EU fishermen are plundering UK waters during coronavirus
Scores of Spanish and French boats swarming in Scottish waters are "capitalising" on the coronavirus pandemic with local vessels current limiting their activities, risking similar scenes to 2018's 'scallop wars', a fishing boss has warned.
Mike Park, Chief Executive Officer of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association (SWFPA), was speaking in the midst of a crisis which has seen Scottish fishermen limit their activities in a bid to protect the market. However, he warned of rising levels of frustration at the encroachment by foreign ships, while voicing his hope and belief things would improve after the end of the year, provided Boris Johnson does not extend the Brexit transition period. Mr Park, who was himself involved in talks aimed at calming the fiery confrontations two years ago, said: "Over time what we have seen is a polarisation of non-UK vessels moving north into Scottish seas.
"There are a number of reasons for that but the predominant reason for French line and gill net vessels moving north is there is a parasite entity in the flesh of the fish further south and that reduces the price.
"So what we have seen is the movement of these vessels further north into Scottish waters.
"And that is leading to confrontation in what is a relatively small area, a very small area west of Shetland and north-east of Shetland.
"And we have seen an influx of these Spanish and French vessels.
"These vessels are putting nets in the water that are up to 12 miles long and they are static in the sea and they are saying to our vessels: 'Well you've got to stay out of the area haven't you?'
"What they do is almost commandeer all these areas."
Park added: "That's been compounded by the fact that over this last while, with the COVID-19 situation, the Shetland fleet has reorganised themselves into two fleets to moderate fish landings for the market and they have been operating at sea for 15 days each.
"And now, for the month of May, all the Scottish fishing vessels have agreed to tie up for eight days in a month.
"What that does mean is they have less vessels at sea at any one time and what we are now finding is these vessels are moving into the areas previously occupied by Scottish ships and they are refusing to move from the area until our vessels come back out again."
To illustrate his point, Mr Park said in general, roughly 130 vessels a year were generally spotted fishing in the area, in addition to just of 80 Scottish boats.
However, he said: "Currently there are 75 non-UK vessels operating to the west and north of Scotland.
"That's a massive amount of vessels is they are all working gill net and lines up to 12 miles in length."
"Vessels we have the most problems with are either French or Spanish, or Spanish vessels flagged through France to give them access to the North Sea.
"So we are seeing a tremendous influx of these Spanish and French vessels in the area, primarily to get a better quality of fish."
In a clear illustration of the anger which many fishermen are feeling, he added: "The recent incident with them moving into our areas we see as gaming.
"In the midst of a crisis situation, we've put in measures to try and protect the markets and this is woeful gaming.
"We are tied up and they are just free-riding on the back on the problems we have. They are capitalising on the COVID situation.
"I was in the midst of the scallop wars - I was one of the UK negotiators.
"Tensions do run high without a shadow of a doubt.
"We are all trying to avoid at-sea incidents - no-one wants accidents.
"On many occasions some of these foreign vessels will work with you but on other occasions they just say my gear is in the water, stay away."
Given nothing illegal was happening, Mr Park said he was involved in ongoing attempts to find a resolution - with limited success.
He said: "We met down in Spain last year and tried to come to some corcordat, in terms of an agreement of understanding about how we should go about this, leaving corridors for our vessels to move between areas.
"I've already sent an email to the Spanish Fishermen's Association asking them to accept that this is a very severe situation in Scotland and asking them to respect the fact that if we are putting in measures to protect ourselves and we do not expect them to free-ride on the back of that.
"Nobody has primacy over the sea and fishermen of the UK and certainly of Scotland have operated together well.
"Nobody in Scotland operates with gill nets and lines because it consumes vast amounts of the sea.
"It's the gear type they use and that's fine if we can come up with agreements where we all work together but in many cases they do not want to hear.
Little or nothing could be done during the actual transition phase, Mr Park acknowledged.
He explained: "We will continue to try and liaise with them and try and find some workable solution to the issue.
"But as far as we see it one of the main problems is the sheer amount of vessels operating in the area."
However, referring to the UK's exit from the EU - and the Common Fisheries Policy - next year, he added: "One would imagine if all goes well for us in terms of the sea of opportunity they will have significantly less fish to catch in the Scottish seas, and as a result there should be less activity.
"You can understand our frustration - we are limiting our activity yet you have got foreign vessels operating as they are.
"I'm not suggesting these vessels are not fishing within their quota - but it is the type of fishing that they are carrying out."