Fishermen and industry leaders gave a lukewarm reception to a model of catch quotas floated by UK Fisheries Minister George Eustice at a meeting in Lerwick yesterday.
The minister outlined catch quotas as one of a number of “flexibilities” that are built into the “landing obligations” that will be applied to demersal fisheries from 2016, when haddock, cod, whiting and saithe can no longer be dumped at sea.
Shetland Fishermen’s Association chairman Leslie Tait said that while the visit from Mr Eustice, MP for Camborne and Redruth, was very welcome, the catch quota system had already been tried in Scotland and found wanting. Only one Shetland boat had participated in the voluntary scheme for a year and had decided not to repeat it.
Among the various unwelcome side effects of the catch quota scheme had been the very rapid doubling in cost of “renting” fish quota in Scotland. Under the scheme, boats that agree not to discard fish are awarded extra cod quota.
The industry, Mr Tait said, is faced with the challenge of making something workable from a horrendously complicated set of proposals that will lead to a ban on discarding all species by 2020.
Mr Tait said: “This really is a guddle. There is a whole lot of stuff that will be interpreted in one way by one country and in another way by another country.”
The discard ban, intended to reduce fish mortality, promises a huge shake up for fishing practices but will also prove to be incredibly difficult for the industry to implement.
Local fishermen have reported having to dump hundreds of boxes of cod just to catch a few boxes of haddock “all around Shetland”. When the discard ban comes in, all fish will have to be landed.
The various “flexibilities” will only scratch the surface of quota shortages while the industry will be faced with tremendous administrative burdens.
After the meeting Mr Eustice said the catch quota system had been tried successfully in England. Other flexibilities include borrowing quota between different species or from the following year’s allocation or banking fish if not much was being caught. There would also be exemptions for fish like plaice that had a good chance of survival after discarding.
The controversial mackerel deal that will give Faroe a huge slice of the catch in perpetuity was also up for debate. Mr Eustice emphasised that a political settlement was inevitable and that almost doubling the UK mackerel quota – Shetland’s share this year will rise to 59,000 tonnes from 32,000 tonnes last year – will take the sting from settling with the Faroese.
But Mr Tait said the problem centered around future years when the quotas would inevitably contract given a decline in fish stocks. Then the UK fleet will be left with a greatly reduced share of the fishery.
There were precedents for this with blue whiting and Atlanto Scandian herring, where Britain had been left with very little of the stock.
There was also a question of how thoroughly Faroe would police its own fleet, given that the pelagic fisheries were now very toughly regulated in the EU.
In response to questions about the effects of Scottish independence, Mr Eustice said that the UK industry was now largely based in Scotland and was a top priority for UK negotiators. The industry in Shetland and Scotland would benefit from the extra votes the UK could bring to the negotiating table at the European Union.