The Scottish Mail on Sunday
SOS Proud fishing fleet sunk by borders bureaucrats
How over-zealous crackdown on foreign workers robs skippers of skilled crewmen in crisis that threatens to decimate industry... and send price of your fish supper soaring
IT’s high tide on a fine, clear day: by rights, the trawlermen of Barra should be heading out to sea in search of the cod, haddock, hake and sole that have always been their livelihood.
Instead, the skippers of the New Dawn, the Our Pride and the Aquarius stand on the quayside as their boats bob idly in the harbour – victims of a new crisis that is threatening to cripple Scotland’s fishing industry.
The three fishermen say a crackdown on foreign workers means they can no longer find enough staff to operate safely at sea.
While this is devastating for them and their families, it is also a hammer-blow for the fragile economy of their island where fishing and processing remain a major employer.
And it is not only Barra that is affected – up and down the west coast, in Stornoway, Lochinver, Campbeltown and Troon, fishermen are being forced to abandon their trade.
Now the trawlermen are warning that unless the Government takes urgent action to change the rules, one of Scotland’s traditional industries will be lost forever.
The blame, they say, lies squarely with the Westminster Visas and Immigration department, which has recently enforced a ban on crewmen from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) working on Scottish boats – even though the industry relies heavily on Filipino, Ghanaian and Sri Lankan crew members to go to sea.
Now in an urgent attempt to save the threatened industry, fishermen are calling for crisis talks with Robert Goodwill, Minister of State for Immigration, to change the complex law and allow them to hire back their foreign crew.
Meanwhile, Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil has called upon the UK Government to intervene and assist the fishing industry as it struggles to stay afloat.
The Scottish Mail on Sunday visited the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, where half of the fishing fleet is now tied up.
There, a group of fishermen spoke candidly about the problems they are facing and their fears for the threatened industry.
Tending to his vessel and occasionally looking out to sea – knowing it is where he should be – Angus Macleod, the skipper of the trawler Aquarius, said: ‘I have been tied up for the last month now. It is the longest period that I have ever been unable to go to sea, and I have been a fishermen for over 30 years.
‘It’s because I can’t get my Filipino crew back – the Government won’t let them return. And there are no replacements now. There are not a lot of Scottish fishermen available, as we have a generation where local people haven’t been coming into the industry.’
Mr Macleod, 47, said he has been struggling for the last two years because of a tightening on immigration laws. But he stated that the sudden crackdown on foreign workers has finally forced him out of the water.
The father-of-two said: ‘Things have become stricter with the immigration rules over the last couple of years, and I have struggled for staff ever since.
‘I have even had to have my 16year-old son working the deck with me, just to keep our family business going.
‘Physically he was fit to do this, but mentally it is such a challenging job, especially when the fatigue kicks in. There have been times where there are only three of us out there when there should be five.
‘But now it has finally come to this – we can’t go out to sea at all. It is the worst it has ever been. It is awful.’
The country’s staffing shortage is caused by a UK Border Force crackdown on an Immigration Law, which prevents non-EEA workers fishing
‘I’ve been tied up for the last month now’
within the country’s territorial waters.
As boats sometimes need to come within this radius – for example to land catch and shelter from storms – the foreign seafarers are now unable to work on them. But without Filipino, Sri Lankan and Ghanaian workers, there is now a crippling staff shortage.
The law has been in place since 1971, but implementation has suddenly become stricter – and in the past couple of months many fishermen across the country have been forced to tie up their boats. Alexander MacNeil, 42, the skipper of the vessel Our Pride, has now had his boat tied up in Barra for a week.
He said: ‘I have been fishing now for six years, and this is the most I have ever struggled to get crew. I have two crewmen right now, but I need at least one more if I am to go
‘It’s because I can’t get my Filipino crew back’
out to sea safely. But the issue isn’t just getting crew – we need skilled crew, experienced crew. Fishing is already a very dangerous job, and things become very dangerous if your crew aren’t skilled or trained properly.
‘The Filipinos and Ghanaians are different, though, as they are seafaring nations and are highly skilled in the trade – they know how to mend nets, do splicing, and take a watch, everything. That’s why we need them.’
Some fishermen remain hopeful that the UK government will offer transit visas to allow non-EEA workers to work in Scotland. But Jonathan Boyd, skipper of the New Dawn which featured in the BBC series Trawlermen, has lost hope, and has decided to put his boat up for sale. Father-of-three Mr Boyd, 45, said: ‘I only bought it in April this year. I have been tied up for three weeks now, and it is just too uncertain not to give myself options.
‘My crew went home for their annual leave a few weeks ago, and it has been impossible to find relief crew. I don’t know when I will get out again, as my crewmen may not be returning. So I have put the boat up for sale. I have a family to think of and a mortgage to pay.
‘We just need a supply of skilled staff. If there were skilled Scottish or European workers available, of course we would take them on. But there are not.’
Fish-processing factories – and in turn local employment – are also at risk. Barratlantic Seafood, a processing company in Barra, has lost thousands of pounds because of the staffing crisis.
And Donald Maclean, managing director of the firm, admitted that the company could close if the issue is not resolved soon. He said: ‘It is getting very difficult for me to commit to my customers as I don’t know what catch will be landed. Our product is first class, but if we can’t guarantee a supply, we are done.
‘I have 40 workers here today and there is no work to do. We are losing production, and we still have to pay our staff. If the boats remain tied up, this factory will close down and Barra will become a deserted island.
‘We are the biggest private employer on the island. It is a major part of the economy here. Fifty percent of the fish landed here goes onto Scottish plates. If we don’t have our boats back at sea soon, and other processing companies don’t either, there will be less supply and fish prices could rise across Scotland.’
Despite the urgency of the issue, Immigration Minister Mr Goodwill has not yet respondedy. Last night, a Home Office spokeman said: ‘It is right that employers look first to the resident workforce before recruiting from overseas. All industries operating in the country must adhere to UK immigration laws.’
‘Fishing is already a dangerous job and more dangerous if crews are not skilled’ ‘I have 40 workers and there’s no work to do’ ‘I’ve put my boat up for sale, I’ve a family to think of’ ‘The longest time I have not been able to go to sea’