Your freedom is our business
Inshore Fisheries Conservation Authorities' Approach to Fisheries Prosecutions
Inshore fishing forms a major part of the UK fishing industry. But the environmental impact of fishing and management of fishing stocks has been a source of great concern in recent decades. As such, fishing is a highly monitored and regulated industry.
Inshore Fisheries Conservation Authorities (IFCAs) have the power to grant fishing permits and enact their own byelaws to regulate and manage their local IFC district, covering six nautical miles from the English coast.
Prosecution fines for breaking fishing laws, regulations and IFCA byelaws are often unlimited and may seem extreme. As with many areas of law, IFCAs hope that making the cost of prosecution particularly high will deter skippers, vessel owners, fishing businesses and other seafaring individuals or organisations from breaking the law in the first place.
This can be intimidating as the vast majority of fishers aim to comply with their local fishing laws and regulations, especially where other factors are also involved such as uncertainty over the Brexit transition (although it has been confirmed that there are no changes to the responsibilities of UK-registered vessels in UK waters).
Understanding your local IFCA’s byelaws and approach to monitoring, investigation and enforcement is essential to reduce the risk of prosecution, including for accidental infringements. If you do become aware of an investigation or you have been notified about potential prosecution, it is vital to seek legal advice from an expert maritime law solicitor as soon as possible.
What powers do IFCAs have?
IFCAs have a wide range of legal powers, including:
- To board and inspect fishing vessels
- To enter and inspect premises, dwelling and vehicles
- To inspect documents
IFCAs can also make their own byelaws to manage sea fisheries’ resources within their IFC district and for wider environmental conservation reasons, such as:
- Catch restrictions – e.g. restricting removal of certain species from fisheries or species of certain sizes
- Gear restrictions – e.g. setting specifications for the equipment a vessel can use
- Vessel monitoring – e.g. a vessel may be required to be fitted with remotely accessed electronic reporting devices
- Spatial restrictions – e.g. specifying areas where use of certain fishing gear is prohibited or where certain species are not authorised for removal
- Time restrictions – e.g. setting restrictions on fishing for certain species at certain hours of the day or months of the year
As well as enforcing byelaws, IFCAs – via appointed Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Officers (IFCOs) – monitor any infringements of national or other fisheries legislation. IFCAs also have agreements with other regulators and enforcement agencies, such as the Marine Management Organisation (MMO), Natural England or the Environment Agency in relation to the investigation and prosecution of fishing infringements.
How do IFCAs enforce fisheries laws?
Each IFCA has its own compliance and enforcement strategy, so reviewing the relevant documents is essential. There are a range of ways an IFCA may approach and punish an alleged fishing offence.
Criminal prosecution is the most serious consequence, but it is usually a last resort where no other penalty is appropriate. All penalties stay on record so it is always worth seeking advice before accepting a penalty.
Warnings are usually given for mistakes or first offences where there is little reason to proceed with a full prosecution. However, warnings are kept on IFCA record. The range of warnings you could receive include:
- Verbal warnings – If an IFCO or other enforcement officer detects minor legal infringement, they may give you a verbal warning that if you continue to commit the offence or commit a different offence, they may take further enforcement action.
- Advisory letters – Similar to a verbal warning, this is a notification that breaches of the law may have been committed and a warning to comply with the law. The purpose of an advisory letter is to prevent criminal activity without full prosecution, but does not affect the authority’s ability to prosecute you later on. So, seeking legal advice about the letter is still essential.
- Official warnings – This will come in the form of a written letter notifying you that you are suspected of committing an offence and that you may be prosecuted.
You may be offered a simple caution where the IFCA deems it appropriate. Usually this will be where an offence has been committed but the suspect made no identifiable financial gain.
If you do not accept a simple caution, the IFCA will (in most cases) proceed with prosecution, so it is essential to seek specialist legal advice about your rights and options.
Financial Administrative Penalties (FAPs)
For some criminal offences (known as ‘penalty offences’) you may be offered an administrative penalty (depending on the suspected financial gain of the alleged wrongdoing), sometimes as an alternative to being criminally prosecuted. Where an investigation results in the discovery of a number of offences, these offences will be broken down and can attract fines up to a combined value of £10,000.
If you are offered a financial administrative penalty, you have 28 days to pay or object (if you are able to) otherwise you could be prosecuted for the offence. Therefore, it is essential to seek expert legal advice as soon as possible to decide what steps to take and make a plan of action.
IFCAs and other authorities, including the police in some cases such as theft, will take criminal action against those who commit fisheries offences.
A fisheries prosecution will be brought where it is considered that the matter is too serious to be addressed by any other means, such as a financial administrative penalty.
As with all criminal prosecutions, the IFCA or relevant authority must provide sufficient evidence of criminal wrongdoing. It must also be in the public interest to prosecute. Factors that may make it in the public interest could include:
- The impact of the alleged wrongdoing on the environment
- Whether ‘recovery species’ are involved or where there are any issues relating to quota status
- The financial benefit of the alleged wrongdoing and any other financial factors
- Whether the alleged wrongdoing was committed deliberately
- Whether any officials were obstructed during investigation
- The offender’s previous enforcement record, including minor infringements that resulted in warnings
- The attitude of the offender, including whether they took any action to rectify the situation
- Where the alleged offence was particularly difficult to detect and it would deter other offenders to ‘make an example’ of the offender
A prosecution may be less likely if certain factors apply, such as:
- The offender accepts the wrongdoing and the case can be dealt with using an out-of-court penalty
- The offending was accidental or a result of misjudgement and the impact was minor
- The financial gain was minor, usually as the result of a single incident and not a prolonged period of wrongdoing
A successful prosecution can result in unlimited fines and other penalties, including a custodial sentence for some serious criminal offences.
Because of the wide range of factors taken into account during an investigation and decision to prosecute, it is important to start preparing a defence strategy as soon as possible to reduce the risk of prosecution or serious penalties.
The importance of due diligence for vessel owners
Vessel owners should be aware that they can be implicated in the alleged wrongdoing of their skipper. However, it can be a defence against prosecution or in court if the owner or skipper can demonstrate that they took all ‘reasonably practicable’ steps to avoid the offending.
For owners, this usually means being cautious about who you employ as your skipper. For example, employing a skipper with previous warnings or financial administrative penalties against them could result in a greater risk of prosecution should further wrongdoing be revealed.
If you are concerned about the risk of prosecution, it is worth speaking to a specialist maritime solicitor for advice.
Get expert maritime law advice from our fisheries solicitors in Bournemouth
If you are being faced with investigation for fisheries offences or you are being prosecuted for fisheries offences, you need advice from a lawyer who specialises in this area.
Based, in Bournemouth, Dorset in the South West, we are at the heart of the UK’s fishing community. We have experience advising on all aspects of criminal fisheries law, including fisheries prosecutions, investigations, administrative penalties and enforcement.
We handle prosecutions and enforcement brought by a range of authorities and agencies, including IFCAs, the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).
We are fully up to date with fisheries law, including fishing law after Brexit and the impact it could have on your case. We have experience representing skippers, vessel owners, fishing companies and other seafarers and seafaring organisations. This includes during investigations and in the criminal courts, with our team providing fierce defence strategies and achieving positive outcomes even in the most complex of circumstances.