The local fishing industry could be facing a looming economic disaster because of confusing immigration laws, a businessman has warned.
David Boyd, the commercial director of Rockabill NI Ltd, the largest prawn processor in western Europe, called on the Executive to take urgent action over quirks in the relevant legislation. He said the issues have resulted in fishing boats being raided and legal non-European Economic Area (EEA) foreign workers being arrested and detained by immigration officers.
Foreign crew, mainly from Ghana and the Philippines, who have acquired the appropriate paperwork are living in fear and fleet owners are worried about prosecution, Mr Boyd claimed.
He added that the problem had been caused by a lack of clear policy over the 12-mile boundary around the UK's coastlline, beyond which international waters begin.
The non-EEA crew are considered illegal once they come within 12 miles of the coastline, raising questions about how the crew get to and from work.
The situation has already resulted in boats being tied up, and Mr Boyd claimed there was a real prospect that a sizeable portion of the local fishing fleet would be unable to operate because of an escalating campaign by the Home Office.
"Recently, vessels have been physically raided by immigration officers," he added. "Foreign crew and vessel owners have been arrested, with owners now facing prosecution and fines of up to £20,000. The Home Office is implementing an unfair, unclear policy, which has caused confusion and the real possibility of economic disaster for the fishing industry here.
"We need to call upon the Stormont administration and the Government to address this crisis before it is too late."
Mr Boyd, a vocal Brexiteer, said the issue was partly a consequence of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy, which he claimed had resulted in a "lost generation" of fishermen.
A Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affair spokesperson said: "Immigration policy is a matter for the Home Office and Borders Agency.
"However, Fisheries Minister Michelle McIlveen is aware of concerns with the employment of non-EEA workers in the fleet, and has written to the Secretary of State seeking a discussion."