We are pleased that the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has recognised the RYA's long-standing efforts to address the menace of poorly marked fishing gear and to capture data that will help them to understand the scale of the problem. As boaters, we share the concerns of the recreational boating community and we are acutely aware that entrapment is a problem than none of us wants as it is potentially costly, time consuming and dangerous.
There is a general marking requirement for fishing gear laid within UK territorial waters set out in the Fishing Boats (Marking and Documentation) (Enforcement) Order 1993, which implements the provisions of the underlying EC Regulation to the effect that "Marker buoys and similar objects floating on the surface and intended to indicate the location of fishing gear shall be clearly marked at all times with the letter(s) and number(s) of the vessel to which they belong".
In other words, this Regulation relates to "marking" in the sense of identifying the owner and boat it comes from rather than "marking" in the sense of being able to see the gear easily at sea. For obvious reasons, however, unless the enforcement authorities actually witness unmarked gear being deployed then if the owner chooses not to identify the gear as being theirs then it is almost impossible to take formal enforcement action for a breach of these Regulations.
There are also EU Regulations relating to fishing gear laid outside the UK territorial sea, which are implemented by the Sea Fishing (Marking and Identification of Passive Fishing Gear and Beam Trawls) (England) Order 2006, that require marker buoys to be deployed so that the gear may be located at sea to but these Regulations essentially relate to large scale fishing operations (e.g. markers on passive gear must be placed at least one nautical mile apart!).
Under the Marine & Coastal Access Act 2009, Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities (IFCAs) now have the express power to introduce byelaws "requiring specified items, or items of a specified description, that are used in the exploitation of sea fisheries resources to be marked in such manner as may be specified". This being the case, we consider that primary responsibility for tackling this issue lies with the IFCAs. However, the view of the IFCAs is that byelaws relating to the marking of fishing gear for identification do not cover the requirements for navigation. Indeed they make it quite clear that they are not navigation authorities and therefore this is something that is beyond their remit.
We are aware that there have been proposals for a new specification for the marking of pots to include a 1.5 m pole with a 30 x 30 cm flag. However, these proposals have led to considerable resistance from fishermen in some areas on the basis of their safety when shooting and retrieving their gear. It is claimed that the pole marker, flag and a buoy would need to be handled separately, rather than letting the gear run freely through a hauler, which is considered to cause an additional danger to them. The general view is that the problem of badly marked fishing gear is not caused by legitimate fishermen but by amateur and hobby fishermen who do not use the proper kit and more often than not are ignorant of the law.
There would remain, however, the fundamental flaw that gear that is not marked to be visible is often also not marked with the owner's details, which makes it almost impossible to prove to whom it belongs or take enforcement action. However, the problem we face when speaking to DEFRA about the inadequacy of the marking rules is the lack of data on the true scale of the problem and therefore whether it is something that they need to take action on.
Starting in 2003, the RYA ran a sustained campaign to gather data on unmarked fishing gear. In a five-year period, we received 99 reports of entanglements. During our most recent discussions with DEFRA they reiterated the need for as much evidence as possible to ascertain the scale of the problem so they can better understand if a possible solution is required. For that reason we re-launched our online form so that entanglements and sightings can be easily reported. Like it or not, Government will do nothing unless they are persuaded by hard evidence that the cost or risk is unacceptable and that they need to do something - they have said as much in their response.
The recent petition, launched by the Cruising Association, closed after six months with 10,767 signatures. In the same time, the RYA has received just 138 reports - 84 of which have been of entanglements that have occurred mostly over the last two years. This is not encouraging, but we will keep plugging the need to report entanglements via the RYA Fishing Gear Incident Reporting Form at: www.rya.org.uk/go/entanglements. We will also continue to work closely with Government so that the collection of data from this process may help identify any potential solutions.