Tensions reignited over Rockall after Irish fishing vessel is blocked

Department of Foreign Affairs says it is in contact with Scottish and UK authorities

Irish naval vessel LÉ Róisín on a routine patrol off Rockall. Photograph: Irish Naval Service

Irish naval vessel LÉ Róisín on a routine patrol off Rockall. Photograph: Irish Naval Service


A renewal of tensions over fishing access around Rockall in the North Atlantic now threatens to “finish” seasonal Irish squid fishing, industry representatives have said.

The Donegal-based Northern Celt was on Monday blocked by a Marine Scotland vessel, which instructed them that as an EU boat it could not fish within 12 nautical miles of the uninhabited island.

The incident reignites an ongoing dispute that last came to a head in 2019.

The Department of Foreign Affairs said it was aware of “contact between an Irish fishing vessel and a Marine Scotland patrol vessel” and was now in contact with Scottish and UK authorities.

Fishing representative bodies have warned that any ongoing prohibition from the area would have a major impact on Irish boats which relied on it for both haddock, a stock whose quota was reduced as a result of the recent Brexit trade deal, and squid - a non-quota stock.

Sean O’Donoghue, chief executive of the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation (KFO), of which the Northern Celt is a member, said the exclusion zone was not acceptable under international law.

“We don’t accept, and neither does the Irish Government, that Scotland is entitled to have a 12 mile zone around Rockall,” he said.

He was referring to the UN convention on the law of the sea which stipulates that an island incapable of sustaining human or economic life cannot be subject to an exclusion zone.

The large, imposing black rock jutting out of the water about 230 nautical miles north west of Donegal was claimed by the UK in 1955 but access to its waters has remained the subject of ongoing debate and disagreement, regardless of the convention.

The situation also appears to have been muddied by Brexit and the UK’s departure from the EU Common Fisheries Policy which also barred territorial exclusion zones.

A 2013 agreement between Ireland and the UK that included Rockall in Britain’s exclusive economic zone had also prompted concerns about Irish access rights.

“We are surprised now that the Scots have taken this action because we understand that this [issue] had been toned down with a diplomatic solution. Now the Scots are taking matters into their own hands again,” Mr O’Donoghue said.

According to Mr O’Donoghue, boats from Killybegs and Greencastle rely on the Rockall area for up to 30 per cent of their catch.

Other vessels from around Ireland, even as far south as Castletownbere in Cork, rely on the grounds for squid, a species not subject to quota limits.

“If the vessels were to be excluded 12 miles from Rockall going forward it would finish us being able to fish squid in that area during the summer months,” said John Ward, chief executive of the Irish Fish Producers Organisation (IFPO).

Mr Ward explained that haddock too was fished in the area and was a key stock for Irish boats, despite the quota being reduced by up to 25 per cent as a consequence of Brexit. Both organisations said the dispute sent a worrying message to their members.

“The problem was always going to come back,” said Mr Ward. “It’s the Scottish, really putting down the marker saying that they will be claiming jurisdiction.

“Twelve miles is quite an extensive area and obviously we are in danger of being arrested if we encroach.”