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Failures in communication caused lost income for sea bass fishers

Organisation we investigated: Marine Management Organisation

Date investigations closed: 26 August 2019 and 20 December 2019

The complaints

Complainants D and V complained to us about how the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) handled issues relating to the process of authorising boats to fish for sea bass.

Complainant D complained to us that MMO provided incorrect information about the entitlement of boat A to fish for sea bass and that it incorrectly removed boat A’s entitlement and transferred it to a different boat.

Complainant V complained that MMO did not provide clear information about what supporting information it needed so that they could get authorisation to fish for sea bass using the specific fishing method of hook and line.

Complainants D and V told us that the process caused them distress and affected their income. Complainant D said that they were not able to use their boat to fish. Complainant V said that because their boat did not have authorisation to fish for sea bass by hook and line, an employee left, meaning they were forced to work longer days on their own and they were not able to work as much as they would have liked.

What we found

When MMO wrote to Complainant V to tell them they did not have permission to use the hook and line method, Complainant V presented MMO with evidence to support their appeal against that decision. Complainant V based their evidence on the guidance available to the public. MMO wrote back explaining that Complainant V could use their boat to fish for sea bass but not by the hook and line method. MMO did not explain the reasons for that decision. We found that MMO should have explained the reasons for its decision when responding to Complainant V.

MMO’s internal guidance stated that coastal officers needed to verify that the boat had previously fished for sea bass using the hook and line method. This is called independent coastal verification. The information made available to the public did not include the requirement for independent coastal verification as part of the process of appealing the decision. The information MMO made available to Complainant V and the general public was inaccurate and incomplete. In addition, the independent coastal verification method was not reliable because coastal staff did not have contact with all boats.

In Complainant D’s case, MMO correctly transferred the authorisation to fish for sea bass to a different boat in line with the request made by the previous owner of the boat. However, when Complainant D called their MMO local office, MMO told Complainant D that the boat had authorisation to fish for sea bass. This was not true as MMO had already transferred this authorisation to a different boat. MMO said Complainant D should have contacted MMO’s specialist team and that this information was available in a letter it had sent to Complainant D. However, MMO should have told Complainant D to contact the specialist team, rather than give them incorrect information when they contacted the local office.

There was a missed opportunity for Complainant D to make a fully informed decision about buying their boat. This caused Complainant D stress and frustration. In Complainant V’s case, they had less income as a result of the MMO’s failings in the process of appealing the decision.

Background

MMO put a new process in place to authorise boats to fish for sea bass. There are different ways to fish for sea bass and the authorisation also stated which specific ways a boat could use to fish for sea bass. MMO had a specialist team that handled applications for sea bass fishing. MMO also had public guidance to explain how to appeal a decision, as well as internal guidance explaining when an appeal would be successful.

Complainant D wanted to buy a boat that had permission to fish for sea bass. They found a boat that someone else owned and wanted to buy it. Complainant D called their local MMO office to find out whether the boat had the authorisation to fish for sea bass. MMO said that the boat had this authorisation. Complainant D bought the boat but the person selling the boat asked the MMO to transfer the authorisation to another boat they owned. Once MMO had transferred the authorisation to a different boat, Complainant D’s boat no longer had authorisation to fish for sea bass.

Complainant V applied to MMO to get authorisation to fish for sea bass by hook and line. MMO wrote to Complainant V to tell them that they had permission to fish for sea bass but that they could not use the hook and line method. Complainant V used MMO’s guidance to see what evidence they needed to provide to MMO to appeal that decision. Initially, MMO did not give authorisation. Over a year later, MMO gave Complainant V authorisation to fish for sea bass using hook and line.

Putting it right

In both cases, we recommended that MMO should pay the complainants £3,000 in recognition of the lost opportunity to earn more money and the stress and frustration its process caused. We also recommended that MMO should apologise to Complainant D and Complainant V and should review the learning from each case to improve its services.

MMO have complied with our recommendations in both cases.

This case summary is featured in the Ombudsman's Casework Report 2019.