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Closed Doors: Lack of transparency and the push to overfish in Ireland’s fishing sector

Noteworthy examines the powers at play in the sector and how the Irish system may be disadvantaging small-scale fisheries.
Apr 8th 2021, 8:30 PM 12,413 23

“IN OUR IMMEDIATE family, there’s no fishermen coming up. And that would have been from a long line of fishermen. It’s sad when you think of it.”

Jerry Early, a part-time fisherman on Arranmore, is hoping to make fishing more attractive for the next generation by finding ways that small-scale island boats can prosper.

A lost generation of fishers was created on the Donegal island, according to Early. This happened when a perfect storm was created 15 years ago due to a ban of driftnetting for salmon in 2006 combined with the economic boom which attracted islanders to higher wages in Dublin, he explained.

That lag, of the generations not following through with fishing, has put all the islands at a disadvantage.

It’s very important for the future of islands and coastal areas, to make it more attractive to get back into fishing, said Early. In order to do this, a group on the island are hoping to promote heritage fishing, where traditional methods are used.

This includes hand-hauling of nets and line-catching of fish. They are in the process of developing an app that will market their produce directly to the consumer.

“Back in the day, when it was [all] rowboats or sailboats, fish were plentiful. We were fishing different species at different times which allowed for sustainability.” Progress can be a dangerous thing, added Early, who said it has had “a detrimental effect on island fishing”.

“Big was supposed to be better”, but this has proven not to be the case in fishing, said Early. “One boat can catch enough fish in one trip that can keep all the islands of Ireland going for a year.”

The fisherman said that more emphasis needs to be put on small-scale and traditional methods, with “poor policy” making it “really hard to be a fisherman on the island”.

Jerry Early - Arranmore3 - Antti Viitala Arranmore fisherman and publican, Jerry Early, wants low impact fishing to receive more support. Source: Antti Viitala

Over the past number of months, Noteworthy has investigated the transparency in the management of Irish fishing. We delve into:

  • The impact that the move to larger scale vessels has had on inshore fishers.
  • How Ireland’s quota system disadvantages smaller, less efficient vessels.
  • Industry involvement in the Quota Management Advisory Committee, with a reveal that environmental NGOs will not be given a seat at this particular table.
  • December European Fisheries Council negotiations and how Ireland – historically – shouts the loudest.
  • A call for greater transparency across every element of fisheries.

The rest of our series is out now. In part one, we revealed the impact that fishing is having on wildlife and yesterday, in part two, we explored the myriad of issues relating to the enforcement of fishery policy in Ireland.

***

Bigger is not always better

On Arranmore, the quota system is one of Early’s targets in his fight to restore their fisheries. He is chair of the recently recognised Irish Islands Marine Resource Organisation (IIMRO) – Ireland’s newest fish producer organisation.

This will give the islands a seat at the table where quotas are discussed at a national level. One difficulty that smaller-scale fishers encounter with the current system is that those who catch more fish are given more quota, he explained.

“There is a small quota for line-caught pollack and mackerel.” Early said that it “would be a step in the right direction if more quota was made allowable for those who want to practice heritage, inshore and traditional fishing”.

At the other end of the country, Kerry native Alex Crowley is a full-time inshore fisherman who fishes mainly for shellfish close to his base at Cahersiveen.

“Ten years ago would have been a different story,” he explained. “We used to have a much more diverse fishery” with quota species such as whitefish (cod, whiting) and pelagic fish (herring, mackerel) but now the focus is on shellfish (lobster, crab and shrimp).

Crowley said the reason for this move away from quota species is “that there isn’t enough fish in inshore waters to be viable anymore”. Split crews and non-stop intensive fishing at an industrial scale have become the norm in some of the larger fisheries, he added.

If you went back 20 years ago, if there was a spell of bad weather, the stocks got a break, but they don’t get that break anymore.

Crowley, who is also the secretary general of the National Inshore Fishermen’s Association (NIFA) suggested that supporting smaller boats would lead to more employment and sustainable fisheries.

By allocating quota to the types of fishing that have less of an environmental impact and to vessels that “don’t have the physical capacity to overfish”, Crowley felt this would go a long way in “preventing future overfishing and sustaining coastal communities”.

Environmental groups are also increasingly pushing for policy-makers to pay more attention to small, rather than industrial, fisheries.

Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust is in favour of giving more quota to fishers who use vessels and fishing methods that have a low impact on the ecosystem. He added that “industrial fishing is not just damaging to the environment, but it’s a jobs’ killer”.

Net Loss - Killybegs - Maria Delaney4 Nets laid out for repair in Killybegs harbour. Source: Maria Delaney via Noteworthy

Our ‘public resource’

Quotas are the first thing that almost everyone with a connection to fishing talks about whenever fishing is discussed. They are the share of certain stocks of commercial fish that are allowed to be caught and were one of the points of contention of Brexit, with Ireland losing a large share of its valuable mackerel quota.

In the EU, each country’s quota is based on its historic track record. Once the country quota is allocated, Member States have a lot of freedom in how they are distributed.

In Ireland, quotas are “a public resource” owned by the State and are made available to fishing vessels based on a lottery for some quotas and on vessel size or other details for others. To calculate which boats and companies are allocated the Irish quota by the Government is extremely complex as the information is not publicly available.

A 2019 European Commission report compiled a database of the entire EU fleet register and found that most Irish vessels are owned by individual Irish fishers, with only about 3.5% of the fleet registered to a foreign owner or foreign registered company.

They also found that larger Irish companies are increasingly common as, due to the Irish – first to catch the fish, gets the quota – system, only those who can modernise are able to compete. This means smaller, less efficient vessel owners “are left behind”.

The study authors suggested that “there is a need for greater transparency” in Ireland about the “ultimate beneficiaries of initial allocations of quotas”.

So, who gets the largest share? The report authors calculated that the top eight quota owners share 28% of the quota between them, with the Atlantic Dawn Company topping the table, at over 7% of the entire national quota:

Source: Noteworthy/Flourish

To view an interactive version of this graph, click here.

Industry dominance

Green Party MEP, Grace O’Sullivan, who is on the European Parliament’s Committee on Fisheries (PECH), said “there is a perception” going back through the decades that “the larger scale fishers have always got the lion’s share in Ireland”.

She uses Dunmore East in Waterford as an example of a once vibrant fishing community which “has lost ground” because of a “lack of investment”. This is “partly because there aren’t more diverse producer organisations in the country representing the small and large scale”.

If everyone’s at the table at least you can argue for resources and try, at least, to aim for a fair distribution. In Ireland, there’s a feeling that that hasn’t been the case.

“We have to recognise that there are inequalities in the system, they have been widening and we need to change this dynamic.”

There were four producer organisations (POs) up until last February when the new island PO joined their ranks, bringing that number to five.

A report – Who gets to Fish – by British think-tank, the New Economics Foundation, stated that the original four POs had a combined membership of “around 10% of Irish vessels but 71% of capacity”. This is because their members constitute some of the highest capacity vessels, according to the report.

The vast majority of Ireland’s fleet consists of small vessels but the larger vessels catch most of the fish around our coasts. Figures from the Irish Fleet Register from last month show that almost 75% of the fleet are less than 10 metres in length and just over 10% are greater than 15 metres.

Source: Noteworthy/Flourish

To view an interactive version of this graph, click here.

One advantage of being a member of a producer organisation is that a representative sits on the Quota Management Advisory Committee (QMAC) which meets on a monthly basis. “Consultation with industry in respect of the management of Ireland’s fishing quotas” is carried out via this committee – that is according to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue in January.

The Committee has seven external representatives – one from each of the POs as well as one from the Irish Fish Processors and Exporters Association, the National Inshore Fisheries Forum and the Co-Operative group.

POs are “heavily over-represented in the QMAC”, according to the New Economics Foundation report. It stated that “the scale of fishing activities shouldn’t determine the level of representation in decisions about access to a public resource”. It also noted that scientific advisors and other stakeholders are not represented.

When asked if the Minister was open to allowing representatives of environmental NGOs to attend these meetings, a spokesperson said that “issues relating to policy are not dealt with by the QMAC and, thus, it is not a forum for eNGOs to attend”.

The New Economics Foundations report also suggested that the Committee’s advice and decision-making should be more transparent, “with publication of minutes and the final advice for the Minister”.

A spokesperson for the Department told Noteworthy that the Minister “recently decided that the publishing of the minutes of the QMAC meetings will assist with transparency for stakeholders”. 

This is not a finding unique to Ireland. One of the key policy messages of the United Nations in relation to sustainable small-scale fisheries is that “large industrial fleets dominate fisheries management efforts and political interest”. It recommends that policies refocus to “address the needs and challenges of small-scale fisheries”.

‘Room for better balance’

The Minister addressed the fact that many smaller vessels were not represented by existing producer organisations in response to a parliamentary question in January. He said that the National Inshore Fisheries Forum was established “to provide a platform for engagement with those primarily involved in the inshore fisheries sector”.

Alex Crowley Alex Crowley said there needs to be room for everybody in the fishing sector. Source: Roland O’Shea

However, Crowley from the National Inshore Fishermen’s Association, who is also a past-chair of the Fisheries Forum, said that the Forum does its best to represent the small-scale operators but the people working in it “do so voluntarily” with “no CEOs or paid professionals”.

He added that a number of members of the Processors and Exporters Association, as well as directors that are part of the Co-Operative group, also either own or operate large boats.

In terms of who the Minister consults with and lobbying power, it’s very much leaning towards larger vessels.

Though he is not “anti-big boats” and said they are needed to fish species such as blue whiting and horse mackerel, Crowley felt “there’s room for a bit better balance”, using the quota allocation as mackerel as an example.

Almost 90% of Ireland’s most valuable quota – worth over €65 million for the peak mackerel season this year – is allocated to 22 large refrigerated seawater vessels (RSW), with under 1% set aside for line-caught mackerel in a fishery of around 1,500 boats.

“This policy represents a balance between all interests in the mackerel fishery and I have no plan at this time to review it,” Minister McConalogue stated last November.

Patrick Murphy, chief executive of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation (IS&WFPO) – one of the original four POs, claimed to Noteworthy that he has done more for “the inshore” in his area “than any man alive” and will “continue to fight for them, regardless of the position” he is in.

There “is nothing stopping a small boat” joining a PO, he said. “Every person who joins the PO has an equal right, no matter if you are a super trawler or a punt, you have the same voice as everybody else.”

They “bend over backwards” to bring small boats into the POs, Murphy said, by charging them less than larger vessels. Small boats could “take over the POs” if they came in in large numbers, he added.

Sean O’Donoghue, chief executive of the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation, one of Ireland’s most active POs when it comes to registering its lobbying efforts, said that it has “small-scale fishers as part of the organisation and they’re quite entitled to join”. He added that the “idea that the POs are wielding power couldn’t be further from the truth”.

***

Arguing against advised limits

In addition to being consulted on the management of Ireland’s fishing quotas as part of their Committee work, most POs make a submission to the Government every year on “fishing opportunities” for the following year.

These “opportunities” equate to total allowable catches (TACs) for certain fish stocks – the amount of a particular species in an area that EU fishers are allowed to catch. These are the basis of fishing quotas and are decided in a number of internal EU and “third-party” negotiations each year.

Each December, the EU Fisheries Council of Ministers meet behind closed doors to discuss EU stock allocations for the North East Atlantic. Historically, this was the most important negotiation for Ireland, but Brexit has complicated this as the UK are now a ‘third-party’. Now, most fish stocks of interest to Ireland are negotiated at “consultations” between the EU, Norway and the UK. 

These negotiations are of high interest to environmental groups, and five of these also made submissions to the Government this year, which alongside the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation submission were published online.

In addition, Patrick Murphy emailed DAFM a statement entitled ‘IS&WFPO Submission, pre-December Council’, which Noteworthy obtained through FOI. This was sent a week after the closing date for submissions and was not included in the official documents online. However, the email was forwarded by a DAFM official to Cecil Beamish, the Assistant Secretary General for the Marine as well as others in the Department.

One of the main points that environmental groups made in their submissions to the Government is that the total allowable catch (TAC) for each stock should be set at a level recommended by scientists, in line with the 2020 legal deadline to end overfishing that the EU gave itself as part of the Common Fisheries Policy – a target which has not yet been met.

Each year, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) advises the European Commission on the maximum amount of fish that should be caught. This is called the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) and stocks fished above this level are classed as overfished which could result in their decline.

In 2020, Ireland had a share of the TAC of 74 stocks and 13 of these (18%) were overfished. A Noteworthy analysis found more than half of these stocks have numbers (biomass) outside the safe zone which puts them more at risk if overfished.

For eight (over 61%) of these stocks, bottom trawling was the most common fishing method used by Irish vessels. ICES recommended that no fish be caught for six of these stocks but an Irish quota of over 2,700 tonnes was assigned, worth over €4.8m.

The New Economics Foundation analysed overfishing in the Northeast Atlantic in 2020 and found Ireland exceeded scientific advice by 7,300 tonnes, 4% of our total quota. This placed us fourth on the ‘overfishing league table’ behind Sweden, Denmark and France, according to the report. This was an improvement from the previous year when Ireland was third, with an excess quota of 22%.

That does not take into account, however, any potential unreported overfishing, such as that recently found by the European Commission. Following an audit and formal administrative inquiry it was revealed that Ireland overfished a combination of mackerel, horse mackerel (scad) and blue whiting by over 42,000 tonnes between 2012 and 2016. Read more about issues with enforcement of Irish fisheries in part two of this investigation.

Source: Noteworthy/Flourish

To view an interactive version of this graph, click here.

In both the official submission on 2021 fishing opportunities by the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation (KFO) as well as the email to the Department from the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation (IS&WFPO), arguments are put forward against the scientific advice on total allowable catch.

KFO argued against proposed reductions due to “inconsistent evidence” for mackerel and stated the reductions were “unwarranted” in Rockall haddock, “unjustified” in monkfish, did “not make sense” in hake and “impossible to reconcile” in plaice due to “the parameters” on which the advice was based.

The submission stated that “KFO continues to witness a lack of consistency in the advice” in relation to these stocks and said there was a “critical need for quality assurance across all assessments”.

The PO’s chief executive O’Donoghue told Noteworthy that “it is absolutely critical that we have an independent body such as ICES giving advice”, but added that he expects that advice to be “quality controlled”. He said that ICES didn’t have a “fit for purpose quality assurance system” and though it isn’t fully there, it has “made huge strides” over the past two years.

‘Sort of scientific based’

A pushback against ICES advice by POs is “inevitable” as they are “representing people who have an economic interest in fisheries”, according to Dominic Rihan, Director of Economic and Strategic Services at seafood development agency, BIM.

However, he added that the way the Common Fisheries Policy has been developed, “the ability for Member States and industries to influence the fishing opportunity discussions are much less”. Rihan is involved in these discussions with the Irish Government and is also vice-chair of the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) which reports on the progress of the CFP to the European Commission.

He felt where stocks have maximum sustainable yield (MSY) advice, “there isn’t a lot of wriggle room” and people “maybe begrudgingly” have accepted that. Conflict happens when there isn’t a full stock assessment so ICES issues precautionary advice which has led to “blanket cuts of minus 20%” and is something that the industry “finds very hard to accept”.

Zero total allowable catch advice also creates “a huge amount of frustration because setting a zero TAC means no fishing” which has an impact on other stocks in mixed fisheries.

Rihan explained that the Commission has taken a bycatch quota approach which is “sort of scientific based, but also a bit of ‘put your finger in the air and [get] whatever number you think’”. That is where tensions and suspicions arise from both industry and NGOs because “it is very subjective”.

Both producer organisations were concerned about cod which had a zero catch advice for this year because of the impact this would have on other fisheries such as haddock which lives alongside cod. The IS&WFPO wrote this would be “prohibitive” and Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation called for the continuation of bycatch TACs.

Cod and herring in the Celtic Sea are “in a very bad state at the moment”, according to Dr Ciaran Kelly, Director of Fisheries Ecosystems Advisory Services at the Marine Institute.

This is primarily because of sustained periods of “poor recruitment”, meaning a low amount of young fish are coming into the population. There is very little that scientists can do, “other than giving a zero catch advice”.

You can’t put fish back into the sea. So you simply have to stop catching fish at a certain point and wait for the productivity of the fish stock to come back.

According to the latest 2020 Stock Book from the Marine Institute, there has been a downward trend in biomass indicators for Celtic Sea Cod since 2012, in spite of a year-on-year reduction in catches.

On top of the pressure that fishing puts on these stocks, scientists are discovering that other factors are at play. Kelly explained, as an example, that the wrong environmental cues can lead to fish not spawning at the right time, leading to fewer offspring. “When poor productivity, poor survival and individuals being taken through fishing” are combined, this “can lead to the decline of a stock”.

Jenni Grossmann, science and policy advisor at UK-based ClientEarth, said that “fishing is one of the many pressures” that impacts stocks and ecosystems, alongside climate change and other issues. However, she cited a 2019 intergovernmental global assessment of biodiversity which found that “in marine ecosystems, direct exploitation of organisms (mainly fishing) has had the largest relative impact” on nature.

Grossmann said that NGOs don’t want fishers to be tied up in ports and they recognise that setting the catch advice at zero would cause issues for fishers in the short-term.

However, she added that by continuing to ignore that advice it is “perpetuating the issue and it’s not going to get better”. This will also limit the ability of these fisheries to improve as the stocks are being kept down, she added. “The NGO approach is to let these stocks recover and then they won’t be limiting the other stocks.”

Shouting the loudest

Grossmann co-authored a report in October that analysed the so-called ‘Council bible’ from 2016 to 2018. This is a document that summarises input received by Member States in relation to the December EU Fisheries Council of Ministers.

The report found that Ireland was “the most vocal Member State” in advocating for higher than advised total allowable catch (TAC). Ireland also had the fourth-largest share of the TACs in terms of volume, according to the analysis.

The stance that we take is that all Member States have both an individual and collective responsibility to make sure that fishing limits have aligned with science and the law.

Grossmann said that Ireland is not one of the biggest Member States “but it is one of the main fishing nations” so its “voice in the discussions is quite important”.

Source: Noteworthy/Flourish

For a searchable version of this table, click here.

Client Earth sent Noteworthy an analysis of the most recently published 2019 Council bible which was not included in their report. Though Ireland agreed with the catch advice for a number of stocks, it regularly argued against recommended TACs, often saying they would lead to a “choke situation” – as in the case of cod potentially limiting the catching of haddock in its mixed fishery.

This argument was used by Ireland for seven stocks including Rockall, West of Scotland, Celtic Sea and Irish Sea cod as well as Irish Sea Haddock.

A spokesperson for DAFM said that “the implication that Ireland has deliberately sought to set higher TACs is misleading and does not reflect the complexity of fisheries management and the TAC-setting mechanisms and the relationship to scientific advice”.

They added that “it also doesn’t reflect the real work that has been carried out, led by our industry, in improving our seas” and cited the fact that 45% of the stocks of interest to Ireland in 2020 were fished at or below maximum sustainable yield (MSY), an increase from 34% in 2013.

The TAC’s are adopted by the EU Council which involves all Member States and the Commission – not just Ireland. The vast majority of stocks in which Ireland has an interest are shared with other Member States and each has their own views and concerns.

In the case of cod in the Celtic Sea, the spokesperson said that “no directed fishing for this stock is permitted and a restrictive by-catch only TAC is set to allow for unavoidable bycatch”.

When asked by Noteworthy about these findings, industry representatives’ general response was that quotas are agreed by all Ministers so all Member States are responsible for the ultimate decision.

IS&WFPO’s Murphy said that Ireland’s fleet has been decommissioned a number of times and represents a small portion of the EU fleet. In terms of gross tonnage, Irish vessels encompass 4.6% of the EU fleet and rank eight out of the 22 Member States included in EU statistics.

He said vessels from other countries were “like a spaceship, coming down sucking the water out, taking your natural resources”. He added that “when we ask for more, like Oliver, we’re told ‘get out of here’”.

Fintan Kelly, policy officer for BirdWatch Ireland, who has a keen interest in the marine ecosystem, said that some within the sector are “trapped in a post-colonial narrative, whereby Ireland is small and helpless, that external forces are always to blame and we’re incapable of taking responsibility for our own actions”.

He said this is a “deeply damaging narrative” and used the example of Celtic Sea herring – a stock that “Ireland controls the vast majority of the quota [and] is critically overfished”. Ireland was assigned 86% of this stock’s EU quota in 2020.

When this was put to Murphy, he said that fish in the EU are managed in a colonial way as quotas didn’t make provisions or adapt to enable the Irish fleet to modernise.

The EU ‘relative stability’ policy that locked the sizes of fleets “could have been approached in a different way”, said Kelly, with Ireland entitled to a greater share within our own territorial waters. However, he said within the current constraints, “the best thing we can do is to manage our fish stocks better” and properly enforce control of both Irish and foreign vessels.

Source: Noteworthy/Flourish

To view an interactive version of this graph, click here. A compilation of Irish statistics on these overfished stocks can be viewed here. In addition, click here for a visualisation of the status of all stocks of interest to Ireland. 

Even though many countries continue to argue for quotas that are higher than scientists have recommended, from her analysis, Grossmann said that “the narrative and terminology being used has become a bit more cautious over the years”.

More emotive language was used a few years ago, she remarked, where Member States, including Ireland used language such as “not acceptable”, “not justified” and “unbearable socio-economic effects”, for example, when discussing a cut in Celtic Sea cod stocks in 2016.

That year the total allowable catch agreed by Ministers ended up being a thousand tonnes higher than scientists recommended for that stock.

Lack of transparency around the fishery negotiations was a big issue for Grossmann when compiling this research and she said it was hard to know exactly what happened as she had “to rely on the information” that the Commission gave to her.

A small-scale future

Transparency and the fishing industry is an issue that crops up time and again during interviews and discussions over the course of this investigation.

BirdWatch Ireland’s Kelly said that “without transparency, there’s a lack of accountability”. Ideally, he wants the EU fisheries negotiations to be televised as he feels the Ministers “shouldn’t have anything to hide if their intention is to follow the scientific advice and implement the law”.

The conservation organisation have been trying to get greater access for NGOs to ‘third-party’ negotiations, now between the EU, UK and Norway and recently they have had some success. “We have debriefing meetings with the European Commission that run in parallel to the negotiations and we are now observers at the plenary sessions of the EU/UK negotiations.”

*** 

Jerry Early - Arranmore2 - Antti Viitala Jerry Early reflects on the outcome of Brexit which he says will have a massive impact on Donegal’s fishers. Source: Antti Viitala

Green MEP O’Sullivan is “totally in favour of opening the doors” to let communities know what is going on, instead of “keeping people in the dark”.

A “crucially important” development in terms of transparency in Ireland, according to O’Sullivan, is the Irish Islands Marine Resource Organisation (IIMRO) becoming a producer organisation. They have “been fighting for years and that has finally happened”.

That has given a voice to small-scale fishers at the policy table, she said. “If we have more producer organisations that are supporting the small-scale fishers as well as the large-scale, that in itself should lead to levelling the playing field for all.”

The National Inshore Fishermen’s Association has applied for PO status and is hoping to also become a producer organisation this year. “Things are changing a little bit” for fishers, said its general secretary Alex Crowley.

He said that with the number of boats in the inshore sector, “you’ll never get them all to organise or unite” but added that he would “hope as small scale fishermen become more organised and a little bit more effective at lobbying politicians, that we would see more positive policy change”.

Back on Arranmore, IIMRO’s Early reflects on the impact of Brexit on Donegal’s mackerel industry, which he said is “massive for the likes of Killybegs”. Though this will have less impact on small-scale fisheries, he said “it is poor for the fishing industry in general” as it “feeds down”.

With this in mind, he hopes their newly recognised PO will enable them to keep more abreast of issues that affect them.

“Hopefully, we will be in a position to lobby for what we believe is our future and to make it more attractive to get back into fishing. It’s very important for our islands and coastal areas.”

***

The first two parts of this series are out now. Part one reveals the impact of fishing on wildlife and part two explores continuing issues with enforcement in the industry.

This investigation was carried out by Maria Delaney of Noteworthy, the investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers with support from the Noteworthy general fund to cover additional costs.

You may be interested in a proposed investigation we recently launched - SHORED UP - where we want to investigate if our laws can catch up with the commercial use of our coasts.

You can support our work by submitting an idea, funding for a particular proposal or setting up a monthly contribution to our general investigative fund HERE>>

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