Government’s Advice on Charter Boat Fishing Trips – Confusing, Misguided, Contradictory and Unworkable

The Angling Trust and the Professional Boatman’s Association have reacted angrily to the new guidance issued today (11th June) by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, COVID-19 (coronavirus): using a boat inland and on the coast.  This new guidance contradicts previous guidance issued by the government and appears to be wanting to place greater restrictions of professionally run and skippered charter boats while lifting restrictions on places such as non-essential shops, zoos, gatherings of up to six people outside, and most recently, single people getting together in “bubbles”.

“This just doesn’t make sense.” commented Stuart Singleton-White, Head of Campaigns at the Angling Trust, “This guidance is saying that a group of anglers who hire a charter boat with a professional skipper for a days fishing, are being told that should not do so.  Yet, the same advice says they can rock up and hire a boat, without a skipper, and go fishing with their mates.  This is madness.  We have worked hard with the Professional Boatman’s Association to ensure we offer safe, responsible guidance that fully complies with social distancing as well as providing the necessary PPE requirements and hygiene measures to ensure a days fishing is both enjoyable and safe.”

On 4th June, the Angling Trust and the Professional Boatman’s Association issued guidance to both charter boat skippers and anglers.  This was fully in line with the government’s advice, issued on 1st June.  It was designed to ensure people could enjoy their fishing once more and the charter boat sector, which was on its knees and had received no support from the government, were able to slowly get back to business.  This DEFRA advice of the 11th June seems to be designed to stop this industry and the vital contribution it makes to coastal economies, in its tracks.

According to a recent report from the New Economic Foundation on the charter vessel fleet it is estimated that there is a cumulative economic impact to Dorset from charter boat activity of £2.4 million in gross output, providing about £3.6 million in estimated economic contribution and over £1.3 million of Gross Value Added (GVA) (Williams et al. 2020 Marine Policy in press). The value of this activity in monetary terms exceeds that of the inshore commercial fishing fleet.

The advice, issued by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sports (dated 1st June) was clear in its guidance concerning fishing.  It stated, “You can now go fishing but only alone, with members of your household, or with up to, but no more than 5 other people a minimum of 2 metres apart. You should always follow social distancing guidelines when encountering others.”

The new advice says for skippered day-boat hire and skippered day charter hire that, “Operators should not allow skippered day boat hire or skippered day charter boat hire.” And yet when it comes to self-drive day boat hire it says “You can hire self-drive boats or charter a bareboat for the day only.” This is a dangerous contradiction and means that a group of unqualified people can get together and take a boat out, who may not be experienced boatmen and may not know the local conditions, and once out there is no way of ensuring they follow guidance on social distancing or other measures designed to prevent the spread of the virus.  And yet, a professional skipper, who is experienced in the local conditions, has carried out all the necessary measures to ensure the boat is compliant with Covid-19 requirements and will be able to monitor and enforce measure while at sea, is prevented from doing so.

Phil Higgins from the Professional Boatman’s Association said, “We’re being kicked in the teeth.  It’s as if the government is trying to deliberately wreck our industry, or it’s simply too ignorant to care.  Charter Boat skippers have complied with the government’s advice throughout.  But because there has been no financial support for our sector, many are on the brink of bankruptcy.  We are professionals who have worked hard to ensure our boats are safe and the people who board our boats are checked for symptoms, given clear advice on what to do, and kept socially distanced throughout, and yet we are being told we cannot put to sea.”  Phil went on to say, “What hurts is while we’re stuck in harbour, losing money, a group of lads can hire a boat and put to sea.  They do not have to know the area, nor its dangers.  This ridiculous measure does nothing to prevent the spread of the virus but does everything to put people’s lives at risk.”

Following a meeting with the DEFRA Minister, Rebecca Pow, on 10th June, the Minister was invited to come and see the measure taken by charter boats to ensure the safety of those on board.  The Minister is yet to take up the offer.

Dave Barham, Sea Angler magazine contributor, said, “The latest guidance from Defra completely contradicts the DCMS advice issued two weeks ago, and is yet another shining example of how government departments aren’t actually talking to each other.  I really feel for our charter skippers, many of whom I know personally and class as friends. It’s bad enough that they’ve been kicked in the teeth regards receiving no financial help throughout this crisis, whilst the commercial sector has been handed a £10 million bailout, but to be told two weeks ago that they could begin business again, albeit limited to five anglers per boat, and now being told that they should not operate at all is madness.”

Both the Angling Trust and the Professional Boatman’s Association are calling the government to withdraw this advice as a matter of urgency. And for government departments such as DEFRA and DCMS to work more closely together.  “As the sport’s governing body for angling, and as the professional body representing charter boats, we want Defra to immediately sit down and talk to us to come up with a sensible plan.” said Singleton-White, “It was just such a cooperative approach with the DCMS that allowed the sensible and responsible resumption of angling across England.”

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