IT IS FORTY YEARS since Ireland’s first Fish Producer Organisation (FPO) came into existence but it is only three weeks since their membership was revealed, following a protracted struggle to extract the information from the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine (DAFM).[i]
FPOs WERE CREATED to perform as agents of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) in the 1970s. At the time, the CFP was evolving from the Common Agriculture Policy and was concerned with the administration of structural funds, for fleet development, and the organisation of a market for fish produce. The CFP would acquire its current suite of responsibilities, including a conservation policy, only in later years.
UNTIL THE FORMATION of the first FPO, Ireland’s principal fishermen’s representative group was the Irish Fishermen’s Organisation (IFO). When the Irish Fish Producers’ Organisation (IFPO) came into existence on 1 February 1976, it recruited heavily from the IFO. Three years later the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation (KFO) was formed to represent the largest vessels, refrigerated sea water boats, pursuing high volume, low unit value species like mackerel, herring and blue whiting. In 1994 the Irish South and West FPO (ISWFPO) was formed, the bulk of its members also being sourced from the IFO. The Irish South and East Fish Producers (ISEFP), also draining support from the IFO, was recognized as an FPO in 2004. One other organisation, the Federation of Irish Fishermen (FIF) has provided an umbrella for two or more FPOs in recent years.
ACCORDING TO THE official guide to the CFP the FPOs are intended to consist of
…that large part of the industry which in fact represents the majority of the value chain…
FPOs ARE ABOUTproviding fish to satisfy consumer demand for which they have been given certain responsibilities. They are accorded a special status where the administration of Total Allowable Catches (TACs) and quotas are concerned and their members (who pay membership fees to participate) are expected to regulate fishing activities to avoid gluts and shortages. Associated privileges include special lobbying access to ministers who are thus directly influenced to raise TACs above scientifically advised levels. FPO vessels are entitled to avail of intervention facilities and compensatory payments when landings surplus to market demand, are purchased and stored.
MEMBERSHIP OF FPOs has always been for the largest vessels in the fleet and they are invariably the most powerful. Before entering an analysis of participating vessels it is useful to say something more about the advantages that membership confers.
TAC SPECIES ACCOUNT for some 90% by volume of all Irish marine landings; fisheries for these species are effectively designed by FPOs but membership of an FPO does not exclude its members from other benefits, particularly access to non-quota species. Ireland’s territorial sea is not zoned for the use of certain vessel sizes within the national fleet and the largest boats are entitled to tow nets up to the shoreline. It is unwise, for conservation reasons, to allow the most powerful boats to draw nets and dredges through inshore waters which are also nursery areas and it is grossly unfair to expose the operators of smaller, more vulnerable craft whose range is close to shore, to this competition but such is the way the system operates.
CRITICISM OF THE disproportionate allocation of resources to few vessels has occurred on occasion and it may account for the reluctance of FPOs to disclose their membership lists. Although the more prominent members of FPOs are known to the general public and all must be widely available within the catching sector, in order to make the system operable, their principals are not enthusiastic to publicise the information summarised here for the first time.
THE INFORMATION RELEASED by DAFM contained vessel membership lists for the four FPOs, three of them dated 1 January 2013, the fourth undated. The numbers of vessels involved were: KFO, 48, IFPO, 41, ISWFPO, 75 and ISEFP, 59: a total of 223. Individual vessels were identified by their registration numbers and names.
THE FPO FLEET was characterised and compared with the total Irish fleet at mid-year, according to information contained in the European Fleet Register, available on line.[ii] At that time five (2.2%) of the vessels were not traceable.
THE LENGTH FREQUENCY of the FPO vessels compared with the remainder of the fleet is shown in Fig 1. Because the number of PO boats is so small, 218 of 2,225 (9.8%), the same figures are also set out as percentage length frequency distributions of the entire fleet and the FPO boats (Fig 2) and this too demonstrates the large size of the vessels involved in POs and the smaller dimensions of those outside these groups.
IN TERMS OF Gross Tonnage (GT) the KFO dominates and outweighs the other three combined, at 23,507 GT, some 37% of the entire fleet. ISWFPO and IFPO come next with 8,000+ GT each while the ISEPO has less than 6,000 GT. In all, FPO vessels account for 71% of the entire fleet GT displacement of 64,460 GT.
WHERE ENGING POWER (main plus auxiliary) is concerned, the KFO is also more powerful than any of the other three FPOs but, combined, they out-power it. Together, the four have 56% of 212,000 kW; the KFO has 24% of the total, each of the others between 9 and 13%.
THE GREATER MOTIVE power of the larger vessels is linked to another of their characteristics: their greater ability to haul nets, particularly bottom and midwater trawls. Fig 3 displays the type of “main gear” used in the Irish fleet, vessels of the FPOs are separately identified. Reading the gear types from left to right, the gears are “passive” up to hook and line; fish are said to pursue passive gears which wait for their target to interact with them. Thereafter, further right, the gears are “active”, pursuing the fish through the water column, drawn by a surface vessel. The smaller boats of the inshore fleet are now almost confined to using passive gears although some of them operate shellfish dredges – indeed some of the older ones among them towed mobile nets and dredges at one time but were out-competed by more powerful vessels.
IN VIEW OF THE fact that fisheries are, in theory anyway, managed as much as a social policy as a business endeavour, the implications for sustainability and fair dealing of fleet management should always be kept under review. It is forty years since FPOs came into existence; in the meantime circumstances in the marine environment have greatly altered. Fish stocks are in dramatic decline and a greater role for more environmentally friendly fishing methods, usually associated with smaller craft, is appropriate. The exact division of the labour force between non-members and those belonging to FPOs is not precisely known but approximately 50% each has been guesstimated. As fish become more scarce, there is an obvious employment premium to be had by extending protection to smaller, less energy intensive, fishers which also inflict less damage on the marine environment.
WHY ALL THE FUSS ABOUT DISCLOSURE?
SHOULD YOU WISH to know to which FPO a vessel is affiliated within British jurisdictions, the information is readily available on-line. In addition, you will be informed of its quota entitlements, details which have not yet been sought for Irish vessels, although they will be. However, securing such information as has been revealed has been a protracted and awkward process.
FOLLOWING INFORMAL inquiries which were unfruitful, a Freedom of Information request was lodged with DAFM on 10 February 2014. It sought the names and registration details of vessels belonging to or represented by each FPO in 2013. On 25 March 2014 DAFM refused the request on the grounds that the information had been obtained by them from the FPOs in confidence and that releasing it would jeopardise any further submission of such data.
AN APPEAL AGAINST DAFM’s ruling was sent to the office of the Information Commissioner, Mr Peter Tyndall, on 31 March. Argument against the decision of DAFM centred on the facts that members of FPOs had privileged access to national resources (fish stocks), that their modus operandi rewarded them with selective audience with high officials and ministers and access to funding from the European Commission and the Irish taxpayer. In the interests of transparency such details should be generally available. The FPOs did not have any discretion to withhold the details of their membership from DAFM because the terms of their existence, set out by the Commission[iii] required them to provide such information to the Department. The appeal further contended that the information sought was not confidential or secret because a lot of people knew about it; indeed it had to be widely known in order for the benefits of membership of FPOs to be realised – in such matters as the operation of intervention, for example. And finally, that information of the kind sought was freely available on-line in Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales.
REVIEW OF THE CASE was accepted by the Information Commissioner on 14 April 2014, and this launched a detailed investigation. DAFM relied heavily on an argument that the information sought was confidential. At this point two specialists in the operation of the Freedom of Information Acts and the Aarhus Convention, Fred Logue, solicitor and Attracta UiBhroin, vice-Chair of An Taisce, volunteered their expertise.
THE COMMISSIONER FOUND that the disclosure by DAFM of membership details of the FPOs would be unlikely to prejudice the submission of similar information in the future because recognition of POs by the European Commission required they provide this information to member states. The argument by DAFM that the records in question were personal or secret was dismissed. The Commissioner, having reviewed the facts, concluded that members of FPOs have “significant input into public policy in relation to the fishing industry in Ireland” and that “POs have access and influence which other stakeholders…do not have”.
MOST IMPORTANTLY, the Commissioner considered “there is a public interest in the promotion of openness and accountability…in relation to how the Department manages its relationship with the Irish fishing industry”.
THE INFORMATION COMMISSIONER directed DAFM to release the records on 19 February 2015, more than a year after the application had been lodged. Unfortunately that was not the end of the matter.
A DECISION BY THE Commissioner can be appealed on a point of law in the High Court, up to eight weeks after it has been issued; no appeal was lodged and the release of records was expected in mid-April. Then the prevaricating excuses by DAFM began. Further representations were made by the applicant to the Information Commissioner. DAFM held out until 10 June, almost two months later.
IRELAND’S NUMBER ONE CONSERVATION OBJECTIVE: THE PROTECTION OF PRIVILEGE.
EXACTLY WHY A government department should go to such lengths to protect the anonymity of a privileged group of business people exploiting a nationally owned common resource is cause to wonder. When such information is openly accessible in neighbouring jurisdictions the secrecy that prevails in the Republic is remarkable. The cause cannot be definitively identified but reasonable explanations for it are appropriate:
FIRST, PUBLIC MONIES invested in the fishing industry (almost €0.25 billion will be invested between 2014 and 2020) are solicited on the basis of a fiction that they provide sustainable living for “people in marginal communities” when, in fact, they are swallowed up in a minority of enterprises, some of them benefiting people whose income would be described as anything but “marginal”. Because fishing is conducted in a commonage, advantages given to one group are always levied at the expense of the rest. The unfairness of the system which enriches some to the detriment of the majority is shameful and it is probably wise to reveal to public scrutiny as little about it as possible, hence the secrecy.
[iii] Regulation (EU) No 1379/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 December 2013 on the common organisation of the markets in fishery and aquaculture products, amending Council Regulations (EC) No 1184/2006 and (EC) No 1224/2009 and repealing Council Regulation (EC) No 104/2000