Bespoke St Aidan aims to preserve and patrol our seas

A new fisheries patrol vessel, which is set to become a familiar sight along the coastline from Tyne to Tweed, was officially named by the Duchess of Northumberland this week.

The new £700,000 vessel for the Northumberland Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (NIFCA) is called St Aidan, after one of Northumberland’s most illustrious saints, and she was christened at her berth in North Shields on Tuesday with a traditional smashing of the bottle.

The Duchess of Northumberland at the official naming of St Aidan at Royal Quays Marina. 'Picture by Jane Coltman

The Duchess of Northumberland at the official naming of St Aidan at Royal Quays Marina. 'Picture by Jane Coltman

NIFCA’s district extends six nautical miles into the sea and runs from the Scottish border in the north to the southern border of North Tyneside Council in the south, or the midpoint of the River Tyne. It also includes river estuaries and the existing UK and EU and international marine protected areas.

Ahead of the launch, we took a trip aboard the 16-metre GRP (glass reinforced plastic) catamaran, which replaces the 14-year-old St Oswald, to learn more about her enforcement and environmental work.

As well as being new, St Aidan is also much more efficient, with double the speed of her predecessor, while using only half the amount of fuel. She has a top speed of around 23/24 knots – as well as a cruising speed of about 18 knots – compared to 13 knots on St Oswald.

This means she can cover the 60 miles to Berwick at the northern extremity of the patrol area from her base in North Shields in three hours; less than half the time taken by St Oswald.

Chief fishery officer Al Browne. 'Picture by Jane Coltman

Chief fishery officer Al Browne. 'Picture by Jane Coltman

The crew used St Oswald from 2001 until the start of this year, but it came to the point where both engines and both gearboxes needed taking out, while all the electronics needed reconditioning, which would have cost several hundred thousand pounds.

The organisation is jointly funded via a precept by Northumberland County Council and North Tyneside Council, with about 80 per cent of its funding coming from Northumberland and another 13 per cent from North Tyneside.

NIFCA has a patrol boat fund and each year, it sets aside money from this precept to fund new boats, which helped fund the £700,000 St Aidan.

“The IFCAs cannot borrow money, but we have been putting money away each year so we are very fortunate,” explained NIFCA’s chief fishery officer, Al Browne, who has worked for NIFCA and its predecessor for 20 years.

Al Browne talks to two fisherman at sea. Picture by Jane Coltman

Al Browne talks to two fisherman at sea. Picture by Jane Coltman

He said that because they do a lot more environmental survey work now, a catamaran hull was more suitable as it is more stable, while the GRP construction provides strength.

Plus, St Aidan is purpose-built to do both the enforcement and environmental work, an example of the latter being NIFCA’s 14-year-old V-notching programme that sees berried lobsters (female lobsters with their eggs attached) being purchased back from traders and returned to the sea during the peak lobster season of summer and early autumn.

In 2011, the Sea Fisheries Committees (SFCs) were replaced by the IFCAs, of which there are 10 around the English coast; Scotland and Wales are separately managed.

As a SFC, Al said that their workload was 75 per cent enforcement and 25 per cent environmental, whereas now the percentages are reversed.

The RIB aboard St Aidan. 'Picture by Jane Coltman

The RIB aboard St Aidan. 'Picture by Jane Coltman

St Aidan carries a 5.3-metre RIB (rigid inflatable boat) on the back, which enables the crew to travel up to 36 knots when carrying out enforcement work and approaching fishing vessels.

The A-frame that launches the RIB into the water doubles as the frame for some of the high-tech equipment, such as underwater cameras and different types of Sonar equipment.

For this multi-purpose vessel, NIFCA had to go through a relatively lengthy procurement process with Great Yarmouth-based Goodchild Marine Services, designing a vessel of this kind for the first time, winning the tender.

“It really is bespoke,” Al said. “We are the first vessel and we worked very closely with them. We all worked together and got the boat the way we wanted.”

The build started in February 2014 and was finished by May this year and it is hoped St Aidan will last about 15 years.

She will go out two or three times a week, while the team also has a larger RIB on a trailer and carries out shore-based work, checking fishermen returning to port.

The bridge on St Aidan. Picture by Jane Coltman

The bridge on St Aidan. Picture by Jane Coltman

Al said: “I would say 95 per cent of our local fishermen are absolutely fine and know what they are doing.

“It’s detrimental to them if they are catching small crabs, lobsters or shellfish and affecting breeding because that’s their livelihood.

“As with anything, there’s a small minority and we try to focus on them.”

Tuesday’s naming ceremony was a chance for representatives of Northumberland and North Tyneside councils to see the new vessel, which will be cruising our coastline for years to come.

It took place at St Aidan’s base at Royal Quays Marina, North Shields, formerly a commercial port for coal, but now a modern, bustling marina with the coal stacks behind replaced by modern waterside apartments.

The marina is located conveniently close to the Fish Quay, home to most of the region’s fishing fleet. Al, who grew up in North Shields and previously worked for the Port of Tyne, said that in winter there can be up to 100 vessels there as the big trawlers from Scotland and Ireland come over for the prawn and langoustine season.

NIFCA chairman, Northumberland County councillor Robert Arckless, said: “Our coastline is one of our greatest treasures and it’s vital the seas are managed responsibly for present and future generations.

“This is a proud day for everyone associated with NIFCA and the new vessel is sure to become a familiar sight to all those involved with the fishing industry in our region.”

Al added: “We are absolutely delighted with the new vessel and the extra capability she provides.

“The NIFCA would like to thank all concerned and we look forward to St Aidan providing excellent service to the people of Northumberland and North Tyneside for a number of years.”