Tuesday, 1 February 2022

VMS a ‘perfect storm’ of red tape for small-scale fishermen in England

Keeping your head down.

Vessel monitoring systems are an essential tool towards fully documented fisheries. Across the UK, the devolved nations worked in harmony over the past 20 years to install on vessels first over 24m, then 15m and finally over 12m vessels. But now, small scale fishermen with under 12m vessels in England say the long delayed roll out of the Government’s inshore vessel monitoring system is discriminatory and unfair to their class of vessel and has a timeframe that is impossible to comply with.

Felixstowe Ferry fishermen James Whyte said:

DEFRA has been working on this for a long time, it was supposed to be rolled out in 2019 but has been delayed by them for years. Now, having released details about the various kits just before Christmas, they want the first group of fishermen to choose and install the kit by 14th March but have only just announced an event where suppliers present their kit to fishermen on February 9th. That will give us a month to do further due diligence, and get it installed. It’s just another example of the Government putting pressure on us to meet an arbitrary time frame we just arent ready for because of their delays and their shortcomings. In our area we often have to book technicians weeks in advance because we have none locally”.



 
Unlike the VMS on larger vessels that went through robust Government procurement processes that interrogate the financials and performance of a company, the kit, and that there are contracted-in service levels agreement for warranty, this project has not. Government chose a ‘type approval process’ for the under 12 iVMS systems which means there has been no independent testing at sea, and fishermen are left to do their own due diligence on the financial health and past performance of the suppliers and then choose the kit. In addition, while the roll out of the VMS kit on larger boats was fully funded, these small scale fishermen will only be eligible for grants of £650 regardless of the cost of the kit and installation.

Former MMO officer and Executive Officer of the South Devon and Channel fishermen’s association Beshlie Pool said

“I have spent the past weeks trying to get more information from suppliers. Just the basic details on how their kit is installed and works, what the conditions of warranty are, what at sea testing has occurred etc.

So far 3 have agreed to come and present their kit to our members later this month so fishermen can see it, hold it and ask questions about its performance and testing, but I am still waiting for a lot of information. The grant is a one time only offer from the Government, so we also need to do due diligence on the companies to check the suppliers ability to provide after sales service, and what that is. When the regulation comes, we expect it to make it illegal for fishermen to leave the harbour without a functioning kit, this is why understanding breakdown support is so vital. Unlike bigger boats, the day small boats could be stuck in the harbour with a broken kit and that may be the only fine weather day where they could fish, for weeks.

I am deeply concerned about the additional stress this roll-out is causing, at a time when these same boats are faced with the Government going to the enforcement stage on CatchAPP and when the MCA is stepping up new safety testing. It is a perfect storm of new regulation, the mental health consequences are palpable.” said Pool.

Meanwhile, French fishermen with vessels under 12m, to include those licensed to fish in UK waters, were given a choice by the French Government of a iVMS system which has higher costs, and ongoing mobile phone costs or, an AIS system which is as little as a quarter of the price and has no ongoing costs. AIS also has the added benefit of other vessels at sea being able to see small fishing boats; it was developed as a collision avoidance device. Many small scale fishermen in England want the UK Government to consider this option for them too.

Devon and Severn IFCA district trawlermen who took part in the pilot project for the iVMS wanted to remain anonymous because of ongoing actions but said

“We know there have been real problems for many boats with the reliability of the kit installed, and the after sales service that has seen them tied up waiting for spares. The IFCA has been over zealous in dragging fishermen in under caution for interview, and issuing summons, some of which have had to be revoked where there have been problems with the IFCA case. It is a minefield, and I cannot understand why the MMO is not pausing this and testing the kit and suppliers health, properly”.

Shadow Fisheries Minister Daniel Zeichner said

“On recent visits to the coast, I have been most struck by how much pain this is causing small scale fishermen. This IVMS roll out has been delayed by years, and yet the Government now expects these micro businesses to make choices in a matter of weeks, this does not seem fair or proportionate.

The Government’s triage document for this intervention from 2018 estimated the mean costs of c.£1200 pounds per device and that this would be covered by EU funding. But because of Government delays EU funding is no longer available and suppliers submitting kit to the type approval last year were told that a limited £500 grant was going to be offered to fishermen. We need to understand how this influenced the kit that was submitted, and if it caused the suppliers to provide cheaper kit, over perhaps more suitable robust kit. After suppliers submitted their kit, the Government changed this amount to £650 pounds but that is still just half of the cost of the Government’s original estimates.

This Government has allowed EU vessels to fish in our 6-12nm, is stepping up new safety inspections without financial support, taking the CatchAPP to enforcement stage, and now forcing a light speed roll-out of this new kit. One could be forgiven for thinking the Government is trying to drive this small scale sector out of business and deliver decommissioning by stealth. If the Government wants to reduce the size of our inshore fleet they should be honest and set out a compensation scheme, not simply overburden them in home-grown red tape some of which they cannot simply comply with, and much of which they cannot afford. DEFRA Ministers must now intervene and reduce the overwhelming pressures being felt by fishing families around the coast”.

Story courtesy of Terri Portman