INLAND FISHERIES IRELAND recorded 61 “acts of aggression” towards its officers last year, with incidents ranging from assault, kidnapping, and shots being fired at staff carrying out routine checks around the country.
The state agency expressed concern over the rise in illegal fishing and poaching activity along Ireland’s waterways since the onset of the pandemic, mostly in isolated rural areas.
IFI officers patrol rivers, lakes, and sea areas to deter and prevent poaching. They also inspect recreational anglers and licence holders, issuing fixed charge penalty notices where appropriate in lieu of taking certain prosecutions through the courts.
A garda source said there are a large number of reports of assaults and “even a cursory check of records would say that violence against inland fisheries inspectors is very prevalent”.
“They are assaults and sometimes criminal damage,” the source said.
IFI head of operations Greg Forde said fishery officers partake in “a substantial amount” of de-escalation training which is “tailor-made” for their roles. When incidents turn violent Forde said an officer’s first protocol is to contact gardaí.
“All we can do is implement the law. We ensure the staff are appropriately trained to try to protect both the individual and our officers and that’s one of the key things – nobody gets hurt,” said Forde.
“Staff should be able to go about their business and go home to their families safely in the evening.”
Speaking to TheJournal, one IFI officer, who asked not to be named, said it had always been a tough job, but that they couldn’t help but feel let down that some incidents don’t always lead to prosecution.
In 2019, there were 64 “incidences of aggression” towards officers recorded by the agency. In 2020, 61 such incidents were reported, while six have been recorded so far this year.
The rolling in and out of different public health restrictions since last March meant the main waterways were quiet due to the stay at home orders, however, illegal activity flourished in rural areas as patrols were initially limited.
The most recent IFI annual report from 2018 noted that one case in which patrol staff were threatened or assaulted had been successfully prosecuted that year.
When asked by TheJournal if IFI knew the number of prosecutions related specifically to incidences of aggression or assault, Forde said it was not possible to identify a precise figure.
“We take around 80 to 100 separate cases each year, some of these are for a number of offences and in certain instances, people can be convicted on one charge and not on others,” he said.
IFI work to safeguard fisheries directly with a network of some 200 warrant-carrying field staff who enforce a suite of regulations and byelaws to ensure the sustainable management of fisheries.
“Our anti-poaching patrol teams actively seek to deter and prevent poaching. They use local intelligence to identify where poaching is most likely to occur, and they use a range of equipment to carry out their patrols,” IFI says of its officers.
Forde said people engaged in illegal activity can be aggressive because they know that they can lose their equipment and catch, and face a fine or prosecution.
When fish with a significant value, such as salmon, are more plentiful officers can “run into much greater issues when you confront people – because you stand to lose more”.
Last year saw a noticeable improvement in numbers of salmon coming back to the coast, but Forde said the flip side of that was a pick up in illegal netting in the sea.
“We seized 13 km of net overall last year, 9 and a half km in 2019,” said Forde.
The agency is aware that it has issues “in certain parts of the country at certain times of the year”, said Forde, adding that regional risk assessments are regularly carried out.
Forde said there are certain locations where IFI’s response is different to other parts of the country due to the risks of aggression, places where staff are always accompanied by colleagues.
“You might know that a particular place is high risk, but only in certain months. During those months then you take a slightly different approach in that instead of two of you going, maybe three of you do,” said Forde.
The pandemic has also complicated matters as the easing of restrictions over the past year coincided with remote areas becoming busier and more illegal activity than would normally be encountered being experienced by IFI officers.
In 2020, officers seized 124 fishing nets being used in the country’s rivers compared to 77 nets in 2018.
Public health guidelines have also meant officers are restricted to working one person to a vehicle.
“In order to get two or three people to a location. It takes very difficult logistics. You’d have to walk in from a long way, and you have to hide your vehicle, an awful lot of logistics involved,” said Forde.
A garda source familiar with the issue said that there is clearly a significant difficulty providing resources to assist on routine checks in very rural areas.
The fisheries officer we spoke to said there could be 50 ‘bad areas’ in one region, and some officers are avoiding these and “doing crosswords” instead of risking their safety.
“And no disrespect to anyone because I hope I never have to come to that point, but what are they supposed to do?”
Another area of concern he said is the age profile of the officers, saying there is “no room for young blood”.
“Now you’re dealing with an ageing staff and a lack of resources”.
They said that hiring seasonal staff isn’t an answer as anyone hired is let go at end of the contract and could have to wait six months to get back, if at all – “generally they move onto more secure employment”.
IFI launched its summer recruitment campaign for seasonal officers last month. The roles are available on a six-month basis with training provided to all new recruits.