By JOHN ROBERTSON
The Scottish Government has blamed the European Commission for two Shetland skippers being fined nearly £48,000 by the Faroese this week for fishing in closed grounds.
The Mizpah and Venture were victims of a bureaucratic bungle which meant they were not told an area about 70 miles south of Torshavn had been shut last Monday to protect small fish. The closure was notified to the European Commission but no notification filtered through to the Shetland Fishermen’s Association (SFA) to enable it to tell its members.
David Robertson of the Mizpah said he and Jerry Pottinger of the Venture were fined nearly £24,000 each in Faroese krónur in court in Torshavn on Monday after being escorted in at the weekend by the coastguard ship Tjaldrid. They also lost fishing time stuck in Faroe with their catches deteriorating and they now have criminal records for offences they were oblivious to committing.
Speaking while fishing off Shetland on Wednesday night, Mr Robertson said he could not believe what happened after being boarded, as they often are in Faroese waters. “A totally routine inspection turned out to be a disaster. It came as a total shock to hear that you were in a temporary closure that they had just implemented four days before.
“I feel totally innocent. In my eyes it is something that is totally outwith our control. We are just doing our job as fishermen and it’s impossible for us to ken aboard a boat, fishing away, what’s being closed on a daily basis.”
He said he wanted to know exactly what happens when Faroe announces a temporary closure. “Nobody can tell us at this stage what is the correct procedure. When they find that out then they can find where the broken chain link is.”
He said there was no point in being angry about the episode but he hoped they could be compensated for the fines and have their criminal records rescinded.
SFA chief executive Hansen Black wants the fishermen compensated and a copper-bottomed system put in place to prevent any repeat of the communications breakdown.
He said officials of the Scottish and UK governments were trying to find out “who knew what, when”. “We are going to have to look at finding a way of recouping the money. It’s a substantial fine for any business,” he said on Wednesday.
“All in all it’s a horrible situation that we need to get to the bottom of as to how and why it was allowed to happen. One thing that is clear is that there is no fault or blame to be laid at the fishermen’s door. They have been let down by the system. We have to make sure it never happens again.”
On Wednesday a Scottish Government spokesman blamed Brussels for the failure. “We have not received notification from the EU about this closure and are urgently investigating why we were not alerted. Obviously if we had been made aware we would have informed fishing associations.”
The Faroese did not escape criticism from Edinburgh. The spokesman said: “We find it extremely disappointing that on booking entry to the Faroe zone the Faroese coastguard opted not to advise of this new closure.”
A spokeswoman for the European Commission said it would take some days to provide a statement for The Shetland Times.
It is understood that a copy of the closure notification was actually sent by the Faroese to the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency’s marine monitoring centre over the Easter break but the official it was addressed to was off on holiday. In any case, the centre is not involved with informing fisheries associations about fishing restrictions although it does constantly check where boats are fishing by monitoring their satellite-tracking devices.
Mr Black has also been told that an email arrived at the Commission a few days later, on Wednesday 8th April, after the boats had left Shetland to fish. “There are questions over whether it was sent to the Scottish department and whether they received it. If they did, why wasn’t it sent out to the boats which were clearly going out and fishing within that area?
“The Faroese acknowledged that the boats were clearly not trying to circumvent rules. They were fishing during daylight with their satellite monitoring systems switched on and everything was logged and recorded accurately.”
The Mizpah has fished in Faroe waters for much of the past three weeks due to the boat’s lack of days-at-sea permissions for fishing Scottish waters. Mr Robertson said the Faroese had various well-publicised designated closed areas at certain times of the year but the area they ran into trouble in was the subject of a sudden temporary closure.
The boat landed a big catch, mainly cod, for yesterday morning’s market in Lerwick while the Venture landed at Scrabster before heading home. Mr Black hoped to meet the skippers to discuss the incident after having initial discussions via the boats’ phones.
It is the latest in a series of unconnected incidents which have not helped relations between Shetland and its north-western neighbour. The Shetland Livestock Marketing Group has been brought to the brink of bankruptcy after a large shipment of lamb was not paid for by a dealer in Faroe last year then it took two months for the Faroese prime minister to reply to a letter from SIC convener Sandy Cluness who wanted the government to refund Shetland’s £4.2 million investment in the crippled Smyril Line or for the Norröna to resume sailings to Shetland. He got an explanation but no solution. Last year the Shetland representative on the Smyril board, Bobby Hunter, was unceremoniously axed by the major shareholders.
Despite his big fine, Mr Robertson bore no grudge against the Faroese who he said had treated the men well and had been almost apologetic about arresting them. “They kent we were totally unaware of [the closure] otherwise we would never have been there. They were going through their correct procedures and it had obviously been a faux pas at this end of it, somewhere along the line.”
- At a meeting between the Scottish fishing industry and government this week, some certainty was given to fishermen as to the days at sea available for the rest of 2009. The Scottish Government will release more information to fishermen over the next few days.
Scottish Fishermen’s Federation chief executive Bertie Armstrong said: “The problem has been an overall lack of days awarded at the annual Fisheries Council in December for the fleet as a whole as part of a now visibly flawed framework of regulation. Government and industry have together been wrestling to make the best of a bad job.
“The overall low ‘ceiling’ of total days available is part of a new cod recovery plan. The Scottish industry has been working consistently and realistically hard to meet the requirements of the plan by smarter actions – avoiding cod where possible and using more selective nets – so avoiding the worst of the effort cuts. However, despite cod’s recovery, the regulations from Brussels do not allow enough days to meet the commercial needs of significant sectors of the industry.
“The Scottish industry has demonstrated a strong commitment to sustainable fishing overall and specifically to cod recovery. This has delivered results. But under the new regulations, fishermen now have less time to catch available quota which, due to the world economic turmoil, is selling for smaller prices this year. As well as achieving the best days-at-sea result possible under the present rules, governments in Edinburgh and London must support us in pressing for change, to make the overall framework fit for purpose. The rules must be smarter, not just more severe.”