A Fife fisherman has struck out at ocean rules that allow overseas boats to “hoover up” sand eels — a key food for rare seabirds in the Forth.
Pittenweem fisherman Edward Black said he spotted boats around 40 miles east of the Forth in the second half of May and again in early June. He said the boats came from Sweden and Denmark.
Sand eels are the most important food species for rare seabirds such as puffins and guillemots.
MSP Willie Rennie, Liberal Democrat, suggested the situation was serious enough for agency Marine Scotland to consider closing the area to industrial fishing.
Mr Black followed the boats on the Marine Traffic app.
The boats disappeared before returning to a spot 70 miles from the coast.
He said: “I’d guess there were 20 plus boats. Sand eels are the bottom of the food chain. Everything relies on feeding on them.
“From fish and sea mammals to the sea birds of the Forth. Gannets will fly hundreds of miles in a day to feed.”
Sand eels are small eel-like fish which grow up to 30 cm in length. A shortage in their numbers can have huge repercussions on other species in the food chain.
Pittenweem fisherman Ed Black said the crews caught the sand eels for processing into pig meal.
“This happened years ago when I was in primary school and I think it has affected the Forth negatively ever since.”
Environmental campaign group Greenpeace highlighted the issue of sand eel fishing in the mid-90s.
They sent out campaigners to disrupt boats taking thousands of tons of fish from fragile habitats.
‘They ignore the foreign boats’
Mr Black said Marine Scotland was not doing enough to safeguard the area.
“They ignore the foreign boats. They are pushing Scottish boats off Scottish grounds with illegal and dangerous seamanship.”
North East Fife MSP Willie Rennie, Liberal Democrats, said Marine Scotland should consider closing more parts of the sea to industrial fishing.
Kittiwake, tern, fulmar and shag populations are affected by industrial boats, according to research by the British Trust for Ornithology.
The boats catch thousands of tonnes of sand eels each year to be turned into animal feed and fertiliser.
Breeding failures for the birds increase in the period after the industrial fishing, Mr Rennie said.
“Wee Bankie, off the Fife coast, was closed to industrial fishing in 2000 and we should be considering whether this is necessary for this and other areas again,” he added.
Marine Scotland ‘will take action’ if required
A Scottish Government spokesman said they were “absolutely committed” to protecting the interests of businesses and coastal communities in Scotland.
“The terms of the trade and co-operation agreement established between the UK and EU in December 2020 entitles EU vessels full access to UK waters, out with 12 nautical miles, to fish their available quota.”
He said they are considering what “measures” can be put in place to manage activity.
They wanted to do this “in the most sustainable way possible,” he added.
“To date this year there have been no known control and enforcement issues within the sand eel fishery, with no known incursions into restricted areas.
“Marine Scotland continues to monitor the situation and will take necessary action as required.”