nor would Government agencies get away with doing that. In Kilmore Quay, for example, fish can be transported a few hundred metres up the road and weighed there. However, these new procedures mean that weighing facilities must be installed on the publicly used pier in the port at the expense of the fishermen themselves. It is totally impractical, and it strikes me that those making such decisions have no regard for the daily challenges which fishermen face.
Fish are stored and carried in ice. It is no mean feat to remove the ice on the quayside, weigh the fish and then put them back in ice for onward transportation. This is all a consequence of the European Commission revoking Ireland's control plan on the basis of unproved and unprosecuted allegations against the entire Irish fishing industry, on foot of information received from the SFPA. This must not be allowed to jeopardise Ireland's reputation in the production of premium quality fish. I am in touch almost daily with fishermen and those involved in fish processing. They are exasperated with the new state of affairs. Until now, they had a digital weighing mechanism certified by the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, and all it was necessary to do was to hit a button and the information then went straight into the Department. As a result of our control plan being revoked, it is necessary for fishermen to complete pages of handwritten paperwork for every catch. Expecting people to move from digital methods to paper is going backwards.
If a driver leaves Kilmore Quay in a truck to collect fish around Ireland's coasts, he or she must consider his or her legal driving time and accordingly allot time to return to the processing factory, where a hundred people will be waiting to process the fish. That driver's time is now taken up with having to complete reams of handwritten paperwork as well. Actually, in one case, it was 42 pages, which jeopardised being able to carry out the collections and then return to the factory within the allotted driving time. It is complete and utter madness. This affects fishermen bringing their catches ashore, the food processors and the truck drivers on tachographs, sending those drivers over their driving time and making delays inevitable. Therefore, this situation also affects the staff in the processing plant and, in turn, disrupts the fish supply chains. This is a commercial reality and I have no doubt that the case before the courts will deal with the commercial reality. It would be nice if the Government did so first.
When it comes to the EU, however, all that seems to matter to the Government is that we are seen to be the good boys in the class, the bootlickers and the lickspittles, while our fishing industry has been treated like a doormat. What do our fishermen want and how can we help them? I ask that because these problems must be solved to the satisfaction of the fishing community. My discussions with those involved have identified several things which must be done. Top of the list is the renegotiation of the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP, so that fishing quotas and total allowable catches would be governed by zonal attachment under the rules of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. There should be no delay in this regard, nor any excuses given. Irish fishers have been disproportionately impacted by Brexit and the agreement on fisheries, which is accepted by the Government. Therefore, the Government must endeavour to ensure that renegotiation of Europe's quotas happens as soon as possible.
The EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, TCA, was unfair and unjust and did not reflect the rules concerning a level playing pitch in respect of relative stability. This must be put right so that an equal share of the burden is borne by all the member states. Regarding enforcement, penalty points should only be applied to licence holders and skippers following a court conviction. The revoking of Ireland's control plan by the EU Commission on the basis of unproved and unprosecuted allegations against the entire Irish fishing industry must not be allowed to jeopardise Ireland's reputation in the production of premium quality fish. Access to our traditional fishing grounds at Rockall must be negotiated by diplomatic means. Turning to migrant workers, the atypical working scheme governing non-EU and non-EEA fishers must be reviewed to ensure a level playing pitch for all those working in the agrifood sector.
Workers who spend in excess of 24 hours at sea must be granted equal rights with all other workers under our Revenue and taxation laws.
I implore the Government to listen and take these requests on board before more irreparable damage is done.