Devon fury over lack of action on Belgian fishers –

Devon fury over lack of action on Belgian fishers Published:  23 August, 2007

John Butterwith

A FISHERMEN’s leader has voiced anger at the UK Government’s unwillingness to curb the activity of Belgian trawlers operating with otter trawls inside the 12-mile limit.

And, in an open letter to Jonathan Shaw, the UK’s new Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for fisheries, John Butterwith the chief executive of the North Devon Fishermen’s Association accuses the Government of effectively turning a blind eye to UK fishermen’s legitimate interests for fear of upsetting other EU member states.

Mr Butterwith writes that after allowing a necessary transition period for Mr Shaw to settle into his new portfolio as the minister responsible for among other things, the commercial fishing industry, he wrote on July 30 to congratulate him on his appointment.

In the same letter, he brought to his attention the continuing presence of Belgian beam trawlers who tow otter trawls from their beams in order to fish up to the six mile limits by way of historical rights.

It was highlighted to Mr Shaw that the association had been making headway with his predecessor, Ben Bradshaw after corresponding for over twelve months, and it was hoped that Mr Shaw would continue the good relationship so that they did not start with a “blank piece of paper”.

But Mr Butterwith said he was now incensed by a reply from a fisheries department “employee” on the Belgian trawler issue which said that while the Government fully understands the wish to protect fish stocks in our waters and ensure that the UK obtains suitable benefit from them, in order to prevent converted otter trawlers from fishing in our six to 12 mile zone, the UK would have to consult the Commission, the Member State concerned and the relevant Regional Advisory Council.

The reply from the Defra official went on: “As the Belgian fishing activity you highlight in your letter is not illegal under current legislation, it would be difficult to persuade these bodies to agree to a request to ban this activity, even on conservation grounds. This could be a lengthy process and one that sours our relations with our European fishing partners.”

But Mr Butterwith counters in his open letter to Mr Shaw: “There you have it summed up for all the British fishermen to see what they already know. You will not do anything for fear of ‘souring your relations’.

“As for fishing partners, they are the competition. Try telling the skippers of 12m fishing trawlers that the French are their partners when they are forced to pair trawl outside the 12 mile limit in inhospitable conditions, only to see the massive French pair trawlers fishing into the six mile limit under historic rights. Not only has the British offshore fishing industry been decimated, you will clearly not be happy until there is nothing left whatsoever.”

Mr Butterwith contended that this official’s assertion, which as he said, formed part of the response to an association letter to the new minister sums up the attitude emanating from Defra.

“And despite all the requests for dialogue with the fishermen, and our willingness to embark on consultation documents and fishery science partnerships, I for one, consider that she has done irreparable damage, the like of which has not been demonstrated since Edward Heath gave away a truly national resource.”

Mr Buttwerwith added that he had written on July 3, 2006, highlighting that two Belgian beam trawlers had landed 600 and 500 boxes of fish into Swansea, and a large proportion of it would have been ray – a non pressure stock which makes up 50% of the landings into north Devon by the indigenous boats. In Mr Bradshaw’s reply, he stated that trials were being conducted by two Belgian beam trawlers, with the aid of Belgian Government subsidies, to determine whether towing otter trawls would be more cost effective for vessels with a high fuel demand. He further stated that the trials had not proved cost effective and that the owners would not be able to sustain the fishing method for much longer.

“To date, one year on, we have five Belgian beam trawlers fishing up to the six mile limit – mainly off the south Wales coast, and the MFA have informed me that twelve are equipped to do so. The effort is clearly rising,” Mr Butterwith asserted.

Mr Butterwith tells Mr Shaw in his letter that he hopes that he is up to the job, given the fast approaching year end Council of Ministers and it was very unfortunate for him that a “Defra employee” has nailed the colours to the mast.

“But at least we are all clear as to exactly what we can expect from this Government…”

And as it was the Minister’s wish to meet many people, he was invited to the port of Appledore to see first hand the investment in new craft, and the £3.4M fish dock upgrade.

“Maybe you can be convinced that we do have a future, and we are worth fighting for. You never know, maybe you could spread a little sugar on any soured relations which may occur during your fight to represent us as we clearly expect,” he concluded. is published by Special Publications. Special Publications also publish FISHupdate magazine, Fish Farmer, the Fish Industry Yearbook, the Scottish Seafood Processors Federation Diary, the Fish Farmer Handbook and a range of wallplanners.