A longstanding dispute over fishing rights around Rockall, an eroded volcano 230 nm northwest of Donegal, has escalated to a warning from the Scottish authorities that it will deploy patrol vessels if necessary to force Irish fishing vessels out of a 12-mile ‘territorial’ zone.

In 2013, Ireland signed a bi-lateral Agreement establishing a single maritime boundary between the Exclusive Economic Zones and continental shelves of Ireland and the UK, putting Rockall on the UK side of the boundary.

The Agreement brought legal certainty to boundary issues ‘and will improve protection of fisheries, the marine environment and marine biodiversity, ’ according a statement from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

It also ‘removes any potential obstacle to the development of offshore renewable energy projects.’

Ireland and UK exclusive economic zones

Eamon Gilmore, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2013 said the Agreement established “a clear framework for the government’s efforts to encourage and facilitate the sustainable development of our marine resources in the seafood, oil and gas, renewable energy and biotechnology sectors.”

Ireland however has always contended that the waters around Rockall form part of EU waters under the Common Fisheries Policy to which the principle of ‘equal access for the vessels of all EU Member States’ applies.

Irish vessels have operated unhindered in the Rockall zone for many decades fishing haddock, squid and other species.

Irish entitlement
Francis O’Donnell, chief executive of the Irish Fish Producers Organisation, told Inshore Ireland that Irish vessels were entitled to fish “right up to the rock” at Rockall.

“Nobody other than the UK recognises their claim of ownership to the rock other than themselves.”

The Irish government has advised Irish fish producers and the Scottish government it will take “all necessary steps” to protect Ireland’s fishing interests at Rockall. Irish vessels will continue as normal,” he added.

The UK is still part of the London Fisheries Convention “which Scotland has somehow forgotten about,” noted O’Donnell. “This is as much of an attempt by Scotland to stamp its authority in terms of its devolved government,” he said.

(The 1960s international agreement relates to fishing rights across the coastal waters of Western Europe in the North Sea, the Skagerrak, the Kattegat and on the European Atlantic coast.)

“When you consider that Ireland has just passed a fisheries bill that allows UK fishermen to fishing inside our 6-mile limit and now there is an attempt to exclude vessels from UK waters.

“So much for reciprocal access.”

Scottish warning
A formal letter of notice from the Scottish external affairs minister Fiona Hyslop to the Irish government however warns it will protect Scottish fishing rights around Rockall:

‘Irish vessels or any non-UK vessels for that matter have never been allowed to fish in this way in the UK’s territorial sea around Rockall. Despite undertaking extensive discussions with the Irish authorities on the matter, it is disappointing that this activity continues.’

‘Illegal activity is increasing and with the Rockall fishery season nearly upon us it is our duty and obligation to defend the interests of Scottish fishermen and ensure compliance with international law.’

Dialogue with Ireland will continue, the letter added. ‘We will consider any genuine proposals that means full enforcement action may not be required.’

“The area is recognised in UK law as part of Scottish territorial waters and hosts multi-million pound haddock, monkfish and squid fisheries that are hugely important to our fleet.

“The Scottish Government is right to impose compliance, full stop. But at a time when we are moving towards independent Coastal State status it lays down a benchmark for the future.”

Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation said they “fully supported” the Scottish Government’s stance on Rockall.

“Irish vessels have no legal right to fish within 12 nautical miles.”

Irish response
Following an emergency meeting on June 6 with Irish fishing organisations, marine minister Michael Creed said the representatives were “justifiably concerned at the action being taken by a fellow Member State” given that their industries were closely connected.

Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine say that ‘no basis exists’ for excluding Irish fishing vessels from the Rockall waters.

Irish vessels are ‘legitimately pursuing EU fishing opportunities in these waters and have done so unhindered for decades’ a statement reads.

Minister Creed said he and the Minister for Foreign Affairs/ Tánaiste Simon Coveney have been working very closely to avoid a situation where Irish vessels were under the “unwarranted threat of enforcement action” by the Scottish government.

He warned however he had “no option” but to put the Irish fishing industry “on notice of the stated intention of the Scottish Government”.

Brexit factor
In 2017, the Scottish Government raised the issue of access to the 12-mile area around Rockall following the Brexit Referendum. Discussions have since followed between the two governments.

“We have never recognised UK sovereignty over Rockall and accordingly we have not recognised a territorial sea around it either,” commented Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney.

“We have tried to work positively with the Scottish authorities and to deal with sensitive issues that flow from it in a spirit of kinship and collaboration. We very much regret that matters have reached this point and intend to do everything possible to achieve a satisfactory resolution.”