New ‘flip-flap’ net is quite a catch for Scottish fishermen

Throwing nothing back: white fish can now escape from prawn nets. Picture: Jon Savage
Throwing nothing back: white fish can now escape from prawn nets. Picture: Jon Savage
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SCOTTISH fishermen have designed a new “flip-flap” trawl which could drastically reduce the amount of cod and other white fish species being needlessly dumped at sea.

The crews claim the innovative net design has cut catches of unwanted fish by up to 90 per cent in sea-going trials and has now been approved by European fisheries scientists.

The trawl has been developed by fishermen working in the prawn industry, which has faced restrictions on its ability to fish because of the amounts of “over-quota” fish it was catching by accident and then having to throw overboard.

Not only does the new design promise to cut down so-called “discards” and preserve stocks of fish such as cod but also to double the time the crews spend at sea, boosting their income.

As a result, an estimated 160 prawn trawlers operating off Scotland’s East coast have had their official days at sea increased this year from 113 to up to 200 days – the difference between survival in the industry and financial disaster.

One of the skippers involved claims to have achieved the “Holy Grail” of fishing – a discard free fishery. Michael Watt, from Gardenstown, who is both a prawn boat owner and net manufacturer, explained that at the beginning of 2012 prawn skippers were facing a year where their boats would have to be tied to the quayside for 252 days. And attempts were also being made to force skippers to use a hard plastic panel, known as a Swedish grid, in their nets.

He said: “We went out to Sweden to see what the fishermen there they were actually using and we found it was totally unsuitable for our fishery because it didn’t work in over 30 fathoms of water and we are fishing in 120 fathoms in the North Sea. It was a solid piece of metal or plastic, totally inappropriate in the mixed fishery in which we operate, and potentially dangerous. We came home from Sweden and decided to try and find a solution to discards ourselves.”

Without official backing or financial support, Watt, with the help of fellow skippers, began sea trials of trawl designs aimed at avoiding large numbers of cod and other white fish being trapped in the end of the prawn net. Within months he had come up with a revolutionary design – dubbed the “flip-flap” trawl – which has now secured the backing of Brussels bureaucrats. It is now being used by an estimated 40 prawn trawlers operating out of Aberdeenshire ports.

The design, he said, was relatively simple but staggeringly successful in reducing the number of over-quota fish being caught in the net. The “flip- flap” trawl consists of a vertical mesh panel fitted inside the net which is rigidly fixed to the top of the net but has a loose flap at the bottom. The narrow flap at the bottom allows prawns and valuable groundfish species such as monkfish to pass through into the net. But cod and other large white fish species hit the panel and are forced upwards and out through a V-shaped hole at the top of the net.

“In the trials as much as 90 per cent of all the cod entering the net were escaping,” Watt said. “ And the average in the trials was 70 per cent of the cod, haddock, whiting and saithe.”

The white fish which remained in the net are covered by the boat’s “bycatch quota” for the mixed fishery, meaning that no fish are having to be needlessly thrown overboard. Watt claimed: “We are now probably a discard-free fishery for our vessels and we are absolutely delighted. We are not just doing what the regulations from Europe wants us to do. We are going way beyond that. We are not taking a back seat, we are leading the way in trying to make our fishery completely sustainable.”

Mark Robertson, the skipper of the Fraserburgh-registered Denarius, was one of the first skippers to try the “flip-flap” trawl. He said: “At the start of the year the situation for the prawn fleet was looking pretty bleak. We were facing a lot of challenges and Marine Scotland were hell-bent on reducing the bycatch. After we used the “flip-flap” trawl for a few weeks we discovered that what we were taking out of the net we were keeping and there was nothing going back over the side.

“We now have approval for the gear and we have 200 days at sea as a result. It is a huge step for us. If we had been stuck with 113 days and the Swedish grid we wouldn’t have survived the year. “

Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, said: “Rather than just complain loudly while watching the industry suffer serious damage, the Scottish prawn-catching sector got together to develop new types of gear across all those parts of the industry where discarding problems existed. What has been achieved so far is something every fisherman in Scotland can take considerable pride in.”