9 September 2016

Access to Ireland’s whitefish quotas in 2014 was sought from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) through Freedom of Information. The majority of vessel allocations for whitefish (species like cod, haddock and whiting) were already in the public domain, having been published on the web but allocations to twenty whitefish vessels were secret. On first application their details (among others) were refused on the basis that they would jeopardise commercial confidentiality and, on appeal, that they contained personal information. The same could equally have been said of information contained in Fishery Management Notices and referring to the remainder of the fleet. Similar data for all vessels in our neighbouring UK jurisdictions are available on the web and this, among other details, persuaded the Ombudsman to direct the release of the Monkfish Authorisations, referred to here as the secret quotas.

Comparison is made between the monthly and quarterly allocations of quota to vessels with Monkfish Authorisation and their nearest equivalents (boats larger than 16.76 m in overall length) without Monkfish authorisation, whose details were in the public domain.

There were two elements to the allocations: fixed tonnages from identified stocks (for instance 3 tonnes of Species A in ICES division X) and per cent By-catch (of Species B in ICES division Y). The fixed tonnages were approximately twice as great for species without Monkfish Authorisation but the By-catch allocations were far greater in vessels with Monkfish Authorisation.

The way By-catch was defined is central to the way the Monkfish Authorisation operated. These were not By-catches in the conventional sense in that they were theoretically sufficiently large to divert fishing effort away from the fixed tonnage species which should have been their target. In fact, they were unquantifiable, numerous and widespread, giving considerably greater access to whitefish by boats with Monkfish Authorisation than those that did not have it.

Monkfish Authorisation allocations were not published but communicated confidentially by DAFM to participants in the scheme and they were not standardised so there was not a clear view of what any beneficiary received. Regulations for retaining fish on board were more generous to operators with Monkfish Authorisations, facilitating high grading.

The Monkfish Authorisation scheme was devised by Producer Organisations (POs) and administered by DAFM. Vessels affiliated to POs in Ireland are relatively few (less than 10% of the fleet in 2013) and they are among the largest. All who held Monkfish Authorisations in 2014 were greater than 20 m overall length and all but two were members of POs. Representatives of POs hold a majority on the committee which designs quota policy.

The TAC and quota regime is part of the Common Fisheries Policy which stipulates that it be transparent and objective. The only way of making Monkfish Authorisations transparent is to reveal exactly what every participant harvested and there is a strong case for doing that.

Approximately 90% of fin and shellfish landings to Ireland, by volume, and 70%, by value,[i] belong to stocks which are shared with other EU states and hence, are regulated by Total Allowable Catch (TAC), divided by fixed key into national quotas which are further sub-divided into periodic individual vessel allocations. Two administrative national regimes of quotas occur: for pelagic species whose fisheries are relatively “clean” – they are exploited largely as single species, and demersal or whitefish which are harvested as mixtures of species; this article examines a small sub-group of whitefish quotas in the twelve months of 2014. Known as Monkfish Authorisations, their details were secret and, once these had been revealed,  their values were unquantifiable.Monk1

In order to exploit quota whitefish species a fishing boat must be on the fishing register and have a current fishing licence: specifically a licence for an Irish sea-fishing boat (Is-fb), and belong to the Pelagic, Beamer or Polyvalent general segments (excluding, among the latter, boats belonging to the Potting, Scallop and Specific sub-segments). An Is-fb grants some access to whitefish, pelagic and deep-water species, the latter unavailable in 2014.

Not all the vessels belonging to these groups will necessarily pursue whitefish. The polyvalent segment embraces a variety of fishing methods targeting a range of fin and shellfish species.

Whitefish quota in 2014 was allocated in monthly and trimonthly tranches (also referred to by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine [DAFM] as “limits to be fished against”). The allocations issued by DAFM were several: a vessel less than 55 feet overall length (16.76 m) qualified for a lower allocation than a boat above this dimension which was allowed approximately twice as much. Additional quota was awarded for the use of more selective fishing gears in the second half of the year and the use of Scottish fly seine was rewarded with additional haddock quota. However, these variations are not the concern of this article which compares the secret whitefish quotas with their nearest equivalent whose details are available in the public domain: these were vessels which exceeded 16.76 m overall length and which did not have “Monkfish Authorisation” in 2014.


The monthly allocations of quota to vessels without Monkfish Authorisation (-MA) were published on the web in Fisheries Management Notices of which there were 57 in 2014, covering demersal, pelagic and deep water species, hence these were in the public domain. Those referring to demersal species – and without Monkfish Authorisation (-MA) – were matched with confidential communications (+MA) conveying their allocations from DAFM to individual operators and they were private, revealed on foot of an instruction from the Information Commissioner in 2016.[ii]

Before going further some explanation of vessels +MA is appropriate. This article examines quota allocations in 2014 when, in February, the Monkfish Authorisation scheme of 2013 ended and the 2014 scheme proper commenced in May. No MAs were issued in March or April.

Table 1. Vessels which had Monkfish Authorisation in 2014, their characteristics and PO affiliations

Table 1. Vessels which had Monkfish Authorisation in 2014, their characteristics and PO affiliations

Twenty vessels participated in one or other scheme, 10 for the 2014 span of the two (10 months), eight for two months (the conclusion of the 2013 scheme) and two for eight months (the 2014 one). A list of these vessels and their registered characteristics and their affiliations to Producer Organisations (POs) are provided in Table 1. It must be stated that the writer has no knowledge of what these vessels caught or even whether they fished at all; this article concerns only their quota allocations.


Quota allocations to vessels in both groups (+/- MA) in January 2014 are set out in Tables 2 and 3. Allocations consisted of fixed tonnage (my words) [for instance Cod in ICES divisions Vb, VIb, XII & XIV, 2 tonnes in the month of January] and a number of By-catches (the term used by DAFM), expressed as percentages. Vessels without Monkfish Authorisation (-MA) had a higher volume of fixed tonnage (196 tonnes) but a lower By-catch (total 39.5%) than boats with Monkfish Authorisation (respectively 116 tonnes and 121.67%). The higher fixed tonnage allocations to vessels -MA was maintained throughout the year (Fig 1). Thus, at first glance, boats without Monkfish Authorisation were entitled to harvest a greater volume of fish. Consideration of the By-catch fraction revises that view.

Fig 1. Monthly fixed tonnage allocations of whitefish to vessels with and without Monkfish Authorisation in 2014

Fig 1. Monthly fixed tonnage allocations of whitefish to vessels with and without Monkfish Authorisation in 2014

As in all fisheries terminology, finding a definition which does not have some exception is problematical. “By-catch” first came into use in the 1990s to refer to that fraction of the catch which was of no value, whose capture was unwanted, incidental, inevitable, collateral as a result of the fishing technique in use: the capture of species A was the primary objective of a fishing operation but species B was unavoidably included along with it in, for example, a non-selective fishing gear. An FAO study of the term proposes species A in this instance should be described as the “target” and species B the “non-target”.[iii] There are cases in which a percentage By-catch is permitted simply in recognition of the inevitability that species A and B associate together and that B will be taken along with A. However, B should not, as a result, become the target species. We will refer to this By-catch term as Definition 1.

The DAFM definition of By-catch is quite different:

“per cent by-catch” means a percentage by live weight of the total quantity of all species for which the State has an EU fishing quota, retained on board or landed on any occasion.

According to this, which is referred to as Definition 2, the permitted allocation of species B, would be, not a mere percentage of species A, but a percentage of both combined. So that, if species A had a fixed tonnage of 100 tonnes and species B, a percentage allocation of 50%, the permitted landing of B would be, not 50 tonnes (according to Definition 1) but 100 tonnes. The calculations are set out graphically in Fig 2.

Table 2. Whitefish allocations to vessels without Monkfish Authorisation in January 2014

Table 2. Whitefish allocations to vessels without Monkfish Authorisation in January 2014

At the lower By-catch percentages according to Definition 2, the differences from Definition 1 are slight. Thus, a By-catch of 10% would effect an increase over the fixed tonnage of 11.1% and a permitted By-catch of 20% would translate into a 25% rise in permitted landing volume. However as the percentage By-catch allocation increases the permitted landing rises exponentially: at 50% the fixed tonnage volume doubles, at 80% it quadruples, at 100% it increases 65 fold and at 105% by 480 times. Thus, according to Definition 2, the more one catches, the more one is entitled to catch. So long as the fixed tonnages and the ratios among species are respected, landings are legal.

Fig 2. "By-catch" tonnage calculated on a fixed tonnage of 100 tonnes according to Definitions 1 and 2.

Fig 2. “By-catch” tonnage calculated on a fixed tonnage of 100 tonnes according to Definitions 1 and 2.

Definition 2 does not conform to the FAO definition of By-catch referred to above. In fact it is a misnomer; these are not By-catches because they are so valuable in themselves (cod, sole, haddock, plaice) that they re-focus effort onto initially non-target species and  make their capture the target of fishing effort.



Definition 2 applies to both licences, with and without Monkfish Authorisation. In Tables 2 and 3 the accumulated percentage By-catches were 39.5% (-MA) and 121.67% (+MA). These figures are misleading. Both regimes were permitted to harvest Greater silver smelt (Argentina silus) which accounted for 20% of By-catches in each case.

Table 3. Whitefish allocation to a vessel with Monkfish Authorisation in January 2014

Table 3. Whitefish allocation to a vessel with Monkfish Authorisation in January 2014

In 2014 not a single kilogram of this species was recorded in the landings and in 2013 only 89 kg were, hence it is irrelevant, a make-weight. That effectively reduces the available accumulated By-catches to 19.5% (-MA) and 101.67% (+MA). In other words, Definition 2 could not make an impact on boats without Monkfish Authorisation but it could substantially improve the prospects of those which had it.

Quota management usually displays cyclical features: landings are higher at the commencement of a fishing season or campaign, the accumulated monitored landings being discounted against remaining stock and the availability of fish declining as time elapses. The fixed tonnages in Fig 1 display this feature although it is subdued but the monthly sums of available By-catch percentages (Fig 3) were higher for vessels with Monkfish Authorisation throughout the fishing year and their accumulated values were considerably greater for those vessels (Fig 4). The latter declined more rapidly and from a lower peak in vessels without Monkfish Authorisation.  In December 2014, the accumulated percentage By-catch in boats +MA was still twice the value for –MA boats in January (omitting Argentines from the calculations).

Access to stocks

The number of stocks providing fixed tonnage was fairly even throughout 2014, slightly fewer for boats +MA, but the number of By-catches was dramatically different (Fig 3). Boats +MA had greater access to stocks for By-catch removal. In total, boats +MA had access to 47 of the 53 demersal stocks (fin-fish and Nephrops) listed by the Marine Institute in its 2014 review as occurring in the Irish Sea, the Celtic Sea and the areas West of Scotland and Rockall.[iv]

Fig 3. Access to stocks by vessels with and without Monkfish Authorisation in 2014.

Fig 3. Access to stocks by vessels with and without Monkfish Authorisation in 2014.


When access to quota allocations was originally sought under Freedom of Information legislation in 2015 it was refused on the basis that disclosure would jeopardise commercial confidentiality. An appeal to DAFM was greeted with the response that such data were personal and again rejected. The information was released on instruction from the Ombudsman in 2016. According to the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, 1,009 polyvalent general licences were actually used in 2014 and details of their whitefish quota allocations (that is of all but these 20 vessels) were published on the web by DAFM in Fishery Management Notices. There is a public interest in knowing why one small group of very well endowed quota allocations should be treated with excessive secrecy while the business and personal arrangements (according to DAFM) of the majority were exposed to public scrutiny.

Within the fishing industry, the high but unquantified value of Monkfish Authorisations is appreciated but their confidential nature, in addition to the way they are defined, obscures their precise worth. But these are not their only obfuscating features. One fisher expressed it to this writer as: “Everyone with these Monkfish Authorisations gets something different” and there is truth in that statement.

Monthly and trimonthly allocations to participating vessels were not standardised in 2014; four variants of quota allocations were observed among 12 boats in September alone. Among the 10 vessels with allocations throughout 2014, three distinctive regimes with different monthly fixed tonnages were recognised. The monthly allocations of fixed tonnage quota species shown in Fig 1, are averaged for the 10 months in which monkfish authorisations were issued. In Fig 5 the average weighted monthly values of fixed tonnage allocations +/- 1 S.D. are set out. The significance of these variants is not known – they have not been used in other whitefish allocations where the use of certain gears clearly explains why certain additional quota is allowed – but their effect is to further muddy the waters as to what exactly Monkfish Authorisation confers.

Fig 4. Total By-catch availability to vessels with and without Monkfish Authorisation in 2014

Fig 4. Total By-catch availability to vessels with and without Monkfish Authorisation in 2014


Additional questions arise where the handling of fish on board is concerned. Monthly quota regulations for an Irish sea-fishing boat without Monkfish Authorisation allowed a vessel to retain 1.5 times the allocated tonnage, captured between 00.01 and 23.59 hours (fixed tonnage and By-catch) when one third of the catch had to be discarded. A boat with Monkfish Authorisation might retain on board prior to its return to port, up to 50% more designated By-catch species than the maximum amount. The explanation for this difference is not known but it would give greater flexibility to maximise By-catch although it could also facilitate mis-reporting. The rules, more lax in the case of vessels with Monkfish Authorisation, would appear to encourage high grading and selection of the best elements of the catch for landing; they do nothing to discourage excessive fishing. Nor is it clear how these provisions co-exist with the By-catch requirement set out in Paragraph 9 of a Monkfish Authorisation [paragraph c] that a skipper must ensure by 24.00 of each fishing day that the logbook has been completed in accordance with the conditions laid out in Council Regulation (EC) No. 1224/2009, Article 14.[v]   This Article specifies that all species above 50kg kept on board must be recorded.

Fig 5. Averaged weighted values of fixed tonnage allocations to vessels with Monkfish Authorisation in 2014.

Fig 5. Averaged weighted values of fixed tonnage allocations to vessels with Monkfish Authorisation in 2014.


Science contributes to the process of fishery management but the Monkfish Authorisation scheme is a product of PO deliberation, administered by DAFM. The role of POs in the implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy is formally recognized.[vi]  Their principal functions are set out in the following terms:

(POs) guide producers towards sustainable fishing and aquaculture, in particular by collectively managing the activities of their members

help them match supplies with market demands, and

support them in creating added value.

In Ireland POs have played a significant but reserved part in the way fisheries are managed; until February 2015 their membership was a closely guarded secret, revealed on an instruction from the Ombudsman in response to a Freedom of Information application.[vii]  In Ireland, in 2013, fewer than 10% of all the vessels in the fishing fleet were members of POs but those which belonged were the largest and most powerful. In a handout on Fisheries quota management, DAFM provided details of the quota decision-making committee, four of whose seven members are nominees of POs.[viii] It is no more than human nature for any group to favour its own members – perhaps unconsciously and for no other reason than that the activities of its closest associates are most familiar to the decision-taking group. POs cannot formulate policies which favour their own members over others in the fishing community and reference to Table 1 will confirm that two of the participating vessels in 2014 were not members of any PO. However, the majority were and, as has been previously stated, POs are populated by the largest vessels in the state, which those in Table 1 also are.  A more active and democratic representation of the fishing community is required to ensure a more equitable sharing of this national resource.


Monk3In our neighbouring UK jurisdictions, including Northern Ireland, a vessel’s entitlement to fish quota is clearly available on the web,[ix] as is its affiliation to a Producer Organisation. This would appear to be in keeping with European Union regulations.

The rules of the Common Fisheries Policy state (Article 17):

“When allocating the fishing opportunities available to them…Member States shall use transparent and objective criteria…”[x]

There was nothing transparent or objective about the Monkfish Authorisations issued in 2014 and the only way to alter that is to open the landings of individual participating vessel to public scrutiny. There is a strong argument for doing so.

9 September 2016




[iii] Fisheries and Aquaculture Department: A Study of the Options for Utilization of Bycatch and Discards from marine … Consulted on 6 September 2016

[iv] The Stock Book published by the Marine Institute 2014, Pp 615 http://www.Stock%20Book%202014%20(11).pdf. Accessed on 21 August 2016.

[v] Council Regulation (EC) 1224/2009: Establishing a Community control system for ensuring compliance with the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy… Pp101 Consulted on 23 August 2016.

[vi]Fisheries, organisation of the sector Consulted on 23 August 2016


[viii] Fisheries Quota Management in Ireland, April 2016. Pp 5. Available on the DAFM site under Consulted on 23 August 2016

[ix] Consulted on 8 September 2016

[x] Regulation (EU) No 1380/2013 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 December 2013 on the Common Fisheries Policy, amending Council Regulations (EC) No 1954/2013 and (EC) No 1224/2009 and repealing Council Regulations (EC) No 2371/2002 and (EC) No 639/2004 and Council Decision 2004/585/EC.