Past Life: The Domination of the Klondykers

From Shetland Life, October 1985, No.60

EDITORIAL COMMENT: The Domination of the Klondykers

The herring season that has just ended has been an excellent one for Shetland fishermen – the best for fifty years according to one estimate. Unfortunately it has created very little employment ashore, the bulk of  the catch having been bought by klondykers from Russia, Poland, East Germany and other East European countries. The countries that traditionally received supplies from Shetland are still in the market but now they send their own ships and process the catch themselves.

At one time the end of the herring season was a long drawn out affair as the stocks of salt herring were loaded onto cargo vessels and the stations were tidied up for winter. Now the season ends abruptly when the last klondyker steams out past the Bressay lighthouse, taking with it the last scents and sounds associated with a modern herring season.

This situation will change however when plans for a large processing plant at Holmsgarth, Lerwick, materialise. At one stage it seemed that it might be ready in time for next summer but clearly that was an over-optimistic forecast and it seems likely that the klondykers will constitute the main outlets for Shetland-caught herring for at least one more season.

The proposal by the SIC to spend up to £4 million on this project has been welcomed by many people. It will restore Shetland’s former role as the centre of the North Sea herring fisheries and provide a considerable number of jobs at a time when unemployment is becoming a major problem. It will end the domination of the herring fishery by East Europeans and, by providing competition, raise the price paid to fishermen. At the moment the klondykers can virtually dictate their own terms as is shown in the present dispute over mackerel prices.

There are others who oppose the project, or who at least urge caution. They point to the tremendous risks involved and the possibility of failure. The herring fishery has always been noted for its uncertainty and that is even more marked today. The lack of a binding agreement between Norway and the EEC over a share-out of the North Sea herring stocks raises the fears of over-fishing and of another seven-year ban while during the years of plenty, as at present, there are problems over marketing. For these reasons some people have suggested that the council should start in a small way and test the market before committing themselves to spending several millions of public money.

Those who advocate an immediate start on a large scale point out that that British industry is getting back into its stride after the seven year ban and if Shetland does not move quickly and boldly to grab its place in the processing sector other parts of the UK will be glad of the opportunity to do so.

The factory will be leased to a new company in which Shetland Fishermen’s Organisation and Lerwick Harbour Trust will both have  substantial investment. The latter has an impressive record over more than a hundred years of taking a chance and turning up trumps. Let’s hope they have another winner this time. The present intolerable situation in Shetland’s herring fishery has lasted for too long.


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