Fishing regulator the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) has been rolling out the Catch App to skippers of boats under 10 metres long as the industry aims to improve records of the number of fish being caught by the in-shore fleet. Catch App landing declarations have to be within a 10 percent margin of error but breaking this rule means fishermen could face prosecution or an unlimited fine. The move could impact more than 3,200 boats around England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
But there are only a small number of vessels under 10-metres in length that have weighing scales on board, meaning most inputted weights are only likely to be estimates.
Fisheries lawyer Andrew Oliver said a change in the law back in 2012 gave judges the power to hand out unlimited fines if fishermen were found to be in breach of their MMO-granted licences.
He warned: “A starting point for a fine for a fairly innocuous breach of your licence would start at £2,500 and rise up to £100,000 in the worst cases.”
National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO) bosses are due to raise concerns about the smartphone app at a meeting with senior members from the MMO on Thursday.
Shadow Environment Secretary Luke Pollard warned the Catch App is putting those in the catching sector at “risk of widespread criminalisation”.
The Plymouth Sutton and Devonport MP told the PA news agency: “We have the risk now of widespread criminalisation of the industry.”
“The risk is that if calculations are over the 10 percent error threshold, that’s a licence breach and a possible criminal offence.
“This is needless, costly and burdensome bureaucracy implemented by the Government.
The rules state vessels longer than 10 metres are exempt from declaring landing weights for any fish species under 50kg.
But this has not been applied to smaller boats that account for eight out of ten UK fishing vessels.
Jerry Percy, director of the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association (NUTFA), told the PA news agency: “Imagine this – it’s dark, it’s raining, you have wet and cold fingers that are swollen from dragging nets in all night, and now you’re trying to type into some piddly little smartphone.
“It could be one mistake and you become a criminal.”
NFFO chief executive Barrie Deas said:”We are with the MMO in the general desire to capture accurate catch data.
“We do have concerns about the practical dimensions of the app as it currently stands and we are committed to raising it with them to find solutions.”
The MMO has said it would only pursue criminal prosecution when it was found to be “in the public interest, proportionate and appropriate to do so”.
The regulator insisted it had tried to make the Catch App “straightforward as possible to use” and that it should be used on board “only when judged safe to do so”.
A spokesman for the MMO said: “We continue to educate and support vessel owners and operators to comply and there is no intention to criminalise small vessel operators who are operating in good faith, in the spirit of the catch recording rules.”