Tuesday 21 May 2024
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Marine / Government commitments on maritime safety welcomed

Fishing vessel

NORTHERN Isles MP Alistair Carmichael and the Shetland Fishermen’s Association have welcomed concessions made by the government on maritime safety.

One commitment from transport minister Guy Opperman was to ensure there is a designated person within the Maritime and Coastguard Agency [MCA] to receive reports of maritime safety incidents.

It comes after video footage emerged last year which showed French-registered Antonio Maria coming dangerously close to local whitefish trawler Defiant in seas east of Unst.

There were allegations that the Antonio Maria tried to foul the Defiant’s propeller.

It was not the first instance of its kind, with Shetland fishermen long complaining about being forced out of their traditional grounds by a fleet of foreign owned gill netters.

These vessels are fishing legally in Scottish waters, even after the UK left the European Union and with it the Common Fisheries Policy.

Scottish and UK authorities have always maintained that they have no powers to interfere and investigate as jurisdiction outside the 12-mile zone sites with the flag state.

A debate, initiated by Carmichael, was held at Westminster on Wednesday to discuss solutions to repeated unsafe actions by non-local fishing vessels in the waters around the Northern Isles.

The MP made several requests during his speech, which were agreed to by Opperman.

These included:

  • To release the report sent by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to French authorities regarding the Antonio Maria incident in October 2023
  • To ensure there is a “designated person” within the MCA to receive reports of such incidents to streamline the process
  • To undertake greater diplomatic efforts via the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
  • To ensure that the MCA works more closely with Marine Scotland in their shared remit
  • To look at the granting of licenses subject to “safe and responsible” behaviour in the UK EEZ
  • To advocate as a government for reforms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

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Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael. photo: Shetland News

Speaking afterwards, Carmichael said: “This debate was encouraging as a step forward.

“I was gratified that the minister appears to take these matters seriously and made a number of concessions, though it remains to be seen if these will be delivered.

“Even taken on its own, the commitment to release the report on the Antonio Maria incident of last year will be welcomed by local fishermen.

“This commitment must be acted upon urgently so that we can get a better idea of what the MCA has been doing – or not doing – on this issue.

“Ultimately there is still far more we need to see from the government. Other countries are able to discourage this sort of behaviour – all we have been lacking here in the UK is the political will.”

A spokesperson for Shetland Fishermen’s Association said: “With political will and co-operation – both between governments, and between governmental departments – we hope that some solution will be found that helps prevent, or at least properly penalises, these unsafe actions at sea.”

Speaking during the debate, Opperman said there were “very serious potential consequences” from the Antonio Maria incident.

He stressed his “utter condemnation” of the actions of the boat’s crew.

The MP added said: “The first key ask is that there should be sight of the letter that was written in October. Of course that can happen; I am surprised it has not.

“That will happen within a matter of weeks and will be shared with the Shetland Fishermen’s Association and the Right Honourable Gentleman.

“Secondly, he asked for a designated person within the MCA to receive reports. I think the devil is in the detail on this, but fundamentally I am going to make sure that there is a designated individual who is the nominated person for receipt.

“Active phone lines and things like that are more complicated to establish, but I take the point on board.

“The third point that the right hon. Gentleman raised was in respect of the MCA working more closely with Marine Scotland. I am sure they work together already, but I am going to make very sure that they meet within the next month, and that there is an ongoing dialogue and discussion with all devolved nations and devolved organisations so that we are utterly joined up and as one.

“If this kind of activity is allowed to take place off the shores of Shetland, eventually there will be a serious accident. I will also do my bit to raise this with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, so that it too has an understanding of what is going forward.

“The right hon. Member talked about the long-term reform, which will be to the United Nations’ law of the sea. That is clearly difficult, but not impossible.

“Having better penalties and more draconian action on consequences has to be the way forward. As a Government we take the view that that process should start now, and I give him and his constituents that assurance.”

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