The following article by David Linkie appeared in Fishing News for week ending 24 July

Mallaig is one of the busiest harbours on the west coast of Scotland, where local and seasonal visiting boats, mainly traditional inshore vessels, land catches with an annual value of nearly £10m, more than 50% of which comes from prawns. Without warning Mallaig has suddenly found itself facing a very uncertain future and a fight for survival by MPA proposals.

This situation will come as a direct consequence of the management measures for The Small Isles Marine Protected Area (MPA) that the Scottish Government propose to implement in just over 3 months’ time on 1st November. (An extension has been granted from the original proposed date for implementation of 1st October) If imposed, the measures will immediately prevent boats fishing in areas that for decades have yielded a large proportion of their annual grossing.

Spending time in Mallaig to cover the recent Mission Gala Day (Fishing News 3rd July), which was also expected to result in a general port profile feature, had been scheduled since the beginning of this year, when the date for the charity weekend was confirmed.

Understandably, having arrived in Mallaig just seven days after Scottish Fisheries Minister Richard Lochhead had announced the proposed management measures for The Small Isles MPA, this subject was repeatedly raised by local and visiting skippers and their representatives and overshadowed the intended general overview feature.

“The ability to find some degree of shelter from prevailing south to west gales in the vicinity of The Small Isles is of crucial importance to the Mallaig fleet, some of which take around 70% of their annual grossing from these traditional grounds.”

“Although the Mallaig fleet, together with the west coast of Scotland fleet in general is considerably smaller today than it was ten years ago, it continues to be of vital socio-economic importance to the local remote community.”

The feelings of anger, disbelief and frustration expressed by skippers at Mallaig (together with their colleagues at other harbours similarly affected by other MPA proposals along the west coast of Scotland) were made abundantly clear in numerous conversations on extremely wet quays. One topic dominated discussion, namely the proposed management measures that would prevent local fishermen from using mobile gear in the vicinity of The Small Isles (Eigg, Rum, Canna and Muck), where the islands regularly provide valuable shelter from frequent gales.

If the Scottish Government’s proposal to ban the use of mobile gear in the vicinity of The Small Isles is implemented, the Mallaig fleet, together with seasonal visiting trawlers, will be displaced from a large number of their traditional prawn tows.

In the same way scallop vessels will be banned from safe and viable fishing grounds that has confused many fishermen given that scalloping is likely to be relatively protected from the landing obligations. The feeling is amongst fishermen that other fishing opportunities should be made available to fishermen if the discards ban turns out to be particularly problematic for inshore west coast fishermen and fishing for scallops would have been an ideal candidate.

Some indication of the scale of the potential loss skippers at Mallaig are facing is given by the fact that, in the week immediately following the shock announcement, prawns with an estimated value of nearly £100,000 were landed at Mallaig as the summer fishery started to come on from grounds that could in future be no go areas.

While concerns in relation to the practical implications of the MPA proposals, including financial viability and crew/vessel safety, were regularly voiced, skipper after skipper also condemned the Government for the manner in which the measures came about.

Some of the comments made were as follows:

  • “Given the much publicised stakeholder engagement, we put our trust in the consultation process, but that has turned out to be a fatal mistake.”
  • “Although numerous meetings were attended, these continually resulted in giving more away to get less.”
  • “The goalposts were constantly being shifted to our disadvantage.”
  • “Our opinions did not count.”
  • “Despite everything that we said, and the evidence we provided, the proposed measures go well beyond what is required to protect the marine environment on which we, more than anyone else are dependent, and so have a vested interest in continuing to maintain.”
  • “The only voice that the Government listened to was that of environmental NGOs.”

Such comments provide initial indication of the universal sense of frustration skippers expressed at what many now consider to have been a pointless exercise. Skippers and their representatives also underlined that the resulting loss of trust experienced will impact on other highly significant issues, including demersal landings obligation requirements that need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Without doubt, the way in which what were viewed as constructive and helpful suggestions put forward by skippers and their representatives were left on the table, has created widespread anger and distrust that will linger for a long time to come.

Already, one outcome is that skippers who have been using technical gear measures considerably in excess of those required, including 400mm SMP panels, are considering their continued use, in line with the thinking that if their Government has so little regard for the future of prawn fishing from Mallaig, why should they go above and beyond the call of duty to help in any way.

Skipper after skipper expressed a desire to protect the marine environment on which their futures depend but felt that the whole process had gone much further than what Scottish Natural Heritage had originally had advised and what Marine Scotland had indicated as proportionate.

The marine features that were listed in the SNH advice were:

  • fan mussel aggregations
  • horse mussel beds
  • burrowed mud
  • northern seafan and sponge communities
  • circalittoral sand and mud communities
  • northern featherstars
  • white cluster anemone
  • tall seapens

Unfortunately the ultimate decision took far higher percentages of the burrowed mud than the fishermen were led to believe would be necessary and has excluded scallop fishermen from non-feature fishing grounds.

Like all other west coast prawn fleets, including those at Ullapool, Gairloch, Tarbert, Campbeltown and Troon, the Mallaig fleet is comprised solely of the generally older class of inshore trawlers up to 17m LOA, most of which land every second or third day, if not each night.

As skippers pointed out, few if any of these vessels have the capability, nor can afford, to move to other areas of Scotland to fish prawns for substantial parts of the year, even if this opportunity was available, which generally is not the case. Recent fisheries management history clearly shows that displacing fishing effort for artificial reasons is inevitably counterproductive.

The ability to find some degree of shelter from prevailing south to west gales in the vicinity of The Small Isles is of crucial importance to the Mallaig fleet, some of which take around 70% of their annual grossing from these traditional grounds.

This high level of dependence is equally applicable to seasonal visiting trawlers, which traditionally include prawn boats from North Shields, Eyemouth, Pittenweem, Gourdon, Fraserburgh, Tarbert, Campbeltown and Maryport. This geographical diversity means that the fall-out from The Small Isles proposals could radiate outwards for over 200 miles.

Although the Mallaig fleet, together with the west coast of Scotland fleet in general is considerably smaller today than it was ten years ago, it continues to be of vital socio-economic importance to the local remote community.

Despite being subject to the usual seasonal variations and prolonged periods of weather disruption, the level of catches from the local prawn fishery, together with the existence of healthy stocks, continue to provide some younger skippers with sufficient confidence to modernise their business by investing in slightly more modern vessels to help them develop their fishing careers.

Within the last 12 months, three young skippers at Mallaig, Gairloch and Ullapool have made such moves. When viewed from a local perspective in an area where employment opportunities are severely limited, the importance of re-investment in the longer-term future of fishing should be welcomed and encouraged, rather than being threatened by top down management measures that for years the EU has been roundly criticised for introducing.

The widely held general consensus around Mallaig harbour is that the local (and visiting) prawn fleet has already downsized to its smallest sustainable critical mass.

Any further reduction in the number of boats currently fishing from Mallaig, which is almost inevitable if the MPA management measures are implemented in just over 2 months’ time, is expected to have a profound impact on the community of Mallaig.

Fewer boats would immediately lead to reduced quayside demand for ice and fuel, fishing gear and refrigerated lorries to transport catches, most of which go to north-east Scotland. It would only be a matter of time before this direct association with quayside services and the probable loss of jobs, began to have a knock-on effect in relation to the wider community.

The possible need for families to move away from Mallaig in order to find alternative forms of work, could lead to falling school numbers and a reduced level of business in a small community where every weekly shop or meal eaten out helps to generate income and sustain jobs for local residents, many of whom have lived in Mallaig all their lives and do not want to leave their homes unless faced with no other choice.

“The outcome of the management measures announced by the Scottish Government following what has proved to be a meaningless consultation is a severe blow for every fisherman that works around The Small Isles. Fishermen put in a lot of hard work and gave of their time to come up with a set of proposals that would have achieved the government’s aims of protecting those features identified in the MPA proposal, while allowing them continued access to their traditional grounds. However it seems that the views and assertions of the environmental lobby are more important than those who contribute heavily to our local economy in what we regard as a sustainable manner.

“The notion that because they are mobile they can simply fish elsewhere belittles the job that fishermen do and not one I would have expected from the Cabinet Secretary. Fishermen are facing up to some of the biggest challenges they have faced in a generation with the advent of the Landings Obligation and adding to this  pressure by limiting their access to grounds will speed up the pace of which some of them will head towards the exit door.”

Kevin McDonnell chief executive

West of Scotland Fish Producers Organisation

“During the consultation process we met up several times with Marine Scotland to discuss where the important tows were in the MPA areas and we really thought that we were close to having a sensible compromise position. This factored in safety, economic viability and the preservation of features. Now with a stroke of a pen all that good work has gone leaving an extremely bad taste in the mouth and an uncertain future for west coast communities.

“We will naturally put in an appeal to at least two of the Marine Conservation Orders but the recent meeting that was held with Richard Lochhead and his Marine Scotland officials gave us the strong impression that the Cabinet Secretary’s interests lie much more closely with the environmental lobby than with the fishing industry despite his many years representing fishermen. In a depressingly familiar landscape political aspirations have won the day over long term community interests”.

Tom Bryan-Brown chief executive

Mallaig & North-West Fisherman’s Association

“Fishermen fully support the principle of MPAs, but the absolutely astonishing thing about these new measures is that they have gone far beyond what is actually required to meet the twin objectives of marine conservation and sustaining a viable fishing industry.

“Our fishermen co-operated fully in the consultation process and made significant compromises and sacrifices in a bid to reach a satisfactory management arrangement to protect marine features. But in response we were kicked in the teeth and what we are now left with is gratuitous socio-economic vandalism.”

Bertie Armstrong chief executive

Scottish Fishermen’s Federation

“On leaving school two years ago, I immediately took the mandatory fishing safety courses in order to fulfil my long held ambition of becoming a crewman on my Dad’s boat Caralisa. As a fifth generation fisherman, it is difficult to sum up what this means to me (and my family) apart from that it marked the start of the only career I’ve ever wanted.

The first two years on Caralisa were challenging as I expected, but equally rewarding. Seeing a decent haul of prawns come aboard is a great feeling. So too is knowing you have played a part in repairing a badly torn net, as my knowledge and skill levels are consolidated every trip. Until the MPA management measures were announced less than a month ago, I was enjoying life, secure in the knowledge that, if I continued to work hard, a secure future lay ahead, which might one day include becoming a skipper.

“Now, at the stroke of a pen, my country’s Government is threatening to turn my dream into a nightmare. Why?”

Aaron McLean 18 year old crewman on Caralisa OB 956

MPA management measures would signal Silver Dawn tie up

“Although the Scottish Government consulted with stakeholders, it was merely a token gesture, as they certainly did not listen to stakeholders. From that experience, the only conclusion to draw is that they are just not bothered about fishermen.”

“In any one year, we usually spend 70% of our time fishing in The Small Isles MPA that the Scottish Government is proposing to close, including 40% in Canna Sound, where the shelter this regularly provides makes a highly significant contribution to Silver Dawn’s financial viability. If the ban on trawling is brought in, Silver Dawn will, without doubt, have to be tied up, as there is just no other alternative.

“Even with the option of grasping days in Canna Sound and at the back of Rhum during frequent gales, Silver Dawn is seldom at sea for 180 days a year. If prawn tows in the vicinity of The Small Isles are removed from the equation, the number of days we can fish will immediately plummet below three figures, which would signify game over. The answer is as brutal and straight forward as that.”

These are the words of Silver Dawn skipper Angus McLean, who, as a fourth generation Mallaig fisherman, has fished around The Small Isles for 35 years, including 20 years as a skipper.

Skipper Angus Mclean added, “Although the Scottish Government consulted with stakeholders, it was merely a token gesture, as they certainly did not listen to stakeholders. From that experience, the only conclusion to draw is that they are just not bothered about fishermen.

“The closed areas are a lot bigger than originally agreed or anyone expected. Given that at every meeting we attended, officials were constantly taking more as the goalposts were frequently moved, the end result is not exactly a complete surprise.

“Little more than a generation ago, ring net vessels like Silver Dawn were ten a penny at Mallaig and elsewhere along the west coast of Scotland. Now, even though we only ever work a single rig trawl, the end could be in sight.

“Much has been made about displaced boats being able to fish in other areas, but in stark reality this is not possible. Following two severe winters, I was thinking of switching over to clams towards the end of this year, but now that is no longer an option since Marine Scotland took away Silver Dawn’s scallop entitlement two months before the MPA bombshell was dropped. We are under extreme pressure from all sides and well and truly stuck between a rock and a hard place.

“The few fishing opportunities we have left are steadily being taken away one after another. Why? It can’t be to protect a bed of fantail mussels in 100 fathoms of water where nobody goes, as VMS data clearly shows.

“The proposals are more to do with removing fishermen than they are protecting marine areas.”