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Marine / Cabinet secretary defends Marine Scotland’s fishing vessel boarding policy

Isles MP accuses agency of ‘wilful blindness’ while SFA demands to see all the data

The Marine Scotland vessel Jura shadowing a large Dutch trawler south of Lerwick harbour in January 2019. Photo: Shetland News

SCOTLAND’s newly appointed cabinet secretary for rural affairs and the islands Mairi Gougeon has claimed it would be “inaccurate to suggest” that government agency Marine Scotland actively avoids inspecting foreign vessels.

Her statement, made in a letter to Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael last month, is in stark contrast to reports coming from those working the fishing grounds around the isles.

Carmichael meanwhile said the organisation, formerly known as the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency, showed a “wilful blindness” when enforcing fishing rules, in particular with regards to Spanish and French vessels.

Fishermen and politicians will have the chance to discuss the issue face to face with Gougeon next week when she makes her first visit to the isles in her new role, which she took on from Fergus Ewing after the May election.

Chief officer of the Shetland Fishermen’s Association (SFA) Simon Collins said the issue of intimidation of local fishermen by EU vessels and the absence of enforcement by Marine Scotland is worse now compared to when he started representing the local industry almost ten years ago.

The long running saga of allegations of unfair treatment by the country’s own fisheries protection inspectors surfaced once again last week when a fresh video clip of a close encounter between a local trawler and a foreign crewed long-liner emerged amidst claims that lives had to be lost before the government was prepared to step in.

Carmichael has raised the issue many a time and in a letter written just weeks after her appointment as cabinet secretary Gougeon said the number of boardings and inspections of foreign vessels were lower because the domestic fleet was much larger.

“Comparatively speaking”, she wrote, “ there will always be less physical inspections where there is a smaller number of vessels to inspect.”

She added: “Marine Scotland take a ‘Risk Based’ approach towards boarding and inspections.

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“Where there is information or intelligence to suggest wrongdoing in a particular area or by a particular vessel, these are deemed as a higher risk and therefore would be a higher priority for inspection. Our assets will prioritise their inspections based on risk.

“Whilst I appreciate your point of view [Carmichael’s] and feedback, It would be inaccurate to suggest Marine Scotland actively avoid inspecting foreign vessels.”

Carmichael said one Brexit related hope he had was that the UK and Scottish governments would be able to properly enforce safe and sustainable fishing practices in UK waters.

Responding to last week’s video which was posted here and shared by many on social media, Carmichael said: ”I see no improvement, and in fact in many ways it looks worst now than it has ever been.

And he warned against not taking these allegations seriously: “I hear it from so many [in the fishing industry] that I am certainly not prepared to dismiss it, and I don’t think anyone else should.”

Collins meanwhile called on the Scottish Government to publish the figures that would back up Marine Scotland’s stance, because “the figures that we do have don’t say that”.

“It is not what the men are seeing and it is not what the figures we have suggest,” he said.

And referring to a Freedom of Information request made in 2018, Collins said data made available at the time suggested that UK vessels are being inspected disproportionally often.

Councillor challenges Marine Scotland on fishing boat inspections

“If you Marine Scotland are saying you are not disproportional, then let’s have the figures, (…) because the figures we do have, that were released under that Freedom of Information request, on any reading, don’t look like it. It is hard to conclude anything else,” he said.

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