Dual use of fish wells in Purse Seiners and Longliners / by Francisco Blaha

A new “storm” is closing on Purse Seiners and many longliners approved by their flag states Competent Authorities (CAs) as eligible to export to the EU. It relates to using fish wells/holds to transports fuel when they depart port or after bunkering at sea.

Only for fish my friend

Only for fish my friend

If you want to understand how "eligibility" (to be authorised to export or provide to processing establishments approved to export) to the EU works, I’ll direct you un-shamelessly to this publication.

Yet as a simplification: all establishments in the capture or aquaculture production chain (hatcheries, farms, vessels, plants, cool stores, etc.) must be approved by the national Competent Authority (CA) in regard to the EU requirements for the product that they handle to be considered “eligible” for the EU.

The list of approved establishments in the progression from “raw material to product” is maintained by the CA and represents all the Food Business Operators (FBOs) in the production chain that are allowed to provide to companies that export directly to the EU.

The establishments at the end of the chain (those that export directly to the EU) are to be included on a list of establishments authorised to receive a Health Certificate for their products. This list can include freezer vessels, plants or cool stores as long as they export directly to the EU (or to another third country for further processing and then to the EU).

These establishments are given a unique identification code, usually known as the “EU number”.

The CA sends to the European Community  a “list” of authorised establishments (including freezer and factory vessels), with the guarantee that they have been inspected and deemed to comply with the specific hygiene rules that correspond to the type of product processed.

Therefore any changes or updates in this list need to be communicated to the EC immediately. The approval and listing is not a “one off” event, it is based upon continuous compliance by the establishments.

If the level of compliance becomes so low that the CA is unable to provide the required official guarantees, then the establishment can be suspended or taken out of the list.

When this happens, the establishment loses the right to export to the EU and or provide raw materials and products to “listed” establishments.

Regulation (EC) No. 853/2004, lays down specific hygiene rules on the hygiene of foodstuffs of animal origin, and Regulation. (EC) No. 854/200411, lays down specific rules for the organisation of official controls on products of animal origin intended for human consumption, and also includes the basic rules for the surveillance of food and the listing system for imports. This system includes special rules for fishing vessels, factory vessel and freezer vessels flying the flag of a third country, in order to be able to control fishery products even when caught by one flag and processed in a different country.

Now, since I remember, most Purse Seiners and Longliners from the Distant Water Fishing Nations use the fish wells as temporary fuel tanks, since that extend their range and as well they bring fuel to other vessels under the same owner or syndicate. So basically they do this pure economic reasons.

In general terms, once you emptied the fuel of the well, it gets a really good clean up, since the fish buyers would look for any issue to get down the price of fish when they get. And the minimal “sniff” of fuel would be the perfect excuse to get down the price big time.

And while most vessels never really “publicise” the practice of keeping fuel in the fish wells prior departure, they also didn't really hide it. Anyone having access to the engineers logbook would have know it.

Yet it was a good advice to close the well and pile the salt bags on top of the hatch. You don't have to be a food safety expert to know/feel that storing fuel where you store fish, may not be the best idea… would you accept that your vegies are transported in the empty fuel tanks of a truck?

In any case, the EU inspectors found out about this practice on some recent inspections. With the regs on their side, they noted that the dual use of wells (to store fuel and later, after cleaning, to freeze fishery products and store them), is not in accordance with the EU rules, in particular with:

point I.A.l. of Chapter I, Section VIII of Annex III to Regulation (EC) No 853/2004 (structural and equipment requirements for vessels);
 1. Vessels must be designed and constructed so as not to cause contamination of the products with bilge-water, sewage, smoke, fuel, oil, grease or other objectionable substances.

And II.1 (Hygiene Requirements)
When in use, the parts of vessels or containers set aside for the storage of fishery products must be kept clean and maintained in good repair and condition. In particular, they must not be contaminated by fuel or bilge water.

As well as, Point 2 of Chapter IV of Annex II to Regulation (EC) No 852/2004:
Receptacles in vehicles and/or containers are not to be used for transporting anything other than foodstuffs where this may result in contamination

The reality is that the only reason why vessels would use the fish wells as fuel tanks is based on the economics of a trip. So I was told, that if the vessels can’t get to the fishing grounds with the fuel they have, then they either need to bunker at sea or redesign their vessels with bigger fuel tanks as to get where they have to go. If they need to use fish wells as fuel tanks, then those wells would need to be just that, and no fish should go back there.

Hence, if an inspector of a Competent Authority of a country authorised to exports to the EU verify this practice, then  the fish in that well should be rejected. Furthermore if the practice continues, that vessel should be taken out of the EU approved list, hence all its production is not eligible to the EU (either directly of via any processing company that exports to the EU)

Companies, of course, are not happy, and while all sorts of actions are being proposed (i.e. cleaning plans, throw away plastic liners for the wells, increased testings, etc) these are, in the eyes of the sanitary authorities, remedial situations to a scenario that should not be happening… a fish well is a fish well, and a fuel tank is a fuel tank. End of story.

Interestingly, this issue will affect mostly flag states that massively subsidy fuel for their fleets, so I guess there is some sense of equanimity at the end.