Catch limits choke Scottish fishermen

European ministers may impose more restrictions on the cod catch, threatening to sink Scottish fishing industry.

The crew of the Zenith in Fraserburgh Harbour after returning from 11 days at sea [Andrew McFadyen/Al Jazeera]
The crew of the Zenith in Fraserburgh Harbour after returning from 11 days at sea [Andrew McFadyen/Al Jazeera]

Fraserburgh Harbour, Scotland – Severe North Sea squalls often hinder Scottish fishermen but it is a political storm over catch limits in Europe that has them fearing most for their livelihoods.   

European ministers are meeting in Brussels this week to set catch limits for 2013. They are expected to wrap up EU Fisheries Council discussions on Wednesday.

“We can handle the weather, but what we cannot handle are any more cuts. We are at the mercy of politicians,” Fraserburgh skipper James Reid says. “We are protecting cod to such an extent that fishermen are an endangered species.”

In recent years, the Scottish fishing industry has been badly hit by reductions in the amount of fish they are allowed to catch and cuts in the number of days they can spend at sea.

“We are protecting cod to such an extent that fishermen are an endangered species.

– Captain James Reid

“There are fish out there to catch. They are plentiful, but we are restricted by days at sea and quotas,” Reid, 58, who has been fishing since he was 15, tells Al Jazeera.

Scottish fishermen feel they are caught in the middle of an international power struggle over fisheries management, and they have little faith that politicians in Edinburgh or London can make a difference.

In the past decade, the number of people in Scotland employed in the industry has fallen by 43 per cent, according to Aberdeenshire Council. A way of life that has sustained fishing communities for generations is at risk of extinction.

Dying industry

Fraserburgh – known locally as “the Broch” – is the largest shellfish port in Europe and an important landing place for white fish, such as cod and haddock.

Skipper Mark Robertson returned last Friday from 11 days at sea. The five-man crew of his trawler Zenith brought in 340 boxes of prawns and 160 boxes of fish. His father was a fisherman and his two children have followed him into the industry.

“It’s not the money,” he says. “It’s the thrill of making your own way in life and not depending on anyone else. It’s bred into you.”

His 22-year-old son Paul adds: “It’s something I grew up with. Ever since I was small, it is what I wanted to be. I wanted to get on at the fishing. When you are getting on, it is the best job in the world.”

But many young people don’t see a future for fishing. The North Sea oil and gas industry offers a higher standard of living and more stable employment. As a result, it’s becoming harder to lure young Scotts to a life at sea.

“There has been a severe problem attracting young people to the industry. It needs young blood or it’s going to die,” Robertson says.

Skippers are now recruiting from overseas. The crew on board the Zenith includes two Filipinos and a Sri Lankan.

As he helps bring in the nets, Filipino fisherman Dante Tunac tells Al Jazeera it’s hard being away from home and he misses his two daughters, but he can make more money in Scotland than his own country. He jokes that the biggest problem is the “strange weather”.

Alex McKay processing fish [Andrew McFadyen/ Al Jazeera]

Way of life

Over homemade potato soup and a bacon roll in the Fishermen’s Mission, more stories are told of boats being decommissioned and family traditions broken.

James McKay used to work on his father-in-law’s trawler until he sold out a year ago.

“It was not viable. You are going out risking your life and putting in a lot of effort. It’s not worth it,” McKay says.  

The decline of the Scottish fishing fleet has an impact that reaches far beyond the fishermen themselves. Businesses onshore are being hit as well.

Alex McKay runs a fish processing plant with a turnover of more than US$3 million per year, supplying retailers such as the supermarket chain Morrison’s. The fish he uses is bought locally at auction.

“We can guarantee the quality of the fish from our own boats, but we can’t get enough to do the job,” he tells Al Jazeera.

Four years ago he employed 40 people for hand filleting, skinning and deboning fish at his plant, a short drive from the harbour. His staff is now down to 20.

McKay says his biggest fear is that EU politicians will impose another cut in quotas.

Christmas cheer on the town’s streets is noticeably absent. The imposing grey granite buildings in Fraserburgh’s town square are a reminder of better times, but now they host a collection of boarded up windows and charity shops.

The local butcher is one of the few places seemingly doing well. Alistair Bruce says his business was founded by his great grandfather in 1897. He left Scotland to take part in the South African gold rush, but came back to marry a local girl. They followed the herring fleet around Britain and had seasonal shops in ports from Mallaig to Great Yarmouth.

When Bruce joined the family firm in the 1970s, 40 per cent of its trade involved supplying meat to boats to feed fishermen. This has shrunk to less than 10 per cent.

“When I started working, we would have been supplying 80 or 90 boats. Now we are down to about 20,” he says.

The company has survived by diversifying its business, but not everyone wants to change.

Controversial quota talks

Reid and Robertson are both heading to Brussels with the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation to lobby European officials and ministers for a better deal.

“When I started working, we would have been supplying 80 or 90 boats. Now we are down to about 20.

– Alistair Bruce, local butcher

Europe’s focus has for years been on saving cod. After a difficult period, fishermen believe the numbers are now recovering and they deserve a reward.

In Brussels, the EU Fisheries Council is working out the “total allowable catch” for 83 fish stocks in the North Atlantic and North Sea. Scotland and Ireland have warned decreased quotas will mean hundreds of job losses, and a sharp increase of cod catches being thrown overboard.

Scottish Fisheries Secretary Richard Lochhead has criticised European officials for not updating a 2008 cod fisheries plan, after what he says has been a recovery in numbers.

The best scientific evidence is being used to determine the quotas, EU officials say.

Skipper Reid has given his life to the industry, often missing birthdays and anniversaries because he was away at sea. He says it is a life he loves and he would do it all again.

After 40 years at sea, Reid says he is “pleading for the right to work”.

Follow Andrew McFadyen on Twitter: @apmcfadyen

Source : Al Jazeera

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