Exclusive Economic Zone: Maritime Safety

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 17 April 2024.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice) 11:00, 17 April 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered maritime safety breaches within the Exclusive Economic Zone.

It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Efford, and I welcome the Minister to his place. He knows that I hold him in high regard as a very effective and diligent Minister, so I hope he will not take it amiss if I say that I was a little disappointed to hear that I was not getting a reply from the Attorney General or one of her staff. In fact, when I think about it, that change highlights one of the problems we are dealing with: this is an issue in which many Government Departments have an interest but for which nobody has overall responsibility. One thing that I hope we take away from this debate is a determination that somebody takes charge of the issue.

Essentially, I want to bring the House’s attention to a matter that arises from an ongoing conflict between fishing boats that operate static gear and those that operate mobile gear. There can only be better ways of resolving those conflicts and tensions than the ones that I am about to describe for the House.

There are two particular, well-documented incidents that I want to place on the record for the benefit of the House and for the Minister’s consideration. The first took place on 11 June 2020, and involved the Shetland-registered whitefish boat the Alison Kay. Skippered by James Anderson, it was fishing 30 nautical miles to the west of Shetland. Mr Anderson describes the roots of what was about to happen thus:

“The incident occurred on the 11th of June and when the vessel in question shot his gear”— that is the Pesorsa Dos, which is a Spanish-owned but German-registered vessel—

“in the area he knew we were fishing. He chose to put his gear at risk. What he decided to do was to shoot nets”— those are gillnets of quite industrial magnitude—

“in an area known to be used by trawlers and then subsequently tell the trawlers they can’t fish here now because his gear is now there! This is simply unacceptable terms for us and we have no intention of moving away when we have every right to continue fishing.”

This is an area of sea that has been fished for decades, if not centuries, by Shetland fishermen, so we can understand Mr Anderson’s strength of feeling. The skipper of the Pesorsa Dos then proceeded to tow a rope tied to a float across the bow, which was a clear attempt to foul the Alison Kay’s propeller or steering gear. It was an act of the most incredible recklessness for which there can be no excuse. It could have led to injury or death, or the loss of either or both of the boats. Of course, it was avoided because the skipper of the Alison Kay took evasive action.

The Pesorsa Dos is a Spanish-owned gillnetter that is flagged in Germany through SeaMar, a company based in Schleswig-Holstein. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency was made aware of the incident but declined to investigate because it said that it happened outside the 12-mile limit, and the 12-mile limit is the extent of its jurisdiction. That takes us into that area of sea between the 12-mile limit and the extent of the 200-mile exclusive economic zone. Notwithstanding the MCA’s describing the incident as extremely “concerning” and saying that the

“consequences could have been extremely serious”,

it was declared that the responsibility lay with the German investigating authorities, as that was where the Pesorsa Dos was registered—Germany was the flag state.

We pursued this matter in correspondence with the German authorities but, bluntly, they were not interested, even though Germany is the flag state. Why would it be? This incident involved a conflict between a Spanish vessel and a Scottish vessel in waters hundreds of miles away from the closest point of German waters. I do not believe this sort of behaviour was ever anticipated when the United Nations convention on the law of the sea—the governing statute—was entered into, but this is the reality with which fishermen in Shetland and other parts of the United Kingdom are now having to deal.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

As the Minister knows, I represent the constituency of Strangford, which has a large fishing fleet. The right hon. Gentleman has secured a vital debate and clearly outlined the two incidents. Does he agree that the sovereign rights that exist for our fishing fleet mean that the standards we set in that zone apply to every fishing vessel, not just British ones, and that we must enforce on any vessel the appropriate safety measures rigorously and authoritatively, with extended powers if warranted by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency? In other words, all vessels are subject to the same laws.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice)

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that that is something with which I have no difficulty agreeing. The vessels are all subject to the same laws; the difficulty comes when we try to enforce them. In fact, the Irish Government have taken a rather more novel and, shall we say, direct approach from which we could probably learn some lessons.

The then Fisheries Minister, now the Attorney General, convened a Zoom call for me which had, while not exactly a cast of thousands, at least a dozen people on it. One by one, each of those people explained that although they understood the seriousness of the situation it was, in fact, always somebody else’s problem. At the end of the call, it was agreed that there would be further consideration and action would be taken, but I am afraid to say that, years later, we have heard effectively nothing since. It seems to just go from Department to Department, and is always too difficult for somebody to deal with.

For my constituents and for the fishermen working in Shetland’s waters, it continues to be a problem. On 16 October last year, the Defiant, a Lerwick-registered whitefish boat, skippered on that day by Magnus Polson, was working 18 miles east of Unst—again, within the area of water between 12 and 200 miles—when it experienced a similar incident, involving the Antonio Maria, a Spanish-owned but French-registered longliner. Mr Polson established where the long lines were and that he could operate safely without coming into conflict with the static gear, but 15 minutes later the skipper of the Antonio Maria altered his course on to a direct collision course with the Defiant. The longliner came dangerously close to the port side of the Defiant, whose crew saw two crewmen appear on the Antonio Maria and one throw a rope into water—designed, we presume, to foul the propeller. Mr Polson explained that

“due to close proximity and the endangered safety of our boat, I had no choice but to begin hauling back our gear to make room.”

A few weeks ago in Lerwick, I met the other skipper of the Defiant, Robbie Jamieson, who showed me the screen grab of the course that he had plotted in the wheelhouse of the Defiant. He also showed me where the long lines had been laid by the Antonio Maria. It was clear that the course along which the Defiant was going to tow its gear was not actually going to come into conflict with the long lines that had been set by the Antonio Maria, and would have moved somewhere to the south of them. When I raised this with the Fisheries Minister, Sir Mark Spencer, on 19 October, he described it as outrageous behaviour, and said he would certainly raise it with his ministerial colleagues. Again, we have heard precious little since. Everybody knows that it is mad, reckless and dangerous behaviour, but somehow nobody ever seems to have an answer for how to stop it.

The Maritime Coastguard Agency has forwarded its report to the French authorities for investigation. The incident happened in October, and we are now well into April and have had no response. The Shetland Fishermen’s Association has asked for the opportunity to have sight of what was sent by the MCA to the French authorities, but it has been told that it cannot have that. I wonder whether the Minister might raise that again with the MCA, because I do not see what the MCA would have to lose by publishing the report. Frankly, it would go a long way towards restoring some trust and confidence between the fishing fleet and the MCA.

Essentially, the difficulty lies in the terms of UNCLOS and the decision to vest authority for investigation and prosecution with the flag state. I do not believe this was something envisaged at the time UNCLOS was agreed, but it is now the reality with which my constituents have to live and deal. This will keep happening unless and until it is stopped. As I see it, it can stop only in one of two ways: there either has to be meaningful action to deal with it, or we wait until there is a fatality when a boat goes down and a life is lost. When that happens, all the people who come up with the good, worthy and complicated reasons as to why it is somebody else’s responsibility will be left looking pretty shame-faced and embarrassed. I do not want any one of them to turn around and say, “I wish somebody had told us about this.” They have been well warned by me today and on many previous occasions.

What can we do? There are a few quick and easy wins. The executive officer of the Shetland Fishermen’s Association said shortly after the Antonio Maria incident that there was a need for a streamlined process of reporting, with an individual designated within the MCA to receive reports. This sort of thing happens, nobody wants to know about it and fishermen get pushed from pillar to post. There needs to be a hotline—a dedicated number—that skippers can phone to report an incident. The sooner that some sort of action can be taken, the likelier it is that that action will then be effective.

I would like to see our Government pursuing the matter with a bit more vigour than they have done. We go through the motions—we tick the boxes, write the report and send it off to the German and French authorities—but then what happens? I call on the Minister to raise the issue at a diplomatic or ministerial level with his opposite numbers when such incidents happen, so that prosecuting authorities in the other flag states understand that it is something we see as being important.

We could also see much better co-operation between the MCA, which is an agency responsible to the Department for Transport here, and Scotland’s Marine Directorate, which is responsible for fisheries management issues and fishery protection in Scotland. They are the people who have boats in the water and who will be able to attend such incidents and gather the necessary evidence.

To come to the point made by Jim Shannon, fishing boats operate in the exclusive economic zone under licence, as all boats do. Surely it could be a condition of the licence that if a boat is going to fish in our waters, it does so in a way that is safe and responsible. We may not be able to prosecute for safety breaches, but we could take action to remove the boats’ licences. That is something that would concentrate the mind.

It is worth comparing the treatment of the Pesorsa Dos in 2020 in Scottish waters, or British waters, with the treatment that it received in Irish waters. The Skipper’s website from January 2023 describes what happened to the Pesorsa Dos after it was detained by the Irish Naval Service for breaches of EU fishing regulations in Irish waters. The skipper, Juan Pablo Docal Rubido, was brought before a special sitting of Bandon District Court following the detention of the vessel for alleged fishing offences.

Mr Rubido, whose vessel is Spanish owned and fishes out of La Coruña but was detained at Castletownbere, was charged with a total of 12 fishing offences on various dates between 5 January and 24 January, while fishing within the exclusive fishing limits of the state. He was charged with two logbook offences: of failing to record the proper depth that his vessel was fishing at, and failing to record the proper soak times or times that he allowed his nets to stay in the water while fishing within Irish exclusive fishing limits. He was also charged with a total of nine separate offences of allowing his nets to exceed the permitted soak times of 72 hours allowed for the gear while fishing within the exclusive fishing limits of the state, contrary to section 14 of the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006.

The best part, though, is still to come. The boat was detained. It was kept in the quayside as a consequence of action taken to seize it by the Irish authorities. The skipper himself was allowed bail on production of a bond of €5,000. The period for which the detention was to be permitted was actually extended on the application of the Irish Government. These trawlers—these massive gillnetters—are big businesses, and they only make money when they are out at sea. That old American saying, “If you get them by their reproductive organs, their hearts and minds will follow”, really characterises the way in which these people have to be tackled. The presiding judge, Colm Roberts, granted bail on Mr Rubido’s own bond of €5,000. He said:

“We have to make sure people realise how serious these matters are.”

Well, amen to that.

We are dealing with an industry that is probably the most dangerous way to make a living. Everybody knows that when fisherman go to sea, they very often put their lives at risk, and the fishermen themselves know that better than anybody else. They understand that this is a contest that sets man against nature and its elements. That risk is acceptable and understood, but setting man against man in such a way cannot be understood or excused. We have an exclusive economic zone. I suggest to the Minister and his colleagues that it is about time we understood what it means to be exclusive and to exclude those who will not use it responsibly.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 11:18, 17 April 2024

I congratulate Mr Carmichael on securing this very important debate, which touches on key matters that this country should be conscious of and anxious to ensure are observed in the right way. He put forward his case and the case of his constituents in his customary, robust and very fair tone.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I know Shetland pretty well, having visited only last summer. I nearly knew it much better because Sumburgh airport was shut when I was attempting to leave. I am acutely conscious that the waters around Shetland are among the most dangerous in the world. As he rightly put it, this is about safety first and foremost. We can have an argument about sovereignty, consequences and the fiscal intentions of certain people fishing in a particular way, but the most important thing is safety. He is right to make the case that fishing is a dangerous profession.

I put on the record my thanks to our fishing fleet for its contribution to the UK economy. In 2022, for example, UK vessels landed 640,000 tonnes of sea fish into the UK and abroad, with a value over £1 billion. With National Fishing Remembrance Day coming up on 12 May, we remember those who have lost their lives while working in fishing in the UK. It is also an opportunity to raise awareness of the dangers and how we can tackle them. I am conscious that a number of incidents—certainly the MCA is aware of three—have been reported in the last five years.

The right hon. Gentleman outlined two in particular: one on 11 June 2020; and one on 16 October last year, when the actions of the French-registered Antonio Maria were clearly very serious in respect of what happened to the Defiant—a UK and Shetland-registered vessel—approximately 16 miles off the north-east coast of Shetland. I am aware of the footage and of the commentary since, and of the very serious potential consequences. Loss of power at sea so far from shore—given the weather and its ability to change so easily, particularly in October—should not be undermined in any way. I put on the record my utter condemnation of the actions of the crew of the Antonio Maria, and of other ships that have been involved in such activity; it is not conduct that they would wish upon themselves.

Without sounding too hackneyed, everybody is in the same boat in this respect, and it is of utmost important that we try to ensure a change of behaviour. As the right hon. Gentleman knows very well, the mechanics of that are very difficult, given the implications of UNCLOS. There is a difference, is there not, between the law that applies up to 12 miles out to sea—the draconian actions that can be taken when something is within UK waters in an area that we control and have legal jurisdiction over—and what can happen outside those 12 nautical miles. The right hon. Gentleman clearly knows that there was a report of the most recent incident by the MCA, which I thank for its efforts, but I think we need to do more. I do not have a lot of time today, but I want to address some of the right hon. Gentleman’s key asks.

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 r hon. 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. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will bear with me, so I can allow the organisation to go away and think about how it will do that—not least because there needs to be link-up with actions and consequences if disasters do occur, and all organisations need to be kept informed. I totally endorse the idea of a designated person and will give instruction accordingly. If that has not happened thus far, it definitely will do going forward.

The third point that the right hon. Gentleman raised was in respect of the MCA working more closely with Marine Scotland. I have no specific comment on that in my papers. 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.

I take on board the point about licences. We clearly need to go away and think about that. I respectfully suggest that, with an arm’s length body which is not effectively controlled by Government, there is a danger that the Government then say, “Well, we actually want to try to run it ourselves.” Every Minister has such arm’s length bodies; I had many at the Department for Work and Pensions and I have them at the Department for Transport. As my dad used to say, “You don’t buy a dog and bark yourself”: we have to be in a position to let them get on with it. I will, however, invite them to do two key things: first, to have a proper sit-down with the Fisheries Minister; and, then—in my humble opinion, this is what is needed—to have the Fisheries Minister correspond and sit down with individual Ministers to ensure that there is proper understanding, because it is in all our interests that such incidents do not happen. There should be no benefit whatever.

If this kind of activity is allowed to take place off the shores of Shetland, eventually there will be a serious accident. Lives could be lost. Loss of propulsion out in the ocean, far from land, in circumstances such as in October, is just not acceptable in any way whatever, however fired up everyone is. I believe that the Fisheries Minister needs to take that forward. 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. The key point that I want to finish on is that he is right: so many institutions that we set up as individual countries post war—whether the UN and its approach to various things, the G5, the G7, the various immigration rules and regulations that we all abide by, or whatever—struggle to deal with the modern world and the modern pressures on us all. The challenge for all Governments is to adapt and improve those institutions.

I take solace in one thing: without getting into the devil in the detail, the right hon. Gentleman will know that the law of the sea was only agreed by the UN in 1956, and it was upgraded and improved in 1960, 1973 and 1982—so that can be done. Having better penalties and more draconian action on consequences has to be the way forward, and those exist, with stuff clearly going on in the South China sea and the Philippines. My assurance to him is that we will take that on board. This will be a work in progress for successive Governments, but as a Government we take the view that that process should start now, and I give him and his constituents that assurance.

I thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland for raising this issue. I ask for the forbearance and understanding of his community, who are tough and hardy folk, doing an amazing job for the islands and our country. We should be extraordinarily thankful for their service, their contribution to the economy and the delicious fish they put on our tables. We will do what we can to ensure a better system going forward, because frankly that will be in all our interests.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.