Work together to keep fleet afloat

Since 1986 the Scottish fishing fleet has been used to provide 'guard vessels'
Since 1986 the Scottish fishing fleet has been used to provide 'guard vessels'
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They may be odd bedfellows, but by working together fishermen and energy firms can protect vital resource, writes Bertie Armstrong

The seas around our coasts are a precious resource – they support diverse wildlife and are used by much of our population for recreation and relaxation. And, of course, they also offer a sustainable food supply and provide vital energy in the form of oil, gas and offshore renewables.

Fishing and offshore energy may seem unlikely bedfellows but since the mid-1980s the two sectors have been working closely together in Scotland in a mutually beneficial relationship that has provided fishermen with a vital alternative income stream whilst at the same time providing a range of useful services for the offshore energy sector.

In short, this relationship has helped secure the future of Scottish fishing by keeping the fleet viable, especially in more recent and difficult times when a fundamental restructuring of fisheries management dramatically reduced fishing opportunities, including the introduction of limits on the number fishing days vessels can put to sea.

So, what is the story behind this unique arrangement? Established by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) in 1986, a wholly owned subsidiary called SFF Services Ltd was set up to utilise the resources of the Scottish fishing fleet to provide ‘guard vessels’ to protect vulnerable subsea infrastructure such as pipelines under construction, wellheads, power, telecommunications and umbilical cables.

In simple terms, this work involves fishing vessels being stationed by an offshore structure to monitor and ensure that other maritime traffic doesn’t approach too close. It is vital work that enhances the safety of the offshore energy sector by utilising already existing assets and the vital marine knowledge of working fishing skippers and their crews.

From modest beginnings at the inception of the oil and gas industry, the company has grown to such an extent that it now provides professional and offshore personnel services throughout the Scottish sector of the UK continental shelf and beyond. The range of work has increased dramatically too. For example, for offshore seismic operations our Fisheries Liaison Officers work on survey vessels to liaise with passing marine traffic.

Environmental surveys too are undertaken and marine mammal observation and passive acoustic monitoring work helps protect our precious whale and dolphin populations by only permitting the commencement of seismic operations once it has been confirmed that none of these animals are present in the surrounding area.

In the past two years, SFF Services has facilitated over 16,000 working days at sea for fishing vessels that they would otherwise not have had. To put this into perspective, this is equivalent to the average annual allocated fishing effort of 114 vessels. This work keeps fishing vessels viable without extending effort on fish stocks. With the majority of fish stocks of interest to Scottish fishermen either in good health or heading in the right direction, this ensures that there is a fleet infrastructure in place to harvest this sustainable and nutritious food resource.

Only last month, SFF Services passed the important milestone of having utilised 500 different fishing vessels since 2001, the year when tight restrictions under the EU’s Cod Recovery Plan were first introduced on the fishing fleet.

There is no doubt that from both an operational and overall management point of view, it would be much easier for us to operate with a smaller, full-time support vessel fleet not engaged in fishing.

However, the SFF’s ethos has always been and is more pertinent than ever in the current climate, to try to spread these offshore work opportunities amongst the fishing fleet; subject of course to our member vessels meeting the required standards and specific stipulations laid out by our clients.

We believe that the policy of spreading work opportunities amongst the fishing fleet brings multiple associated benefits. Over the years it has made a major contribution to minimising conflict by establishing and nurturing an excellent long term working relationship between the Scots fishing industry and the offshore oil and gas sector.

The additional vessel assurance processes developed for such work have all been 
seen as positive for fishermen’s safety. The vessel project 
briefing sessions provide SFF Services representatives with the ideal opportunity to provide fishing crews with an overview as to the scale and variety of the oil and gas infrastructure contained within the UK Continental Shelf.

Furthermore, the success of SFF Services has enabled it to make substantial donations to the Scottish Fishermen’s Trust. This has funded many beneficial projects, including trials for selective fishing gears, scientific studies to enhance fish stock assessments and support for the independent certification of fisheries under the Marine Stewardship Council’s responsible fishing standard.

• Bertie Armstrong is chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation