Russian supertrawlers off Scottish coast spark fears for UK marine life

Environmentalists call for crackdown on ‘destructive’ vessels after fleet spotted

A fleet of Russian supertrawlers has been spotted fishing off the coast of Scotland in a protected area, raising concerns by environmentalists over the impact of industrial vessels on marine life in UK waters.

The 11 vessels, among the largest trawlers in the world, have spent “significant time” fishing in the Wyville-Thomson Ridge, a British special area of conservation (SAC), according to data analysed by Greenpeace.

The vessels, each more than 100 metres long and capable of processing hundreds of tonnes of fish every day, are believed to be targeting blue whiting, a pelagic species that lives in midwater.

The fleet is operating legally, according to the Scottish government. The area, to the west of the Shetland Islands, is within waters shared by the UK and the Faroe Islands. It is managed jointly, but governed by the Faroese government under a special treaty. Its designation as a SAC by the European Union does not prevent commercial fishing in the area.

Environmentalists condemned the “destructive” practices of supertrawlers and called on the UK government to better regulate their activities to protect marine life.

Chris Thorne, an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK, called for a ban on supertrawlers in UK marine protected areas. He said: “While the UK is in lockdown, this fleet of destructive supertrawlers has been plundering fish from what is supposed to be a protected area in UK waters.

“The intensity with which these vast ships fish is not compatible with a healthy ocean. They drag vast nets, up to one-mile long, in their wake hoovering up fish and other marine life and disturbing the entire water column.”

“If the UK government wants to be taken seriously as a world leader in marine protection, it must do more to restrict and regulate the activities of the international supertrawler fleet, and support small scale, sustainable fishing communities.”

Lockdown measures and a drop in the fish export market due to coronavirus has forced many of the UK’s small scale, more sustainable fishing boats to tie up at port, unable to work.

The Wyville-Thomson ridge SAC sits on reef at the edge of Scotland’s continental shelf. It “supports diverse biological communities representative of hard substratum in deep water” according to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

John Hourston, a volunteer with the Blue Planet Society, which campaigns against the bycatch of dolphins in fishing nets, called for better monitoring and more regulation.

“These factory trawlers can stay at sea for weeks. They have nets with mouths that could swallow three jumbo jets. The problem is dolphins feed on these fish in midwater when they aggregate to spawn,” he said.

“You drag a net through these fish and you will also catch what is feeding on them. There needs to be more regulation around the pelagic supertrawler fleet.”

Studies have shown high bycatch rates of dolphins in pelagic trawlers targeting blue whiting and European sea bass in the Bay of Biscay.

A spokesman for the Scottish government said while the SAC was within the UK continental shelf limit of the seabed, the responsibility of the waters above it were joint.

“We are aware that a multinational fleet is legitimately operating in shared waters under the Faroese government’s authority, and has done for a number of years,” he said. “They are targeting blue whiting, a species caught with nets that do not contact the seabed.”

It was monitoring the vessels, via marine protection patrol boats and electronic surveillance, “to ensure there are no infringements and none have strayed into areas that are exclusively within UK fishery limits or the Scottish zone”, he said.

Earlier this month, conservation groups expressed alarm over lower levels of surveillance of fishing operations during the coronavirus pandemic after lobbying from fishing fleets.

Several companies operating the trawlers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.


Karen McVeigh

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Fears for wildlife as Boris Johnson accused of failing to keep policy pledges
Campaigners say nature in England faces ‘perfect storm of threats’ with eight promised bills yet to appear

Helena Horton Environment reporter

20, Jun, 2022 @10:06 AM

Article image
Cutting the food chain? The controversial plan to turn zooplankton into fish oil
A budding industry that aims to catch zooplankton for health supplements and fish food has scientists fearing that its effects on marine ecosystems could be devastating

Regin Winther Poulsen in Tórshavn

19, Jan, 2022 @6:45 AM

Article image
Cod almighty: how a ‘mythical’ Faroes delicacy has vanished
A giant cod that was once a fishing staple is now so rare it has become the preserve of a few fine diners

Regin Winther Poulsen

13, May, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Iceland accused of putting mackerel stocks at risk by increasing its catch
Leaked document says fishing surge in international waters poses long-term risks

Jon Henley Europe correspondent

21, Nov, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
Salmon firm’s plan to fly fish in its own Boeing 757 alarms campaigners
Faroese firm Bakkafrost claims direct flights to US will cut carbon but critics say air transport is not the answer

Severin Carrell Scotland editor

21, Jun, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Atlantic overfishing was already a problem. Then Brexit happened
An investigation by the Guardian, NDR, WDR and Süddeutsche Zeitung shows fish stocks being depleted in the north-east Atlantic – because there’s no system to agree on quotas

Regin Winther Poulsen and Agostino Petroni

26, Oct, 2022 @4:00 PM

Article image
Scotland’s defenders of the seas: the volunteers standing up for sea life
An unofficial network of fishers, divers and scientists are banding together to stop illegal fishing and curb coastal destruction

Karen McVeigh

24, Sep, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
UK to trial ‘highly protected marine areas’ in win for ocean campaigners
‘Historic’ move to ban destructive fishing methods in five habitats welcomed, but conservationists say change must come faster

Karen McVeigh

09, Jun, 2021 @10:54 AM

Article image
Video reveals devastation from scallop dredging on ‘protected’ Scottish seabed
Campaigners say marine protected area set up to save UK’s only fan mussels exists merely as a ‘paper park’

Karen McVeigh

06, Oct, 2022 @10:07 AM

Article image
EU slammed over failure to protect marine life from ‘destructive’ fishing
Strict no-take policies urged by scientists, who note there is less protection in 59% of marine protected areas than outside MPAs

Karen McVeigh

12, Sep, 2022 @4:16 PM