A SHETLAND white fish boat that has been a mainstay of the local fleet for the past 36 years has been scrapped on the Scottish mainland.
Last Tuesday eight Shetland boats landed bumper catches on the first day of the 2011 fish market in Lerwick.
That morning Athena skipper Magnus Jamieson and two of his elderly crewmen set off from Lerwick heading for Macduff on their vessel’s final voyage to the breakers yard.
The Athena is the only Shetland boat to take advantage of a new decommissioning scheme set up by the Scottish government as part of its effort to help maintain the white fish industry by spreading out reduced quotas and fishing effort amongst other vessels.
Sixty five year old Mr Jamieson said he was happy to retire after 50 years at sea, but conditions are such in 2011 that no young crew can afford to start up where he has left off.
Last year the Athena “parked” its fishing licence under a new government scheme that allows other boats to buy up all or part of a vessel’s fishing effort.
However ‘licence parking’ left redundant boats clogging up Scottish harbours, so Edinburgh brought in a decommissioning scheme to pay for those vessels to be scrapped.
Waving goodbye to the Athena was a sad start to 2011 for Shetland’s white fish fleet, which has picked itself up from an unsustainable low of 20 vessels five years ago to 25 boats today.
Two years ago there was talk of a white fish revival with record landings at Lerwick’s new electronic fish market, but such hopes have been squelched by a management system that fishermen say is out of touch with reality on the fishing grounds.
Last month saw the December EU fisheries council cut the North Sea cod quota by 20 per cent.
Yet Shetland Fishermen’s Association chief executive Hansen Black says that local crews are finding it increasingly difficult not to catch the species.
“Cod has become increasingly abundant in local waters and fishermen are spending more time speaking to each other about how to avoid catching cod than about catching fish, which is their job. It’s a very frustrating position to be in,” he said.
He says there is still an optimism in the local white fish fleet, but the economics simply do not allow young crews to start a new business.
“In Shetland fishermen are willing to invest in the future, in boats and buying fishing quota and buying licences to maintain the viability of their businesses,” Mr Black said.
“Everybody would have wanted the Athena to stay in Shetland and a young crew to take it over, but the cost of starting in the industry is proving prohibitive. At least the quota and the fishing effort will remain in Shetland.”
Magnie Jamieson shares the frustrations of other fishermen who see their industry being strangled by a bureaucracy that is unable to take on board the reality they see on the fishing grounds.
“It’s going to be very hard for young men to get into the white fish industry. They can’t buy boats, they can’t buy quota, they can’t buy days at sea. To pay for boats is simply impossible.”
He started the Athena in 1974 with a crew of eight, but as the technology improved and the restrictions tightened they were reduced to five men by last year.
“The number of days at sea went from as many as we wanted down to 200, then 160 and this year it’s 105.
“And the fish we’ve dumped this last two or three years is phenomenal. You name it, we’ve dumped it – cod, megrim, whiting. Once the politicians got hold of it, it was the end of the fishing industry.”
He says that throughout his half century at sea he has seen species come and go. “In 1974 we couldn’t get a haddock or a cod, then it was only cod, then it was haddock. That’s how it goes. Some years it’s very, very scarce, some years it’s very, very good. It’s been like that all the time I’ve been fishing. Some years are good and some years are bad for all species.”
This year fishing leaders hope to see changes in the way fisheries science and management systems are calculated.
There are top level meetings planned to look at reducing discards and fishermen want to be more involved in providing the scientific data that feeds into the quota talks
Mr Black said: “You will never get the perfect system but at the moment we firmly believe that the cod quotas are way out of line with the amount of fish that’s on the ground. It’s blatantly obvious, even the scientists agree but the management system is pushing the quotas down.”
“There needs to be a strong attack on the management system. That’s going to have to be the main focus this year. There’s a lot of discussion about reducing or eliminating discards and the management is tied to weak and flimsy science, so we are going to have to look at ways of making the whole system more robust.
“We need to have an industry where once again the NAFC is full of young fishermen being trained to do their apprenticeship and then go and look at purchasing a vessel, to allow that entrepreneurial spirit to flourish.
“Because at the amount of fish in the sea around Shetland is the best that most fishermen can remember.”