by MICHAEL RUSSELL
The Ministry of Defence refused to comment this week on the need to conduct an economic impact study into the effects of depriving Skye and Lochalsh fishermen of productive fishing grounds.
As they seek to double the size of the marine testing range between Raasay and the mainland, the MoD did agree on Monday to extend their consultation exercise by 12 days, until the 30th of this month.
At a public meeting held in Kyleakin last week, several fishermen – and Duncan MacInnes, the secretary of the Western Isles Fisherman’s Association – raised the issue of the need for an economic impact study, given the latest figures that show the area stands to lose over £3 million if the range expansion goes ahead. An estimated 140 fishermen will be affected if their fishing grounds are reduced in size.
Speaking for the MoD, Giles Rowe, head of the byelaws review team, said Mr MacInnes had raised a “valid point” about the need for such a study. Also present were Jimmy Ferguson, operations manager for BUTEC; Group Captain Andy Tait of the Defence Equipment and Support Organisation; Sarah Kenny, managing director of QinetiQ Maritime; and Richard Freeman, capability manager with BUTEC.
“In most situations it is normally incumbent upon the applicant to undertake a socio-economic impact study,” Mr MacInnes observed.
Alasdair Macleod from Applecross pointed out that work has already started at Sand on the mainland, where range-head is located. Mr Freeman said new cable ducting for new hydrophones was being installed but that that “needed to be replaced anyway.” However, Ms Kenny said it “makes sense to get ready in anticipation, so we don’t have to rebook contractors” in advance of the Secretary of State approving the new byelaws.
Mr Freeman outlined some of the developments that the MoD have in mind for the range. They include “autonomous targets that swim around autonomously underwater”, laser development trials, electronic warfare calibrators and the increased presence of foreign submarines.
He added: “Just by listening to the news you know that the Navy see autonomy as the way to go. The Joint Warrior exercise next year will be focused on autonomy, and some of it will be based at BUTEC.”
Mr Freeman said the MoD “desired a larger area to track, sometimes aircraft as well” and that is why the in-water equipment needs to be replaced and enhanced.
As well as an expanded Inner Area that will be closed to fishing all year round, the MoD also intends to expand the Outer Area to include several miles of shoreline, on both the mainland and the Raasay side. Mr Ferguson confirmed that this new Outer Area “will be closed for specific trials”. He added: “The way we see it working is that ordinarily we would not do that. We don’t think at the moment there will be many occasions when that will happen. We will do our best not to do that unless we really have to.”
Someone asked: “Can we expect the Outer Area to be closed more often?”
Mr Ferguson replied: “I would say no. I have seen no indication for the next two years that this will be the case.”
Mr Macleod said locals had been told the same thing over 30 years ago when the MoD drew up the original byelaws.
In response to a question asked by Mr MacInnes, Mr Ferguson said the closure of the Outer Area would probably not last longer than three days. No one from either the MoD or QinetiQ could confirm whether or not civilian vessels would be allowed through or across the Inner Sound in the event of a total closure. This would effectively close the Inner Sound to all non-military traffic if vessels were not permitted transit during a trial.
Kyleakin fisherman Walter Van Gool asked: “Are we expected to decant gear or can we leave it in place?” Mr Ferguson said he didn’t know.
Local MP Ian Blackford said the MoD’s consultation had been “wholly inadequate, given the issues that are coming up today”. He also called for an economic impact study, and later asked the Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon to suspend the whole process until one is conducted. As we went to press the MoD would not comment on the study or the suspension.
Lochalsh fisherman Alistair Philp said the consultation “does not take the slightest account” of the effect on the local economy of losing very valuable fishing grounds. Mr MacInnes said the northern part of the proposed expansion yields about £10,000 per tonne of shellfish while the Scottish average is £3,000. “This area has the most valuable prawn fishery in Scotland,” he added. Mr MacInnes also called for a working group of all stakeholders to be set up to discuss the best way forward that would accommodate the needs of all parties.
Both Mr Rowe and Group Captain Tait urged those present to submit their views and information to the MoD before the consultation ends. Group Captain Tait also said the MoD would be “doing their own work” on the economic impact of the expansion.
Mr Philp said: “The MoD need to come back to this group, in fact it needs to be wider than this group. Because of the seriousness of the current proposals we all need to get round the table to see what can be done to mitigate the effects.”
Mr Macleod also pointed out that because the new byelaws cover the road down to Sand, local tourism would be affected.
Others present also asked why the MoD had to demarcate the sound using straight lines on a map when there was now technology available to pursue a subtler approach.
“The MoD are working at the forefront of technology and I thought they might have some flexibility when it comes to boundaries,” one person pointed out.
Mr Freeman said an area of sea off the Rona facility – currently closed to fishing – could be opened by 2017. However, Ms Kenny said the MoD “couldn’t really say when that would happen until they open up the new range.”
Consultation responses can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org