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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 January 2008, 20:17 GMT
Western Isles to Western Sahara?
By Colin MacKinnon
BBC Scotland E˛rpa reporter

The crew of a Western Isles trawler will decide in the next few weeks whether to return to the northwest coast of Africa to fish.

The Prowess
The Prowess is one of more than 100 European trawlers in the area

They spent a trial period sailing out of the port of Dhakla in southern Morocco late last year because their EU fishing quota was too small.

Angus Macleod, from Barra, explained why they might travel back the 1,500 nautical miles in the spring.

He told BBC Scotland: "Nobody wants to leave home but it's just not viable for us to continue, with the quota we have in the UK. I can't see that we can afford not to come back. The door's open, it's viable. We hope we can improve on what we've learned and be better next time round."

The 60m "Prowess" is one of more than a hundred European trawlers that have taken advantage of a recently renewed [2007] agreement between the EU and Morocco which allows foreign boats to fish in Western Sahara waters.

Red tape battle

It was not all plain sailing for the crew when they spent a month catching sardines there last November, according to skipper John Archie Macleod.

He said: "The biggest obstacle is because we're fishing outside the 15-mile zone we're classed as foreign, and the fish we catch is classed as foreign fish, so it's a customs problem - we have to pay customs duty on the import.

"It's the same for the processing factories when it comes to exporting the fish."

Noureddine Aissaoui
This is an opportunity for the whole world to be part of the plan to develop this region
Noureddine Aissaoui
Moroccan Government spokesman

Another Scottish boat, the Peterhead based "Krossfjord", has remained in West Africa over the New Year.

Its crew has also battled with bureaucracy, but skipper George Nicol is bypassing much of it by using a processing plant he has bought and runs independently in Dhakla.

Mr Nicol said: "We have invested with Moroccan people locally, to sell on the fish that we're catching. It's been very difficult - we've met opposition from all quarters."

The Scots have sailed into political controversy in the region known as Western Sahara.

It's been a disputed territory since the mid-70s when Morocco annexed it after Spain relinquished colonial power.

International law

Some politicians, like SNP MEP Ian Hudghton, are opposed to the EU fishing agreement with Morocco, although he can understand why the Scots trawlermen are taking advantage when their quotas have been cut in recent years.

"It's not the fault of fishermen that we're in this situation," he said.

"I think that the politicians have let down Western Sahara, and have implemented here an agreement that breaches what should have been preserved in terms of international law and the right of people to expect support when they're invaded or taken over by neighbours or whoever."

The Moroccan Government disagrees. It maintains its right to govern over Western Sahara and believes the EU agreement benefits the region.

George Nicol
George Nicol has bought his own processing plant in Dhakla

Dhakla spokesman Noureddine Aissaoui said: "It is Moroccan land. We work here in our country in peace and in security.

"You must have noticed all the investment and construction projects that have been ongoing for years; Morocco is developing its territory.

"Today, this is an opportunity for the whole world to be part of the plan to develop this region."

It has not been easy so far for the Scots who have tested the water of Western Sahara, but they hope this opportunity will be the answer to their difficulty with restricted EU quotas at home. Oh, and the weather's better too, as they've discovered.

This issue is featured in E˛rpa on BBC Two Scotland at 1930 GMT on Thursday, 17 January.

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