19th August 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

‘No fisherman wants to discard fish, but quota system obliges them to’

5 comments, , by , in News

Simon Collins moved to Shet­land in January to become executive officer of Shetland Fishermen’s Association  In a new column on the industry he comments on the “ab­surd man­age­ment” of fishing stocks.

 Most of us have become accustomed in recent years to a very gloomy narrative about the amount of harvestable fish in the waters around the UK.

Shetland Fishermen's Association executive officer Simon Collins.

Shetland Fishermen’s Association executive officer Simon Collins.

Egged on by chefs with a certain celebrity to sustain, academics, environmentalists and like-minded politicians have convinced the public that benighted, self-serving fishermen have emptied the seas of cod, haddock, mackerel – choose your species.

And the lesson of this beguilingly simple story? We might as well pack away our nets, tie up our boats and consign, in Shetland’s case, a third of our economy and centuries of community tradition to the history books.

There’s one problem with this narrative. It’s not true.

I came to Shetland in January to work as executive officer for the Shetland Fishermen’s Association (SFA), which represents most of the vessels in the islands.

Having worked in banking and translation (I ran my own business in a remote Alpine hamlet, Villard-sur-Doron, for a decade), I obviously have no background in the fishing industry.

But I had reached the stage in my life when I wanted to work for something more meaningful – and the SFA offered me that opportunity.

In the intervening nine months, I have learned a huge amount, and continue to learn. Two things in particular stand out. One is the quality of the people involved in the industry here, their expertise, intelligence and powerful sense of community.

The second is the quantity of fish our fishermen are finding on the grounds off Shetland. Stocks have not been as abundant as they are now for decades. Inevitably, the scientific data to confirm what our men are observing lags behind. But scientists are now starting to report a significant upturn in populations of a variety of species.

I grew up in Borneo and then Kenya. In both places bad things happened when indigenous people were driven off the land. In Borneo, the rich and powerful have taken control of vast hardwood reserves, stripping the Dayaks and others of rights they had exercised for centuries.

In Africa, nomads have been forced off land they had managed sustainably for more generations than we can count and a host of mammals face extinction from poaching.

In Shetland, of course, we are not talking about land, but sea. And I very much fear that efforts to drive people off the waters they have fished and understood for at least 4,000 years will have the same effect. Communities do not plunder what they depend upon; they protect it. How convenient it would be for at least some multinationals if fishing vessels were no longer around and nobody could see what they were up to.

The Shetland Catch fish processing factory.

Click on image to enlarge.

Shetland and the fishing industry go together, and Shetland and healthy seas go together. There is a value in places where humans are not all that matters. It is presumptuous and dangerously misleading to think otherwise; no fisherman would.

The species we catch off Shetland are extremely diverse. Given that the EU imports more than 60 per cent of its fish, this ought to be a tremendous advantage.

But no: bureaucrats in Brussels, London and Edinburgh have introduced successive layers of regulation – on days at sea, on the type of fishing gear you can use, on the amount of each species you can land, on engine size, on and on it goes. And nobody has bothered to find out before a new rule is introduced whether it conflicts with existing ones.

I have quickly come to lament the absurdity of a management system designed by consultants, environmental activists and celebrity chefs, rather than by those who have any idea how it could work.

The looming discard ban is a classic example: no fisherman wants to discard fish, but the quota system obliges them to. And now it will be illegal to discard, yet the quota system will still be there. So you have to land fish but you can’t.

The whole regulatory framework has to be changed, not according to some model dreamed up by a non-governmental organisation, but according to what might actually work.

It would be good to recognise that fishermen are the prime stakeholders in all this. We have a great many opinionated people who call themselves stakeholders, but if you have a home to go to at night whether or not there is a fishing industry, I’m sorry, you are not a stakeholder. Your stake is so general as to be meaningless.

By all means, express opinions, but the regulations would not be so Kafkaesque if stakeholders – real stakeholders – had a decisive voice in their design.

More specifically, the fishing industry, like any other industry, needs visibility and flexibility to survive. Visibility means a clear political commitment to the industry’s future, and flexibility means removing unnecessary regulations that prevent fishing vessels catching fish in the most effective and logical ways.

With visibility and flexibility, fishermen and their banks would have the confidence to re-invest, and more youngsters would be attracted to what has always been a proud and worthwhile way of life.

• What do you think? Email your views to editorial@shetlandtimes.co.uk

5 comments

  1. John Tulloch

    Splendid addition to your coverage, ST!

    Particularly welcome as, I suspect like most people, It was only recently I realised the enormous scale of our fishing industry.

    We need full local control of it like the Faroese and Falkland Islanders.

    Reply
  2. John Tulloch

    Let these words be burnt into the minds of Shetlanders:

    “The looming discard ban is a classic example: no fisherman wants to discard fish, but the quota system obliges them to. And now it will be illegal to discard, yet the quota system will still be there. So you have to land fish but you can’t.”

    “It would be good to recognise that fishermen are the prime stakeholders in all this. We have a great many opinionated people who call themselves stakeholders, but if you have a home to go to at night whether or not there is a fishing industry, I’m sorry, you are not a stakeholder. Your stake is so general as to be meaningless.”

    This is what happens when politicians who purport to represent you negotiate away your fishing sovereignty for some other rubbish they have a fancy for e.g. “tackling climate change”.

    Little wonder the Iceland electorate have told their leaders to put a red pen through Iceland’s EU application.

    Reply
  3. Michael Bilton

    Time and again we are told the Common Fisheries policies will be changed to do away with the ridiculous system that allows fish to be dumped back into the sea. Everyone knows it is a disgraceful practice. What few people realise is that when the EEC treaty was being negotiated in 1972/3 – the then EEC did not ask the UK to surrender its fishing grounds to common useage. Edward Heath secretly offered to surrender our fighing rights as a sweetner to ensure we could gain membership. As it turned out the EEC was quite happy to admit us – now that one of the key obstacles to our membership – Charles de Gaulle – was long since dead! There are so many vested interests can we really expect the rules to be changed by the EU? It would be one of the benefits of leaving the European Union – we get the freedom back to make decisions for ourselves – and this would be the first thing we would get rid of.

    Reply
  4. Susan Edwards-Horton

    Well done Simon! You have arrived just in the nick of time. My husband & I hope to move into our home on Uyeasound Unst, shortly – where the friends we have made and our neighbours have already told us about the same senseless attitude to the fishing stocks. When will the EU wake up. They push for environmental issues yet flagrantly flaunt the the very issues they proclaim to care about. It is destroying the environment and the communities that depend on fishing. When we arrive we would like to become more involved in environmental issues since this has to be the way forward for the planet as a whole and the Shetland Islands in particular.
    My husband will soon jump on your bandwagon!

    Reply
  5. John Tulloch

    Bandwagon? Viking war galley!

    Reply

Your Comment

Please note, it is the policy of The Shetland Times to publish comments and letters from named individuals only. Both forename and surname are required.

Comments are moderated. Contributors must observe normal standards of decency and tolerance for the opinions of others.

The views expressed are those of contributors and not of The Shetland Times.

The Shetland Times reserves the right to decline or remove any contribution without notice or stating reason.

Comments are limited to 200 words but please email longer articles or letters to editorial@shetlandtimes.co.uk for consideration and include a daytime telephone number and your address. If emailing information in confidence please put "Not for publication" in both the subject line and at the top of the main message.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.