Skipper takes issue with environmentalists on trawling

A Shetland fishing skipper has highlighted scientific work that suggests trawling may benefit rather than harm marine life on the ocean floor.

James Anderson of Shetland Fishermen's Association. Photo: Courtesy of Platform Shetland
James Anderson of Shetland Fishermen’s Association. Photo: Courtesy of Platform Shetland

James Anderson of the Alison Kay  (LK 57) believes the claims made by environmental groups about the catching of bottom-dwelling fish are wildly exaggerated.

In part, his view is the product of almost 30 years’ experience as a trawlerman fishing the same grounds.

But it is increasingly supported by evidence, most recently in an article by Dutch scientists in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences.

One of the authors, Daniel van Denderen of the Wageningen Institute for Marine Resources and Ecosystem Studies, said that while trawling removed fish such as large crustaceans and shellfish, this is fortunate for smaller, softer species in the sandy seabed, such as worms, which with fewer predators flourish.

Since the smaller species tended to be the main source of food for fish, the overall effect was more marine life. “Fish persist at trawling intensities where they would have gone extinct otherwise,” he said.

Mr Anderson said: “We fish the same seabed all the time. We have been doing that since I left the school.

“You don’t just ruin a place and move on – if that was the case the fishing would have been finished a long time ago.

“Flugga is the area we have fished with the Alison Kay basically since we got the boat. It’s the same tows, we just shift around a bit with the seasons.

“The fishing is as good now as I can ever remember – we’ve never caught so much fish so quickly – and quality fish too.

“But of course I’m a fisherman and the environmental NGOs will say: ‘Oh he would say that, wouldn’t he?’. So it’s good to see some scientific backing for what we see on the grounds – and I hope more work will be done on this.”

Mr Anderson said he was not opposed to cordoning off areas of seabed to protect sensitive marine ecosystems, temporarily or permanently if necessary.

“If you get a lot of small cod, for instance, that hang around an area, it’s maybe beneficial to say, ‘okay, we’ll leave that bit’. I don’t mind doing a bit of that. But when you get the more extreme ‘trawling is bad per se” stuff, there are a lot of arguments against that.

“I think the idea that you are destroying and you move on – I have seen NGOs making the point that an area something like half the size of Brazil is destroyed by trawling every year and you move on – that is just nonsense.”

Shetland Fishermen’s Association chairman Leslie Tait said: “There seems to be a general assumption that bottom trawling takes place in all areas of the seabed. This is far from the truth.

“In any one year only around 20 per cent of the area around Shetland is fished, and over the previous six years only 40 per cent of the area in total. This shows that the same areas are productive year on year.

“I believe these figures to be similar to the whole North Sea and it is heartening to see some reality from the Dutch scientists.

“Bottom trawling can in many ways be likened to farming, only a lot less harmful as no pesticides are used, buy we hear no cries to ban farming.”


Add Your Comment
  • David Spence

    • November 14th, 2013 0:07

    I am sorry to say this, but time and time again the evidence that fishing damages eco-systems, the sea bed environment and causing untold damage not only to marine life but to many other species connected to the food chain is very much overwhelming. You only have to base this fact on parts of the world where over fishing has caused tremendous damage to wildlife and the environments to which they live in.

    Why is it when humans put business and profit (or the justification for it) ahead of any thing else, humans always fail……………nature knows far, far better than humans (even although we are perceived as the most intelligent of species (not when it comes to greed and profits)) when it comes to eco-systems, the environment, the balance of nature humans, as a whole, tend to destroy rather than build.

    As long as people put their own greed, money and profits ahead of anything else, humans will never ever succeed in co-existing in harmony with nature…………….nature, quite rightly, will always win………even if it means the complete annihilation of our own species (with any luck).

  • Matthew Laurenson

    • November 14th, 2013 12:54

    This is an interesting article, espcially to see the scientific evidence support what has been experienced by James Anderson has experienced over a 30 year career. Fishing is a hugely important sector to the Shetland economy, and is a well managed, sustainable, community enriching business (on the whole).

    If it were not for the fishing industry and associated processing, transportation and sales companies, our islands economy would suffer a great deal. I expect most ordinary Shetland folk would agree that both fishing leaders and local fishermen deserve to be congratulated for all the efforts they have made over the past years to make things more sustainable. Including cutting the fleet size, voluntarily introducing conservation measures such as closing zones with juvenile cod, and working together with scientists to make sure this industry is going to benefit our economy for years to come.

    Its perhaps also worth noting that the many boats in the Shetland fishing fleet share profits between crew members , rather than having single ownership of one skipper, often involving several crew members as shareholders, which ironically kind of fits in with Mr Spence’s apparent communist persuasion. Perhaps not such a greed driven industry after all? In other areas of Scotland, most fishing businesses operate with a single ownership, and crew members are paid a wage, not linked to the earnings of the business, the system in Shetland is much more a common ownership, so that when things go well, everyone benefits, and when times are hard, the risk is spread. I agree that the oceans have been over fished at different times, but at present its not appropriate to critisise Shetland’s fishermen when they have taken a leading role in protecting the future fish stocks (pelagic black fish landings being the execption).

    It will be interesting to see what further scientific evidence supports or contradicts the view here that fishing grounds replenish themselves year after year. The evidence in this article and in the study seems to suggest they do.

  • John Bain

    • November 14th, 2013 22:08

    Matthew Laurensons letter in response to James Anderson’s excellent article is in my opinion absolutely spot on, what we in Shetland really need to devote some thought to is finding a more constructive way of supporting our fishermen in their endeavours – not trying to criticise and destroy their industry .

    Whether it be the cost of fishing quota , cost of fuel or ill thought out regulation our fishing Leaders and Shetland Islands Council must try harder to increase local control and listen more to people who know the fishing industry based on the wealth of “first-hand” experience here in our Islands.

    One thing is certain, if we waste the remaining years of oil wealth without preparing for the time when it will be gone we will have no fishing industry to speak of and no people able to make a living either, it is time for our supposed leaders to devote more time to constructive thought and less time, for instance, figuring which schools to close, the very schools which our forebears fought so hard to provide for communities which were grounded in fishing.

    Shetland without fishing would no longer be Shetland for me, I grew up with nothing but admiration and respect for our fishermen and well know that over the years some things could have been done better, however if fishing is to have a real future the next few years cannot be wasted – it is time for all our Leaders to pull together to secure a place for our younger generations in a robust fishing industry.


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