By RYAN TAYLOR
FISHING leaders are warning a proposed multi-million pound package to help combat spiralling fuel prices is no quick-fix solution for the industry’s problems.
Plans by the European Commission to free up £475 million as part of a bid to help sustain fishing fleets may well have been seen as a glimmer of hope for Shetland’s fishing fleet.
But chief executive of the Shetland Fishermen’s Association Hansen Black says fishing boats would face being taken out of action as a condition of the aid.
The government would also have to make a substantial contribution to the package – which many believe is unlikely to happen.
Mr Black said he welcomed the news, adding that it demonstrated the commission were taking the issue of fuel prices seriously.
But he warned the announcement would lead to a decommissioning programme of fishing vessels.
“While it’s being dressed up as aid money, the reality is it’s money to restructure the fleet. This is not going to be short-term aid,” he said.
Mr Black added the move was “not going to reduce the cost of fishing for boats”, but rather would put in place a “fleet restructuring” programme.
“The commission believes the European fleet has overcapacity and needs to be reduced.
“There is a belief the Scottish fleet is the right size for fishing opportunities in waters here, so the decommissioning element is something we would be less keen on.
“We believe the whitefish fleet is the right size, but there are a number of different fleets in the UK that may require some restructuring.
“That’s something we wouldn’t be opposed to, but I would be reluctant to see any more boats going out of Shetland.”
Approximately 350 fishermen are employed within Shetland’s fishing industry, operating 125 shellfish boats, 25 whitefish boats and a further eight pelagic vessels.
Instead of putting some of those boats out of use, Mr Black reiterated his calls for modernisation by scrapping older, less fuel efficient vessels in favour of “more modern and more efficient boats”.
But while pointing to the G8 Summit which has seen world leaders discuss the cost of fuel at length, he added ideas were rarely forthcoming.
“The fuel price is the fuel price, and what we have to do is look at ways of making it less of an issue.”
Fuel costs have certainly been a major issue in recent times.
It is estimated fuel prices for fishermen have risen by some 240 per cent over the last six years.
The commission says £1.6 billion is needed to help Europe’s fishing fleets get through the crisis.
Chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation Bertie Armstrong said the rising cost of fuel was more than just a “discomfort” and required urgent action.
But because the aid is “dependent on resources from member states” who would have to stump up significant contributions in order to gain access to the money, Mr Armstrong said there was little chance of the UK seeing any benefit from it.
As part of the measures announced by fishing commissioner Joe Borg, national governments are required to provide up to 250 million euros towards the package.
Mr Armstrong said short term measures aimed at helping the fishing industry had already been turned down by the UK government.
As a result, he said, there was little hope of the rescue package being co-financed in Britain, meaning the funds will likely go instead to Europe’s other major fishing communities in France and Spain.
“The view is we are all in [British EU trade commissioner] Mr [Peter] Mandelson’s camp, and we have to leave it to market forces and assistance won’t help you at the end of the day,” he said.
But he added the spiralling cost of fuel was turning into a real crisis which desperately needed to be addressed.
“We were moaning about fuel 18 months ago when it was less than half the price it is now,” he said.
“We can expect the industry to be on the government’s case north and south.
“If we left it to market forces there would be an unplanned collapse in some areas, and when it goes out of an area it will never come back.
“This is a matter of primary food production. We have a national food resource out there which we need to access.”
Highlighting fears expressed by Mr Black about decommissioning, he said fishing fleets would be required to implement a permanent reduction of 30 per cent.
The measures have been discussed this week in the European Parliament and are expected to be accepted next Tuesday.
A new task force has been set up in recent weeks by the Scottish parliament to help find ways of cutting costs, but Mr Armstrong said this offered little more than kind gestures, although he said he welcomed anything designed to help fishermen out during the hardships of the fuel crisis.
Scottish fisheries minister Richard Lochhead said the fuel task force would work with the industry to provide a three year plan aimed at helping the sector remain sustainable.
But the plan may amount to nothing if UK and European aid is not forthcoming.
“Given the urgency, we agree with the industry that the first measures must be put in place as soon as possible,” said Mr Lochhead.
“Clearly the overall scope and nature of our package will be dependent on the UK government’s willingness to provide aid and also the outcome of the forthcoming EU fisheries council in Brussels on 15th July that will agree EU measures.”
The measures have, however, been welcomed at this stage by DEFRA.
A spokesman said the agency was working closely with the industry to agree how best to spend £97 million of grants from the European Fisheries Fund.
“UK Fisheries Minister Jonathan Shaw is committed to working with fishermen to find solutions. What is needed is a long-term approach that helps the fishing industry adapt to rising fuel prices,” he said.