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Cables and fisheries

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Conflict Stories

Story 1: How innovative fishing gear led to new damage to subsea cables (United Kingdom)
In 2009, new wing-type gear was installed on some bottom trawls active in the North Sea, called the sumwing or pulsewing.  This gear replaces the steel beam and sliders. Such a wing no longer touches the seabed as it is lifted by drag supported by a front extension (the nose). However, the developers of this innovative fishing method did not consider the possibility of damaging subsea cables. In fact, more cables were damaged as a result of the new wing-type gear.

Conflicting elements

Conflicts between these sectors are mostly related to accidental damage to cables and pipelines by anchors and fishing gear. There are also concerns arising from spatial restrictions around cables and pipelines.

  • Fishing vessels hooking a cable/pipeline. Damage to cables or pipelines can occur from pulling fishing gear over them, or from fishing gear getting stuck underneath. The first case usually affects a longer stretch of cable or pipeline and can cause cables or pipelines to be moved or dragged along, in the worst case leading to breakages.
  • Vessels stranding on a cable/pipeline. This is a relatively rare occurrence as it would involve a vessel sinking onto a cable, e.g. after having been involved in a collision. A direct hit like this affects the outer protective layers of the cable or pipeline, but it tends to be a localised impact.
  • Anchors being dropped on the cable/pipeline. Anchors being dropped directly onto a cable or pipeline can also cause localised damage. Further damage can occur if the anchor is moved and hooks the cable or pipeline. As above, this is an issue for vessels generally and not just fishing vessels.
  • Spatial restrictions to fisheries. Fishers cannot cross cables and pipelines while trawling. They either need to lift their gear to cross a particular cable or pipeline (which is expensive in terms of lost catch and time-consuming) or find alternative fishing grounds or routes to fishing grounds.

Currently, over a third of all cable damage is caused by fishing activity. This is because of changes in the shape and weight of trawl shoes, as well as the steady increase of the average horse power of beam trawls. A potential hit is also a danger for the fishers themselves. In areas with substantial fishing activity, pipeline and cable owners and fishers have therefore been concerned with finding solutions to this problem for some time.

Drivers of conflict

EU policy is supporting the development of a transnational electricity grid, leading to more electricity cables crossing the seas. More cables to the mainland will also result from the growth of offshore wind farming. New telecommunication cables as well as new gas pipeline corridors have been developed as a result of the digital and energy union.

The offshore cable sector currently enjoys strong political and financial support. Nevertheless, the fishery sector also tends to have a strong voice among the general public, although the economic importance of the sector varies between countries. The historical importance of fishery in some countries tends to lend fishers strong emotional power in the MSP process.