Tuesday, 13 July 2010

A day on the high seas

One of the committees I sit on as part of my work as a councillor is the Sea Fisheries Committee. I've blogged before about some of its work - regulating the sort of fishing that can be done in the inshore waters around Cornwall.

As a member of the committee, I was invited to go out with our fisheries protection vessel for a trip and today I did just that.

The ship is the St Piran and it works out of Newlyn which is convenient for both the North and South coast. On board the vessel today was a crew of five experienced sailors and one definite landlubber. The skipper is Shane and he was accompanied by engineers Mike and John and fisheries officers Zac and Simon.

As well as the St Piran, the Council also owns two RIBs - one of which is launched from the main boat - and a research trimaran.

Today's trip took us from Newlyn along the south coast as far as Mevagissey. With high spring tides, there were few boats out in Mounts Bay and so we steamed past Dodman point at 18 knots to do our work.

The bulk of the work involves boarding fishing vessels to inspect their gear and their catch. The officers need to make sure that neither is undersized - in other words, to protect the young fish and shellfish. In addition, the boats are checked because there are limits on the size of vessels that can be used in inshore waters.

Boardings are done from the RIB capable of up to 32 knots with a coxswain driving and a fisheries officer jumping onto the fishing boat. I was delighted to be able to go out on the RIB but refrained from trying to jump across in the middle of the high seas. There could only have been one outcome. I was wearing a dry suit - just about fitting into the biggest one aboard - but it would still have been a bit of a pain to fall in. (Bottom pic shows me in the drysuit. All the cool kids will be wearing them soon)

The variety of boats boarded was huge. From a tiny dinghy casting nets around Gorran Haven to much larger scallopers and trawlers further out. It should be said straight away that the vessels boarded were not automatically suspected of wrongdoing. The fisheries officers board a random selection of boats as well as targeting any vessels they think might be breaking the law. None of today's fishing boats had under-sized nets or catch and all were entitled to be fishing inshore.

On board the St Piran, there is a range of sophisitcated equipment to track vessels and the officers work very closely with other agencies to make sure that no-one can jump between jurisdictions to evade capture. Some of the work is quite sensitive and the St Piran (and her crew) is often used by other agencies when their expertise and equipment is needed.

I asked about the relatively low level of prosecutions in recent months. The reason is twofold. Partly, due to the fishing economy, there are fewer boats out. But mainly it is down to the hard work put in by our officers over many years. Boat skippers know that they cannot break the law willy nilly and get away with it. This is particularly true for over-sized vessels. Whilst a skipper who thinks they are outside the 6 mile limit but are in fact inside might get away with a warning the first time, they will find themselves tracked more closely to ensure they cannot do it again. Transponders track larger boats and can help to make sure they don't break the rules and the St Piran has access to this data.

When it come to catch size, the fisheries officers carry a very old fashioned, but effective measure and can instantly tell if fish or shellfish are too small.

I massively enjoyed the day out. It was great to see a very successful arm of the Council at work and I'd like to thank Shane, Simon, Zac, John and Mike (who kindly took all the photos) for making me feel so welcome and putting up with my idiot questions with good grace.

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