The fishing industry is posed with a deadly threat which could also potentially be an opportunity for growth when the discard ban begins to bite in 2016, it has been outlined to councillors.
Shetland Fishermen’s Association executive officer Simon Collins outlined the rapidly moving process of the European Union’s “landing obligations” that will see a ban on dumping cod, haddock, whiting and saithe in 18 months time.
Pelagic fishermen will face a simpler but no less challenging scenario when mackerel discards are banned from next January.
The worst case scenario for the white fish fleet could see boats tied-up a few weeks into the year if they hit their quota for “choke species” like hake – 90 per cent of which is currently dumped by the local fleet.
The problem, said Mr Collins, was not that boats had been targeting hake, but that the species profile was altering in the North Sea and that scientific advice, never mind the regulatory framework, lagged far behind the reality of what was being caught on the fishing grounds.
Mr Collins told the development committee: “The discard ban is a huge threat to us – also potentially a huge opportunity.”
He said that the ban was coming in at exactly the wrong time – it could be a useful management tool in times of declining catches, but with resilient and expanding stocks the potential for mayhem was massive. “It could actually bankrupt us,” he said.
Shetland was uniquely positioned, he said, with healthy stocks of mixed species, local ownership of the fleet and an organic and highly integrated industry structure – the latter two strengths could also be extremely damaging in times of decline.
Mr Collins said both Westminster and Holyrood were beginning to take heed of the dangers posed by the regulations “rammed” through by fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki, in the same manner as the controversial mackerel agreement. Shetland fishermen’s concerns were shared by those of Brittany and Cornwall especially, both of whom had similar mixed fisheries.
There was a huge need to publicise Shetland’s unique position and island status that had the legal backing of both the Rio Summit declaration and the Common Fisheries Policy. This should mean the isles having greater control of fisheries that were both crucial to their existence and unique in their composition.
In the meantime, the industry and council would have to fight to free-up and expand existing flexibilities on multi-species catches and highly-survivable species. Much of the work on technical measures relating to small and non-target fish had been done and there was limited scope for improving these measures.
He outlined other potential approaches such as lumping the minor species into a single “others” quota, which would aim to keep fisheries going by eliminating individual choke species. In the longer term this could lead to the industry being awarded a slice of the entire fish biomass instead of breaking it up into individual quotas.
There was an urgent need to trial Shetland pilot schemes aimed at making the discard ban workable and which would keep Shetland “at least one step ahead” of the rest of the industry.
Committee chairman Alastair Cooper said he was concerned the discard ban could mean also mean the industry quickly running out of main species as it would no longer be possible to grade out small fish from the catch.
North Isles Councillor Robert Henderson said that SIC policy of buying quota in the past few years had been “one of the most sensible” things the council had ever done and had helped avert the likes of the purchase of the fish selling company P&J Johnstone in Peterhead, by an English firm which had stripped its quota holdings, happening locally.
The council’s quota investment had in part accounted for white fish landings into Shetland going from five per cent of the UK total in 1998 to 15 per cent last year – more than the total for England and Wales. Mr Henderson said the council should take every opportunity to buy quota.
Mr Collins said fishermen in Peterhead were keen to decommission and get out of the industry. “If they are so keen to decommission in Peterhead there would be quota that could be snapped up here in a few years time.”
Mr Collins added that the industry and politicians alike had been caught on the hop by the huge lobbying campaign by the European Commission that had seen MEPs vote overwhelmingly for the discard ban. MEPs from landlocked states had been able to vote en-masse on an issue that had no bearing on their constituencies.
Any publicity for the industry-led measures to enable the discard ban would help undo the damage done by the involvement of celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
“Once they accept that Shetland is a special case that helps us a great deal,” said Mr Collins. The ban could also have potential marketing implications with the industry trying to sell smaller fish and novel species that had traditionally not been part of the food-chain.
Councillor Michael Stout quipped it would be an opportunity to develop a market for “saat piltocks”.