A fisherman was cleared of fishing without a licence after a judge ruled the authority which provides the licence was unclear.
Jason Steele, of Lower Cabry, Quigley’s Point, was accused of fishing without a licence on Lough Swilly on September 21, 2015.
He denied the charges before him at Carndonagh District Court.
Fishery officer Seamus Bradley told the court he received a report of illegal oyster fishing on Lough Swilly so at 12.45pm on September 21 he launched the patrol boat from Rathmullan.
Mr Bradley said himself and fishery officer James Doherty checked a number of boats for licences and undersized oysters.
He explained how they boarded a boat fishing vessel, belonging to Mr Steele, which was fishing for oysters on Russell’s Bed.
“I asked him if he had a licence to fish for native oysters on Lough Swilly, he replied no so I cautioned him. I observed 20-25kgs of oysters on board.”
Mr Bradley said he seized the oysters and returned them to the oyster’s beds. He explained that
Mr. Steele’s boat was 30 foot long with a large mechanical dredge on the back that is used for fishing for oysters.
The court heard that the licence holder for the boat, Gareth Duncan, was not on the boat but had been on board when they had boarded the boat previously.
Mr Steele told the court that he and Mr Duncan have been fishing for oysters that day but Gary felt sick so he went down the river on another boat to go home. Mr Steele said he was with his uncle as they were travelling in the one vehicle together to go home.
When he was boarded by fishery officers, Mr Steele had Mr Duncan’s license, a sea fishing licence and a certificate of registration on board, however, he did not produce anything as he was not asked to.
He said he fished for oysters on the Swilly before the season opened on Lough Foyle and himself and Mr Duncan shared the profits.
Prosecuting solicitor for the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority Denis O’Mahoney asked Mr Steele if he had a licence for fishing on the Foyle, which he had.
Mr Duncan told the court that he rang the fishery office in Ballyshannon to change over his licence to Mr Steele’s boat. However, Mr. O’Mahoney said his licence was for a three-foot hand dredge, not the large mechanical dredge, which was on Mr Steele’s boat.
However Steele’s solicitor, Ciaran MacLochlainn said it was not specific on the licence that it related to a particular dredge.
“I would say we are not guilty of the offence we are charged with,” said Mr MacLochlainn.
“Mr. Steele was entitled to dredge for oysters on Lough Swilly on foot of the licence which was issued to Mr. Duncan – it doesn’t say on the licence what size the dredge is to be.
“The fishery officers have boarded his boat before when Mr. Duncan was on board and they had no problem, there was no mention of the dredge.”
However Mr. O’Mahoney said it was ‘quite clear’ that Mr. Duncan applied for a licence to cover a
three foot hand dredge.
“He knows fine well what licence he applied for – Mr. Steele had no licence for a dredge and Mr. Duncan’s licence didn’t cover that dredge. I accept that the licence could be clearer but there is about 20 fishermen in the county who have these licences so the fishery officers would have intimate knowledge of the vessels and their dredges,” he added.
Judge Paul Kelly said it wasn’t clear at all from the licence what type of dredge it covered. He said he believed the onus was on the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, who issues the dredge, to say that this licence was for a three foot hand dredge, for example.
Judge Kelly said the obligation for the licence holder to be on board the vessel was unclear in the legalisation. He said he had to give Mr. Steele the ‘benefit of the doubt’ as the licence was unclear.
He suggested that the authority that issued the licences should address these issues if there are so few issued every year.