The Uncertain Future of the Kirkella, the UK’s Largest Deep Sea Trawler

On the 24th April 2019 Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal carried out a service at Greenwich to officially name the Kirkella, the newest vessel to be added to the British fishing fleet. The deep-sea trawler had already been in service but had sailed to the Thames for the ceremony. Much was made of the size and scale of the vessel, and the statistic that the Kirkella caught between eight and twelve per cent of all the fish sold in British fish and chip shops was highly publicised by the British media (1).

Kirkella
The Kirkella is the largest deep-sea trawler in the British-based fleet.

Constructed in Turkey at Tersan Shipyard at a cost of £52 million, the Kirkella is just over eighty metres long and displaces almost 4,000 tons making it one of the largest vessels in the UK fleet. The Kirkella operates out of Hull and is owned by UK Fisheries Ltd which is itself part of the Dutch multinational fishing company Parlevliet & van der Plas. The UK Fisheries website states that the Kirkell goes to sea with a crew of thirty and catches around twelve tons of fish with each haul. These fish are sent to the onboard freezers within forty minutes of being caught while waste products such as fish heads and guts are separated to be used as feeds and animal fertiliser. Up to 780 tons of fish can be frozen and stored onboard, and the vessel can catch 2.3 million individual fish each week it operates (2). The target species of the vessel are whitefish such as cod and haddock, with the main areas of operation being the sub-Arctic waters of the North Atlantic and the Barents Sea.

The Kirkella also offers unparalleled facilities for the crew, with an article in the Hull Daily Mail stating that the “crew accommodation area … could have doubled as an upmarket hotel.” The vessel has a fully-equipped gym, a sauna and a cinema. The crew’s cabins feature wall-mounted televisions, en-suite showers and internally-heated lockers which allow clothes to be dried.

Fish and Chips
It is believed that up to twelve per cent of the fish sold in British fish and chip shops is caught by the Kirkella.

Despite the celebration and publicity which accompanied the Kirkella’s naming ceremony, the vessel was launched into an uncertain future. AS the UK was in the process of leaving the EU, British vessels would lose the automatic right to fish in the waters where the Kirkella was designed to operate (3). Once the UK had left the EU, the fate of the Kirkella, therefore, relied on the UK and Norway reaching a deal to allow the vessel to continue to fish in Norwegian territorial waters. Sir Barney White-Spunner, chairman of UK Fisheries Ltd, told The Times “This is where Brexit politics meets the real world of families, jobs, mortgage, investment, keeping industries going” (1).

The Kirkella entered service at a time when environmental and conservation issues have never been higher up the political agenda and public awareness of declining fish stocks is also increasing. The owners of the Kirkella may have gained positive publicity following the launch of the vessel but this publicity also raised awareness of the sheer number of fish that industrial trawlers can catch. Just months after the naming ceremony for the Kirkella super-trawlers received negative media attention when the Lithuanian-flagged FV Margiris (also owned by Parlevliet & van der Plas) fished off the south coast of England. At 136 metres long and displacing 9,500 tons the Margiris is even larger than the Kirkella and can catch process 250 tons of fish a day. The arrival of the Margiris in the English Channel was met with headlines such as “Trawler fourteen times the size of UK fishing boats is plundering fish from British waters before Brexit” in the Telegraph (4) and the i newspaper reporting that the vessel had been “criss-crossing a 185-mile stretch of UK territorial waters between Exmouth and Brighton to suck up fish on a daily basis” (5). The Margiris was not breaking any regulations by fishing so close to the British coastline, but its presence did lead to an outcry from the public and a campaign from Greenpeace to ban super-trawlers from operating in UK waters (6). It also showed that public opinion on such vast fishing vessels could easily change when the huge number of fish they could catch became apparent.

While Britain officially left the EU on the 31st January 2020 a transition period was immediately entered into which meant that no changes were made to existing rules and regulations. This transition period would last until the end of December 2020 and would allow the Kirkella (as well as all British fishing boats) to continue to fish in Norwegian waters in the same way it had prior to Brexit.

On the 31st December 2020 the transition period came to an end with a last-minute deal being signed to cover the £650 billion trade between the UK and the EU. While fisheries had been a major sticking point in negotiations an agreement was reached which saw UK fishing quotas increase incrementally over a five-and-a-half-year period as EU quotas to fish in British waters were reduced. However, the Kirkella fished in the waters of Norway, which is not a member of the EU, their deal was no longer valid and a separate agreement negotiated directly between Britain and Norway would need to be agreed between. The Kirkella left Hull to fish the waters of Svalbard off the coast of Northern Norway in January 2021 (7), but following this voyage, the vessel had no valid licences to fish Norwegian waters and was therefore left idle at King George Dock in Hull.

Kirkella at Dock
The Kirkella has been unable to go to sea for most of 2021.

The plight of the Kirkella generated considerable publicity. Major news outlets such as the BBC, Times and Express all ran prominent stories on the Kirkella while Karl Turner, the Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull East, wrote an open letter to the prime minister on behalf of the people of Hull in which he asked about the plans to get the Kirkella fishing again. In the letter (which can be read here) he asks how the government will re-establish continued access to Norwegian waters and talks about how UK Fisheries have brought £120 million inward investment into Hull and highlights how UK Fisheries “pays its taxes in the UK and supports thousands of jobs locally.” Issues of sustainability, bycatch, declining fish stocks or the damage large-scale trawling causes to the marine environment were not addressed by Mr Turner in the letter.

With no licence to fish in Norwegian waters the Kirkella, therefore, remained at its dock at Hull, waiting for a deal to be agreed between the UK and Norway to allow the vessel to begin fishing again. In April 2021 it was announced that the UK and Norway could not reach a deal on shared fishing rights (8). The UK government said that it had made a “fair offer” to Norway which had been rejected and no agreement for 2021 could be reached. Fisheries UK said that the failure to come to an agreement was a “disgrace” and a “national embarrassment” (8). With no licence to fish in Norwegian waters it was built to operate in the Kirkella was therefore left idle at port in Hull for the remainder of 2021.

In late December 2021 a deal was announced which saw the UK and Norway reach an agreement to fish in each other’s waters. The deal permitted UK fishing boats to access to Norwegian waters to catch 30,000 tons of whitefish (cod, haddock and hake) in 2022. This amount of fish would be worth around £16 million and represented a 1,500-ton increase on the amount which had been available in 2021 (9). However, the owners of the Kirkella were far from happy with the deal. UK Fisheries said that they were “absolutely devastated for the crew” as they claimed that the amount of fish the UK was able to catch would only result in one week’s work for the Kirkella. Jane Sandell, the chief executive of UK fisheries said:

“To say we are disappointed is an understatement. We’re devastated for the crew. This brings a whole different level of uncertainty and instability for our crew members … The government was fully aware of what we need for a viable business … I can only conclude that they don’t really care” (10).

Kirkella
At the time of writing [January 2022] it is unknown when the Kirkella will be able to return to sea.

The future of the Kirkella is [at the time of writing in December 2021] uncertain. Reports in the local Hull press stated that as a result of the UK/Norway deal the Kirkella may be re-located to operate overseas if an agreement could be reached with a foreign government, or the vessel could be sold to another country (11).

The main problem facing the owners of the Kirkella is that the sheer size of the vessel and its immense catching power mean that the places where it can operate are limited (this is a similar issue which many gigantic fishing vessels such as Atlantic Dawn, FV Margiris and the Lafayette/Vladivostok 2000 have faced). With the political machinations of Brexit seeing the Kirkella losing access to Norwegian waters, there are simply no other fisheries in Europe where the Kirkella can viably operate. With growing public awareness of how much pressure fish stocks are under, and the damage trawling does to the marine environment becoming increasingly apparent, finding somewhere for the Kirkella fish may become an increasingly difficult task for its owners.

 

Please note: This article was written in December 2021. Events which have happened after this date will not be reflected in the text above.

References

  1. Jones, C., Fishing Vessel Sails into Stormy Waters, The Times, 24/04/2019.
  2. Kirkella, the UK’s Leading Freezer Trawler, Fisheries UK website.
  3. Harvey, F., UK’s Biggest Fishing Trawler Sails Up Thames in Brexit Warning, The Guardian, 24/04/2019.
  4. Bird, S., Trawler 14 Times the Size of UK Fishing Boats is Plundering Fish from British Waters Before Brexit, The Telegraph, 4/10/2019.
  5. Milmo, C., Meet the Margiris – the Super-Trawler Plying the Channel Ahead of Brexit for Fish to Send Around the World, i Newspaper, 18/10/2019.
  6. Bushby, M., Brexit ‘Opportunity to Ban Supertrawlers from UK Waters’, The Guardian 7/3/2020.
  7. Hammond, G., Trawler Kirkella Leaves Hull on One-off Voyage as Talks Continue over Brexit Fishing Rights, The Yorkshire Post, 27/1/2021.
  8. Parkinson, J. UK and Norway Fail to Reach Fishing Rights Deal, BBC News website, 29/4/2021.
  9. UK Secures Fishing Access and Quotas with Norway, Gov.UK website.
  10. King, J., Boris’s Brexit Fishing Deal with Norway ‘Devastating’, The Express, 24/12/2021.
  11. Ford, J. Kirkella Trawler ‘May Be Sold’ or ‘Moved Abroad’ After Devastating Fishing Deal, Hull Live website, 22/12/2021.