An intelligence network aimed at helping hundreds of fishermen avoid getting caught fishing illegally around Scotland’s coast has been condemned as “blatant piracy”.
Fishermen are tracking the movements of the Scottish Government’s three fisheries patrol boats, the Minna, Jura and Hirta, to try and hamper them from policing the seas, boarding boats and seizing illegal catches.
The three Marine Protection Vessels (MPVs) regularly patrol the coastline on the lookout for boats breaching the law by taking “black fish” in excess of their quotas, fishing in conservation areas or using illegal techniques, such as electric fishing.
But a social media site followed by more than 700 people is posting daily sightings or photos of the MPVs so that fishermen can keep out of their way. It has also published abusive comments about the government’s Marine Scotland agency and the former fisheries minister, SNP MSP Richard Lochhead.
The revelations have prompted anger from campaigners and politicians, and a plea for respect from the Scottish Government. Fishermen have responded by saying they are defending their livelihood because “red tape is killing us”.
A public Facebook page has been encouraging boats to “keep fishing” when the MPVs are not around to search out self-styled “cheeky pirates”. Called “Minna watcher” until Friday and run anonymously by “snasher75”, it features a skull-and-crossbones as its profile picture.
On 19 November Minna watcher described the MPVs as “two bad Santas coming down to try and kill Xmas”. The MPVs have also been labeled as “the devil’s children”, “Hitler’s sons” and “big grey bastards”, while Marine Scotland has been told to “eat shite”.
On 27 March 2016 Minna watcher posted a photograph of the then fisheries minister Lochhead holding an egg. “Happy Easter from the biggest wank in Scotland”, said the caption.
“Fuck The Fisheries!” said Minna watcher on 18 March. “Mon the Fish! Up the Fisheries!!! Bunch a Wankers!” it posted on 12 April.
There has long been conflict between the needs of fishermen and nature conservation in Scotland’s seas. Divisions have worsened in the last few years as Lochhead championed the introduction of a network of new marine protected areas to conserve wildlife.
In the past fishermen have been found guilty of elaborate schemes for evading legal controls. In 2012 17 Scottish skippers and a processing factory were fined £1 million for a £63 million black fish scam, which involved “industrial level” deception, including underground pipes, secret weighing machines and extra conveyor belts.
There have also been bitter arguments over the lucrative technique of electric fishing for razor clams. This is currently illegal, with over 30 cases investigated by Marine Scotland and at least 18 fishermen fined since 2008 – though in August and September ministers consulted on measures to legalise the technique.
The Minna watcher Facebook page started in August 2015 and encourages fishermen to share intelligence on the whereabouts of the MPVs. It has offered £20 a day to those who provide the best information on where the vessels are.
Minna watcher says it is concerned about safety because the MPVs sometimes turn off their automatic identification systems (AIS), which enable ships to be tracked by satellite. “We are looking out for the big grey boat because of its frequent misuse of the AIS system,” says its Facebook profile.
On Friday afternoon last week Minna watcher reported that the Minna was off Culzean Castle on the Ayrshire coast. “Stay safe guys,” it said.
Last Wednesday morning a young man called Niall Clams Timmins posted a message warning of “the big grey bastards heading up Loch Fyne” on the west cost of Argyll.
On 8 June the Minna was reported looking for “ghost boats” off Dunure on the Ayrshire coast. “Sorry guys,” said Minna watcher, “too slow.”
On 18 May fishing skipper John Wason posted that the Minna was “sitting hiding in Luce Bay” in the far southwest of Scotland. “Fish on folks,” he said.
Again on 13 March Wason reported that the Minna had been “in the mist of Luce Bay” for three days. “Keep fishing”, he wrote, with a winking emoticon.
After Minna watcher was contacted last Friday, the name of the Facebook page was changed to “Protection at sea”.
Environment spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, Mark Ruskell MSP, warned that parts of the fishing industry were working to “greedily” undermine the stretched fisheries protection system. “Representatives of Scotland’s fishing industry must condemn and crack down on this blatant piracy ,” he said.
John Robins, from the wildlife group, Animal Concern, argued that it was appropriate that Minna watcher used a skull-and-crossbones. “If this network of fishermen are using social media to avoid contact with fishery protection vessels they are indeed pirates,” he said.
“Conservation quotas have to be monitored and adhered to or our seas will be denuded of fish. Sadly Scottish fishermen have a poor track record on conservation.”
Marine Scotland stressed that it was trying to work with the fishing industry. “We would ask that everyone respects the crews of our protection vessels, who carry out essential work safeguarding fish stocks and the wider marine environment,” said a spokeswoman.
“We have a responsibility to balance the protection of Scotland’s unique marine environment with interests such as those of the fishing industry. Marine Scotland continues to work with fishermen and their representatives to better understand their concerns and support fishing communities in pursuing sustainable fisheries management practices.”
Lochhead pointed out that fish stocks were in a much healthier state and marine protected areas were in place because the government and the fishing industry had worked together. “Thankfully the vast majority of fishermen these days take a much more responsible attitude than this small group,” he said.
“This group should also remember that Marine Scotland vessels are also there to deter vessels from other nations damaging our fish stocks.”
The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation was critical of Minna watcher. “While this Facebook page is not something we condone, it also doesn’t mean there is any illegal activity going on,” said the federation’s chief executive, Bertie Armstrong.
“Fisheries management is carefully controlled through quotas and a whole range of other management measures, which the fishing industry fully supports, with catches landed at designated ports to ensure compliance.”
Lang Banks, director of WWF Scotland, warned that the effectiveness of MPVs could be “undermined” when they were tracked by social media. “Much higher confidence can be achieved using remote electronic monitoring for a fraction of the costs required to deploy patrol vessels at sea,” he said.
Calum Duncan, head of the Marine Conservation Society in Scotland, questioned why fishermen would want to avoid MPVs. “Whatever the reason, healthy, well-managed seas are to everyone’s benefit and we will continue to advocate the benefits of ecosystem-based management, including a spatial approach to wider fisheries management and well-managed marine protection areas,” he said.
The fishermen’s response
When Minna watcher was asked to respond to criticisms, the initial response was, to say the least, blunt. “Smashing fella,” it said. “Up the fisheries. They are cunts.”
When asked to explain why fishermen were being encouraged to report the whereabouts of the Scottish Government’s marine protection vessels (MPVs), the reply was more expansive. “We do it to put dinner on the table,” Minna watcher said.
“Other papers like to sensationalise what’s really going on. Make suggestions that we’re European drug traffickers out to plunder the sea. When in fact most guys in the industry are Scottish-born family men struggling to make ends meet.”
They were normal fishermen “using in some cases illegal techniques but also widely misunderstood techniques”, Minna watcher said. Marine Scotland had agreed that electric fishing for razor clams, though it was currently illegal, was “the way forward” and would be legalised “sometime in the future”.
“Obviously they will police it ‘til the end and they also have their budget to hold on to – we get that. We’re fisherman and we stick together and that’s what this page represents.”
Minna watcher argued that fishing for razor clams could employ 200 people. “This page is simply here for the safety of Scottish fishing boats where we feel the need,” it said.
“If it’s been used to get other boats working, well Minna watcher cannot stop it,” it added. “The Scottish Government listens to the pen and the pen can write some lies. It’s about time the Scottish government started listening to the working man because the red tape is killing us!”
Minna watcher declined to be named. “We are a collective,” it said, suggesting it would be fine to call them “the sea angels”.
After responding, Minna watcher renamed its Facebook page to “Protection at sea”. Supporters were also publicly invited to post comments.
According to one, Christopher Denovan, diving contractors used by fishing boats were afraid that raids by MPVs put lives at risk. “We’ve already had a near-miss incident in Luce Bay, where a heavy shot line was dropped on top of a diver, narrowly missing him,” he said.
“I personally find this page useful as I can choose not to operate on days where there may be a chance of a diving fatality. We’re scraping by as it is and none of us want to be in charge when the widow-maker makes a beeline for your dive boat.”
Others alleged that the MPVs only targeted Scottish boats and ignored French and Spanish vessels. John Mcmurdo said that this was a “complete joke” and that operating the MPVs was a “complete waste of taxpayers money”.
Richard Watson said that it was the law for the MPVs to have their automatic identification systems turned on. “So why do they go about with it off?” he asked.
Alan Inglis, director of the Razor Clam Association, defended Minna watcher. “It is a general social media page where fishermen can chat about whatever they want,” he said. “Fishermen have always been a close community.”
A version of this story was published in the Sunday Herald on 4 December 2016.