Shetland’s pelagic fishermen are relieved their court ordeal is finally over, six-and-a-half years after the black fish investigation began. But there is also anger that they have become the focus of attention when over-quota landings were universal in pelagic fishing for decades.
One of the 13 local fishermen fined in court on Friday said the practice was so widespread that for a skipper not to do it would have meant he was the only one. “You would not have made a living,” he said, although he admitted it had gone on far too long.
He and others are annoyed that “all the publicity and all the ballyhoo” has surrounded the Shetland cases with little until now about Fresh Catch and Alexander Buchan Ltd in Peterhead, despite the fact that the raids took place at Shetland Catch and Fresh Catch on the same day.
Speaking to The Shetland Times, he said there was a suspicion that it had been engineered at a high level to have the Shetlanders “pushed to the front”. “Anybody picking up a paper south would just assume that this was a scandal of Shetland fishermen and Shetland Catch. That is what they have got firmly implanted in people’s brains and there is nothing further from the truth!”
He said herring and mackerel was being “blacked” over 30 years ago when he had started. “It’s not a scandal we set up.”
There is a strong feeling in the industry that the Shetland and Scottish fleets have been harshly treated compared to other pelagic fishing nations where black fish was rife but prosecutions have not taken place.
There were big raids in Killybegs, home of the Irish pelagic fleet, before they happened in Scotland. Prosecutions were expected in Ireland but instead the EU only confiscated quota.
The fisherman said that despite the fines and large confiscations it was “fine to get it all laid to rest” after such a long time.
At one point there were fears that some of the seven Shetland boats caught up in the investigation would be forced out of business. But he did not think now that that would happen, due largely to the much stronger prices for mackerel since the illegal trade was stamped out.
He gave an assurance that the pelagic fishery was now “completely clean” and will remain so, as far as his boat is concerned.
Shetland Fishermen’s Association chairman Leslie Tait said Shetland boats lost out on more money in recent years from having quota confiscated than they gained from their illegal practice.
The former whitefish skipper pointed the finger towards the new bogeymen – the Faroese and Icelanders who have set “illegal” massively increased national quotas for mackerel which he said involves far more fish than the Shetland fleet landed illicitly.
He said it posed “a much greater threat” to the sustainability of the international mackerel fishery.
“There has to be a level playing field; we cannot have a situation where our fishermen are penalised for overfishing but fishermen from other countries are allowed to fish the same stocks without restraint.”