An Irish fishing boat has been blocked from entering the 12-mile zone around Rockall by a Scottish patrol vessel, as post-Brexit restrictions on European fishermen’s access to UK waters have been enforced for the first time.
Jura, a fishery patrol vessel operated by Marine Scotland, arrived at the North Atlantic island on January 1, the day after the Brexit transition period ended.
Its crew members boarded the Northern Celt, a Donegal fishing boat, on Monday as it prepared to cast its nets. The skipper Adrian McClenaghan was awarded a temporary licence to fish in UK waters, but warned that as an EU vessel his boat was not permitted to fish within 12 nautical miles of the territory.
Mr McClenaghan told RTÉ News: “We were fishing in Rockall and members of the crew from the Jura boarded us. They informed us that we could no longer fish inside the 12-mile limit of Rockall.”
He added that the fish netted in the disputed waters accounted for 30 per cent of his annual catch, a proportion he could not afford to give up.
The UK declares territorial sovereignty over Rockall, an uninhabited granite islet that is an 11-hour boat ride from the Outer Hebrides. The claim is disputed by the Irish Government.
Scottish, UK and Irish authorities are in contact over the incident. Mr McClenaghan said he awaited an update from the Irish Government on its next move. The Scottish patrol boat Jura remains in the area.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “One Irish vessel was routinely inspected outside of territorial waters around Rockall. The master requested clarification on the access rights granted by his licence to fish in UK waters.”
Eyebrows were raised in Westminster at the Scottish government, which has vociferously opposed the UK’s departure from the bloc, making such swift use of rights defined by Boris Johnson’s Brexit trade and fisheries deal.
David Davis, former Brexit Secretary, told The Telegraph: “It is extraordinarily ironic that the Scottish government has been the first to expel an EU vessel from British waters.
“Of course, if that same government had had its way, we would still have been under the Common Fisheries Policy, and it would have been Scottish fishermen being bossed around by the Europeans.”
The Scottish fishing industry welcomed Marine Scotland’s move. Mike Park, chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association, said: “It’s heartening to see the Scottish Government standing up for our morals on this issue.”
He said that while there had been “ambiguity” about some aspects of the law regarding the right of EU vessels to fish in the 12 miles off Rockall previously, it was now clear cut under the terms of the Brexit fisheries deal.
“We are now a sovereign state in our own right. EU vessels have access for the next five and half years, but only within the 12-mile limit in areas that were agreed in the deal. That included areas in the Bristol Channel and the English Channel. There were no other areas agreed,” he said.
“It’s that restriction that the Irish are now seeking to break. If they fish in these waters [off Rockall], it amounts to illegal catches, which is something the EU itself is dead against.”
Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs told RTÉ News: “We are aware of contact between an Irish fishing vessel and a Marine Scotland patrol vessel on 4 January. We are in contact with the Scottish and UK authorities on this.”
The incident emerged as campaigners said ineffectual EU protection for marine conservation areas must be beefed up post Brexit, as they are being targeted by trawlers.
The fishing boats operate in all but one offshore marine protected area designed to protect the seabed in UK waters, research has found, as scientists say the practice is damaging a valuable carbon store that could help attain climate goals.
Figures compiled by the Marine Conservation Society show that bottom trawling took place in 98 per cent of offshore Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in UK waters between 2015 and 2018, which have been identified as needing protection due to the ecological importance of their seabeds.
Bottom trawling, which involves dragging weighted nets across the sea floor, is currently banned in just five per cent of MPAs, leading to accusations that the designation is meaningless.
Between 2015 and 2018 ships that carry out bottom trawling and dredging spent at least 89,894 hours fishing the seabed in MPAs, the charity said.
“Prior to Brexit, the UK had attempted to implement management measures that were either rejected or diminished by other member states with a declared fishing interest in UK sites under the EU Common Fisheries Policy,” the charity’s report said.
As well as disrupting seabed habitats for species including mussels and oysters, trawling is thought to be detrimental to efforts to combat climate change.
A study last year by Defra agency Cefas (Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science) concluded that offshore seabed sediments are as important as forests as a carbon store.
It predicted costs of up to $12.5 billion (£9.2 billion) over 25 years from the release of carbon from seabed sediment due to disturbance from activities including trawling.