By JOHN ROBERTSON
The Shetland whitefish fleet is struggling to cope with this year’s strict new EU cod recovery rules, prompting concern that boats could be forced out of business.
Earnings from the Shetland monkfish catch alone are already nearly half a million pounds down on the same period last year because boats have not had the days at sea needed to catch it.
The Shetland Fishermen’s Association (SFA) has warned that efforts by the Scottish government to ease the 25 per cent cut in effort are merely “papering over the cracks”.
Chairman Leslie Tait said: “There is one or two of the boats we are extremely concerned about because they can’t realise enough effort.”
In other parts of Scotland the slump in income has led to talk of another boat decommissioning scheme being needed.
The problem was the subject of ongoing talks with Scottish fishing minister Richard Lochhead when he visited Lerwick on Friday.
Speaking at the fish market, he said he did not underestimate the challenges facing a number of local boats due to the “very tough” regulations.
“There are some vessels we will have to work very closely with to offer them the necessary flexibility to manage the rest of 2009 and help them remain viable.” Mr Lochhead said.
To earn extra days at sea from the European Commission the fishermen and the government have to put forward conservation ideas which help avoid cod being caught. But Mr Tait said it was simply not possible to come up with ideas to claim enough days back. “It is only papering over the cracks of a system that we can’t fulfil,” he said. “We can’t live with a 25 per cent cut. It is just far too big an ask in one year and it has put us in an impossible situation.”
While grateful that the Scottish government has been trying to help, Mr Tait said the fishermen really want the UK to go back to the EU and renegotiate the December deal which brought about the 25 per cent cut in effort.
“What we’re saying is that they should go back and revisit it because the demands are too high. We all want to save cod but we see there are reasonable ways of going about it, as we were doing last year, but what the Commission has done is drop a bombshell right in the middle of it, coming out with unreasonable demands.”
Mr Tait was baffled by such a drastic cut when the cod stock is increasing every year. “We don’t understand it,” he said.
“The Shetland boats are seeing cod from Shetland right out to Rockall now.”
Mr Lochhead dismissed talk of renegotiation because there is no support across the member states to reopen the December deal. But the government along with the industry was making “vigorous” representations to Brussels to emphasise that the pace of change and the severity of some measures was damaging the Shetland and Scottish fleets. A further 10 per cent cut in effort is planned for next year but Mr Lochhead said there first had to be proper analysis of the effects of this year’s regime before anything more can be contemplated.
He said his officials were working on a day-to-day basis with some Shetland boats. “We recognise the big ask . . . and we are intent on working closely with them to try and get them through 2009.”
In an effort to earn more money skippers have been trying to avoid North Sea and west of Scotland waters where days at sea restrictions apply, trying their luck instead as far west as Rockall or north to Faroe and on increasingly rare oil charter work.
The crisis in 2009 is all the more galling because the fleet had enjoyed a good year in 2008 and played a full part in a voluntary closure scheme in Scottish waters which saw fishing stopped in areas found to be rich with cod.
The real-time closures are being used again this year, earning the Scottish fleet a “buy back” of 10 per cent of fishing days with around 100 closures of up to three weeks expected to be imposed in 2009. Last year closures were called when boats found they were catching as little as 10 cod in an hour, Mr Tait said. Scientists believe the cod moves on to other areas after about three weeks.
SFA chief executive Hansen Black said fishermen did not think they had been given enough credit for measures they have taken, including the real-time closures, which the association thinks is worth a lot more than a 10 per cent refund of fishing days.
Other schemes are being worked out in partnership with the Scottish government to try to buy back the remaining 15 per cent of days for the boats to bring them back up to the level they operated on last year. One involves an experiment in Shetland waters to see if young cod can escape modified twin-rig nets without other high-value species such as monks and megrims also being lost. The concept was tried last year by the Orkney boat Russa Taign for two weeks with reasonable results but needs adapted for Shetland fisheries.
The owners of twin-riggers of around 1,000 horsepower have been invited to tender for the experiment which could get under way late next month. There are four suitable boats in the Shetland fleet – the Resilient, Alison Kay, Arcturus and Ocean Way – but non-Shetland boats can apply too, if they are used to fishing in areas around Shetland where the trials are to take place.
The modifications involve enlarging the meshes around the wings and mouth of the trawls. If the trials prove a success the gear could be introduced on other Shetland and Scottish boats this summer to buy back an unspecified number of extra days at sea.
During his Shetland visit Mr Lochhead announced £95,000 funding for the trials to the SFA in partnership with Marine Scotland Science. It is one of three science projects awarded a total of £250,000 by the Scottish Industry Science Partnership. The other projects are on the west coast, for improving the surveying of inshore fish stocks, and in Orkney to collect data about the brown crab population.
Mr Lochhead congratulated Shetland fishermen on doing more than their fair share for cod conservation.