By LOUISE THOMASON
Shetland’s whitefish fleet is under threat from agreements reached at the EU Fisheries Council in December, it was claimed this week.
Regulations imposed to support the new cod recovery plan include a reduction in fishing effort and the introduction of new nets designed to allow young cod to escape, thereby protecting fishing stocks.
But the nets also allow valuable species such as monkfish and megrim, which make up a large proportion of the Shetland fleet’s catch, to escape.
Isles MSP Tavish Scott this week met with representatives of Shetland Fishermen’s Association who outlined to him the difficulties faced by the industry.
As a result of the meeting Mr Scott has written to the Scottish government to request that they it takes another look at the proposals.
Mr Scott said: “The Shetland whitefish fleet do not believe that the measures and restrictions will allow boats to be financially viable through 2009. It is important that the fisheries minister understands that the Shetland fleet prosecutes a mixed fishery. Monkfish constitute 31 per cent by value of fish landed by Shetland boats in 2007. Cod amounts to only 18 per cent.
“The Scottish government is insisting that boats use a new net if they are to reduce the cuts in their fishing effort. Is it not the case that this net type may retain haddock, but will discard other species notably monks and megrims due to its design?
“Monks are worth £3.80-£4 a kilo at market. It therefore seems unlikely that vessels will be able to use the new net, so they will lose the opportunity to buy back effort to restore their days at sea to last year’s level.”
SFA chief executive Hansen Black agreed and said that problems with the nets stemmed from the fact that they have not been tested out.
Mr Black said: “The nets on offer have only been trialled once – the Orkney nets have had two trials but none in areas surrounding Shetland.
“The limited results show that not only do cod escape but all ground fish, including monkfish and megrim, which are high value fish, [escape] .”
The situation is particularly bad for Shetland fishermen, he said, as they rely on a variety of species: “This wouldn’t work with the mixed fishery we have here. We don’t have a clean haddock fishery.”
Restrictions in effort would also be problematic because of the way in which the high value species are fished for.
Mr Black said: “With monkfish and megrim predominately, the only way to catch them is to tow for them and for a sustained period, they don’t shoal up like some species such as haddock do. A cut in effort would therefore directly affect the boats.”
SFA chairman Leslie Tait was equally unimpressed. He said: “To be honest I think the whole concept of what they’re doing is untried. They’re grasping at straws.
“We’d gone through the whole process with the cod recovery programme where the government and the industry made headway. For once it was felt that the industry wasn’t thrown on the back foot. Now they’ve completely thrown a spanner in the works.
“Then you had politicians coming out and saying they had gotten a good deal when in fact they didn’t. It’s a bad deal for the fishermen.”
Fishermen and the industry, he said, realise the need for conservation measures, but the options they have been given are unrealistic.
Mr Tait said: “We were led to believe this would alleviate the situation. We’re willing to go along with plans to protect the spawning stock and abundance of cod, but what we need is real time issues – closures we can understand.
“These gear measures are completely unacceptable to the industry … Vessels are not going to spend a lot of money on gear they don’t know will work.
“We’re very disappointed in what happened at the end of December. The reality won’t hit until later on in the year.”
Mr Scott said he would be pressing the government to take into account other factors which put pressure on fishermen, such as the recession, market price fluctuations and the difficulties of business banking.
He added: “I want a more considered and gradual approach to policy that would allow vessels to be confident about their financial viability.
“As with all Fisheries Council outcomes, the devil is in the detail and that takes time to work out. We still don’t know the full picture, fishermen are still starting the year without knowing all they need about the new management regime, but what they do know is mostly worrying news.
“After some good years, the whitefish boats face a difficult year if the minister cannot sort out the problems I and others, are raising with him.”