The Russian Embassy has issued a fresh denial that it has agreed to a buffer zone between Irish fishing vessels and Russian naval vessels during drills off the Irish coast next week.
Fishing industry representatives told reporters after meeting Russian ambassador Yuriy Filatov on Thursday that the two sides had agreed to "a buffer zone" – pending final sign-off from Moscow – to ensure the safety of the fishing vessels during the military exercises.
Mr Filatov has also warned Irish fisherman against “any provocative actions” that might endanger all those involved in the proposed military exercise off the south-west coast next week.
Russia has told the Irish authorities that it plans to carry out naval drills, including the firing of artillery and rockets, around 240km off the coast of Co Cork for five days from next Thursday.
This left Irish fishermen angry at the potential disruption to their traditional fishing grounds with up to 60 trawlers expected to start fishing these waters from the start of February.
The Russian ambassador has said that the naval exercises were "not in any way a threat to Ireland or anybody else" and that "no harm is intended" and "no problem is expected".
Brendan Byrne, chief executive of the Irish Fish Processors and Exporters Association, told reporters after meeting the ambassador that the two sides had reached "an accommodation where there is a pathway for coexistence for the naval exercises and for our fishing fleet".
He said that the fishing representatives and the ambassador had reached a “clear understanding” that there would be a “buffer zone” between the navy and the fishing boats and that the ambassador would have to get final sign-off for the proposal from Moscow.
Mr Byrne also provided The Irish Times with a map created by marine newspaper The Skipper, in consultation with fishermen, showing that the Irish trawlers would be fishing some distance away from the location of the planned military exercises.
The map, he said, was drafted for Irish Fish Processors and Exporters Association using the co-ordinates published by the Department of Transport for the drill zone and was cross-referenced with the co-ordinates for the most southerly point for the fishing in that area.
“The net result is there is already a vast buffer zone between both areas. Had the department shared this data with the industry earlier all of this could have been avoided,” he said.
Mr Byrne said that it was clear to him that there would be a “natural safety zone” between the Russian naval vessels and the Irish fishing trawlers given the planned location of each next week.
Patrick Murphy, chief executive of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation, said that they had "been given assurances by the ambassador that this will be safe".
He said the guarantee they sought was that the Russian vessels would not leave the area they had designated for their live firing exercises and stray into their fishing grounds.
In a statement on Friday morning, the Russian Embassy rejected reports based on the statements from the fishing representatives on Thursday that there had been "some kind of 'agreement' on some kind of 'buffer zones' in the area of the upcoming drills of the Russian Navy in the Atlantic."
This was “not true”, said a spokesman for Mr Filatov.
“The ambassador has listened carefully to the concerns that the Irish fishermen expressed and explained to them that these drills will not do any harm to their interests. He also urged them to refrain from any provocative actions which might endanger all involved,” said the spokesman.
The embassy described Thursday’s meeting with the fishing representatives as “good, productive and led to a better understanding of the whole situation by both sides”.
In response to the embassy’s latest statement, Mr Byrne told The Irish Times that they left the meeting with the ambassador in the belief that both sides had reached “an understanding” that there would be a “safe zone between both parties” during next week’s naval drills.
On the differing interpretations of what was said and understood from their meeting with the Russians, Mr Byrne said: “It has all turned to words.
“We are not professional diplomats. We used the language of ordinary fishermen. There are potential dangers here and there has to be a safe zone between both parties while these exercises go on to avoid any situation that could cause danger to anyone.”
Mr Byrne said that they told the Russian ambassador that the further south the naval vessels go, the more it helps to avoid any potential ecological damage caused by sonar to the marine life and the traditional fish spawning areas that the industry relies on for their livelihoods.
“What the understanding is is that we must stay apart. We must avoid a situation where something happens. There is an understanding that we must avoid accidental crossover and that can only be achieved with the clear knowledge of where the two parties will be,” he said.
The embassy has said that at the meeting the ambassador “underscored that the exercises, given their small scale and location, will not adversarially affect the traditional fishing areas”.