Subsea cable awareness

01 December 2011 | Tim Phillips

When the telecoms and fishing worlds collide.

If you’re in the telecoms business and haven’t heard of Kingfisher Information Services, it’s because it isn’t for you – it’s for the fisherman. The maps that chart the position of every cable on the sea bed of one of the world’s busiest fishing lanes were originally created as a piece of entrepreneurship by a Grimsby fisherman.

In 1962, Frank “Tess” Johnson, retired from skippering the trawler “Ross Rodney”, and used his knowledge of every part of the North Sea to create a set of fishing charts. Before, the fishermen had to rely on admiralty charts which were too small-scale, and contained little useful detail.

Thanks to Johnson, trawler crews immediately knew more about what was underneath them. The seas around the UK are fished by boats based everywhere from Iceland to Spain, but no one had the firsthand knowledge that Tess had – until he made his charts.

By 1964 Kingfisher Charts Ltd was incorporated into the quaintly-named White Fish Authority, now only slightly less charmingly renamed as Seafish.

The seabed around the UK isn’t just a happy home for cod. “It contains some of the most heavily congested cable regions in the world,” says Matthew Frow, information officer at Kingfisher.

The south west coast of the UK is one of the key landing sites for transatlantic cables and cables coming from southern Europe, with more than 25 in-service cables coming ashore in the area. The North Sea is crisscrossed by cables reaching continental Europe. Kingfisher now maps them all, from Iceland down to France and off the west coast of Ireland across to Denmark.

In 2000, the fact that Kingfisher had become essential to the smooth operation of shipping in the area was formalised. Kingfisher, the UK Cable Protection Committee and some European Communities got together to create KIS-CA (Kingfisher Information Services – Cable Awareness). Today’s skippers can get the region’s most accurate maps, but also CD-Roms, which seem a bit less romantic but don’t fall to bits when they get wet.

Despite the maps, the information service and the CD-Roms which now update the trawler’s equivalent of a sat nav, slightly less than once a month, according to one of the companies whose cables are buried under the sea in the region, there’s still an incident. Someone has snagged a cable, or a shark has had a nibble (it happens). But that’s just the reported cases. The others, where a cable is damaged in a possible scallop dredging hit-and-sail, aren’t cheap to repair.

In the KIS-CA region, that means the mobilisation of a cable repair vessel for a week-long operation to lift the cable and repair the damage. “Repairs cost £150K to £250K depending on the location and how bad the damage is,” says Frow. So, if you’re planning on going fishing, take a map.

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