Prawn fishing in the Minch could be closed by the end of the summer due to an influx of large fishing boats from the East of Scotland ‘plundering’ the fishing grounds.
This would leave much of the local fishing fleet tied up for the last four months of the year and see production cease at the islands’ shellfish processing plants.
Local fishermen are hugely concerned that the uncontrolled increase in prawn trawl effort on the West coast will leave them without sufficient time allowed at sea to see them through to the end of the year.
There is a limited amount of prawn fishing permitted in the Minch measured by what is called kilowatt days at sea (power of the vessel’s engine (as a proxy for catching capacity) multiplied by the number of days at sea).
This means that the quota will be used up much more quickly with bigger, faster vessels operating 24 hours a day and could mean the quota is met as soon as September.
Western Isles Fishermens Association have written an urgent letter to the local MP and MSP urging them to use their influence to instigate management measures to prevent early closure.
The Association are also concerned about changes to the rules regarding the use of highly selective gear which could see even more East coast vessels coming West.
In a letter to Alasdair Allan MSP and Angus MacNeil MP, Duncan Macinnes, Secretary of the Western Isles Fishermens Association states that the official figures for the effort between February and April show an increase of 57 per cent from last year and project an uptake of controlled effort of 135 per cent.
He states: “Clearly, the above effort increase presents the prawn fishery on the West Coast of Scotland with the highest ever risk of over-fishing and early closure since it was developed nearly 50 years ago.”
Local fishermen are also worried about the effect of the over-fishing on the environment and many are calling for horsepower limits on boats fishing the area.
They believe the large tonnage freezer vessels are disturbing large boulders from the seabed causing more hazards for smaller vessels and damaging the prawns spawning grounds.
Mr Macinnes added: “Those grounds are going to take years to recover from the damage caused by those large vessels and the only control measure to rectify that marine damage would be the introduction of a maximum gross registered tonnage for vessels fishing in shallow inshore waters. A maximum tonnage already exists on roads where large lorries are known to have caused damage.”
The situation has also drawn attention to the fact that many of the large East coast boats are crewed by non EU fishermen on transit visas. Many non EU nationals used to work on the West coast vessels but were sent home because they did not fit the criteria for this area. Those who remain are paying taxes to the UK Government.
The situation has exasperated Donald Maclean of Barratlantic. His business has seven fishing boats working out of Barra who supply their processing plant on the island which employs a further 50 people.
He believes strongly that there should be horsepower restrictions in the Minch.
“If the fishing closes early, what would the community do?” he asked. “There is a possibility this is going to happen and the Scottish Government is doing nothing about it.”
He added that the non EU crew members on the West coast were paying taxes and contributing to the UK economy unlike those on the East coast vessels who should be fishing most of the time in international waters.
“It is a small fishing ground and they are plundering it,” he said adding that the boats were like hoovers working 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Lewis fisherman Iain Murray, of the FV Comrade said it was ‘sickening’ to see this situation.
He added that the West coast boats could not relocate to the North Sea in the winter as their boats were too small to work the offshore grounds there.
Other local fisherman have written to the MP individually voicing their strong concerns.
Finlay Macdonald, who owns a trawler fishing boat operating out of Stornoway and Harris said: “This doomsday scenario, which is entirely possible, would be a total disaster for everyone in the islands, ashore and afloat, connected with the industry.
“Factories would have no supplies, fishermen no work, the big Christmas prices for prawns, which are a major boost to the local economy, would be irrelevant as no one would be allowed to catch them.
“Foreign markets which have taken years of hard work to establish would be lost.”
Mr Macneil and Mr Allan have now written to the Fisheries Minister Richard Lochhead to drive home the concerns of the local fishing industry.
Mr Macneil said the seriousness of the situation ‘could not be underestimated’ and called for horsepower limits on boats fishing in the inshore waters.
“I am calling on Mr Lochhead to get some sustainable management into the fishery and to ensure that jobs are protected.
“Fishermen in Harris are equally concerned and see their livelihoods evaporating after two thirds of the year.”
He added: “What is happening now is manifestly failing the local West Coast fishermen of the Hebrides and their communities which have recently been described as some of the most vulnerable in Scotland.”
Mr Allan said: “A number of fishermen have raised with me the issue of larger vessels from elsewhere which are prawn trawling off the Western Isles and west coast of Scotland generally.
“If there is such unrestricted effort allowed in areas which are traditionally used by local prawn trawl fishermen, this gives me some concern.
“The size of most local vessels means there is no prospect of them going further afield to compensate. These are issues which I have raised this week with Fisheries Minister Richard Lochhead.”
Despite the urgent concerns being expressed, the Scottish Government do not appear to be taking any immediate action.
A spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is aware of industry concerns about unusually intense fishing in waters to the West of Scotland at the moment, and possible knock on effects over days at sea allocations.
“A lack of prawns in North Sea fishing grounds has caused some displacement of fishing activities into the west.
“Marine Scotland is continuing to monitor this situation carefully and assess whether the impact is a short-term problem or likely to continue over the course of the year.
“The issue was discussed at the meeting of the Fisheries Management and Conservation Group (FMAC) last week and Marine Scotland has agreed to take forwad discussions with industry experts on any likely action to mitigate the situation.”