Trawler skippers are calling for separation zones between local boats and UK-registered Spanish gill netters that are competing for the same fishing grounds north and west of Shetland.
Relations between the local fleet and the encroaching flagships are said to be increasingly fraught, with trawler skippers complaining they are being driven off their own grounds by the large Spanish-owned netters that set miles of gill net on the seabed north and west of Shetland.
The situation is getting worse with the Spaniards, who used to fish deeper waters further out than the trawlers would operate, now taking over “vast swathes” of prime monkfish grounds. One skipper reckoned that millions of pounds worth of landings were being lost to the local fleet as they are ousted from their traditional grounds.
The netters, which, at 34m-40m long, are larger than the local white fish boats, operate from ports in north and west of Scotland, seldom if ever call into Shetland. They can set as much as 35 miles of net per vessel and have recently begun to extend their normal summer operations for longer and longer periods of the year, skippers say.
Although the nets are hauled every few days, they are understood to be left set for longer periods if the vessel has to return to a Scottish port.
Yesterday, five netters were operating north west of Flugga or west of Foula. One, the Tahume (UL 666), had effectively “ruled off” an area more than half the size of Unst with its nets only about 10 miles west of Flugga.
A Marine Scotland move to get both sets of vessels to sign a code of conduct fell apart last year when according to Shetland Fishermen’s Association executive officer Simon Collins the flagships pulled out at the last minute. The SFA and the Scottish White Fish Producers Organisation were to have been the signatories from the Scottish end.
The deal would have seen a seasonal exclusion of the gill netters from waters shallower than 200m. It was apparently rejected by the flagships as it would have applied to Scottish vessels only and not bind the many different nationalities that trawl the area. Mr Collins has called for the government to step in and get the parties around the table again given the increasing seriousness of the situation.
He said: “There’s no law-breaking going on as such, they have a right to fish there, but their gear takes up a colossal amount of space and our boats can involuntarily trawl over it, which makes a bad day for both vessels.”
Skipper of the Allison Kay James Anderson called for separation zones between the static gear and trawlers, similar to that imposed in Faroese waters to avoid conflict between the sectors.
He said: “They have completely bombed out the west side and the Pobie Bank, but the biggest problem is at Flugga. It’s a proper disaster.
“This has been a problem for a while and I think it is getting worse. It goes back to the cuts that were made to the fleet after 2000 when there was a fairly big fleet of boats fishing off the west side of Shetland. A lot of these boats were decommissioned and the fleet is now a lot smaller.
“We used to see them [the flagships] in deeper water and they did not bother us. The last few years they have come in where we fish and they are taking an awful lot of fish as well.”
Mr Anderson said that in the past the sheer number of trawlers would have made it very difficult for the netters to operate on the same grounds, but now the tables had turned. “Historically, it’s always been trawled by wis.”
Twin-rig trawlers were being squeezed out and were now having to encroach on other grounds that were traditionally used by seine-netters.
He said that the large flagships were “very intimidating if you come near their nets”. In one incident, a netter had come to within a few feet of the Allison Kay when the skipper thought the trawler was endangering his nets.
“This would never happen in Spain if we went down there and started mucking up their ships.”
Communication is another problem with many of the Spaniards having poor English and, the Shetland fishermen claim, deliberately failing to understand.
Gary Masson, chief executive of the Northern Fish Producers Organisation, which administers quota for one of the flagships, Magan D, said that the problem cut both ways and that the netters would, of course, fish where they got the best catch.
From his own days as a trawlerman, he could recall static nets being trawled over both deliberately and unintentionally.
He said that he had been aware of incidents and one skipper had complained that his gear had been towed away. He had raised this with the SFA but had never received a reply. He also said that the netters only operate seasonally “from May to July”.
According to Mr Masson, communication is the key to avoiding future conflict. “The problem is communication and the channels of communication have been set in stone for a long time. If the skippers do not communicate with each other there is nothing much we can do about it.”
He added that a restriction on fishing deep waters, based on a “flawed” scientific report, was heaping additional pressure on the netters, as they were being deprived of their traditional grounds.
Skipper of the Defiant Gordon Irvine said that the Spaniards were squaring off whole areas of inshore grounds and the local boats “just had to bide clear.”
He added: “This has been going on for years and we are just gradually being shoved off our own grounds. They have ruined it all.”
Mr Irvine said that the Tahume had just “ruled off a great piece of bottom” that trawlers would be trying to catch ling or pollack on the hard ground.
He added that the local fleet did not have the clout to get the French and the other nations involved in an international deal, but that the Scottish fisheries department must have the power to sort out a territorial dispute between two sets of UK flagged vessels.
Mr Irvine said: “The chances of wis doing this in Spain are non-existent – you cannot even begin to imagine it. If we tried what they are getting away with, we’d be run to the bottom.”
Mr Irvine claimed that the fishery cruisers left the flagships well alone and were much more likely to harass local fishing boat.