PELAGIC fishermen caught themselves in a Catch 22 when they started landing “black” fish, according to former Whalsay skipper Josie Simpson.
However those days are now long gone and both the mackerel and herring fishery are now accredited by the Marine Stewardship Council for their integrity.
The greatest threat now facing the industry is the actions of Iceland and Faroe, who are unilaterally declaring huge pelagic quotas in the face of an apparently impotent European Union.
Simpson, now leader of Shetland Islands Council, spent his working life at the helm of a pelagic trawler working and living alongside many of the men who found themselves being fined in the High Court on Friday.
When he chaired Shetland Fishermen’s Association he joined a government/industry working group to tackle black fish landings, advising they focus on the shore side of operations rather than the vessels.
It took a long time for the authorities to listen, and it was only when they did that these offences came to light.
He explained that once illegal landing began, it rapidly turned into a vicious cycle.
“When other black fish is being landed that depresses the market because the buyer is getting cheap fish,” he said.
“Once that happens the only way to compensate for the poorer price is to land more tonnage and the more tonnage you land black, the more you depress the market – so it’s a complete Catch 22 situation they got themselves into.”
It had proved easier to bring an end to illegal white fish landings, and when that happened it immediately pushed up the price fishermen received for their catch.
The same thing has happened with herring and mackerel, Simpson said. “Mackerel prices have trebled in just a few years, but it’s just because black fish isn’t finding a sale on the market.”
That has hurt the men in court though, who have been forced to forego quota equal to the amount they landed illegally. That fish is now worth much more than it was between seven and ten years ago.
On top of the fines and the confiscation of their illegal profits, which alone amount to £3.7 million, the 17 skippers – 13 from Shetland – now find themselves much worse off than they would have been if they had not gone down this road in the first place.
There is bitterness too amongst fishermen that while these skippers have been penalised, their counterparts in Europe, some of whom have been found guilty of huge overfishing of tuna, have got away with “a slap on the wrist”.
“If you are going to cut this out completely inside the EU then everybody has to be treated the same and I don’t think they are being treated the same,” Simpson says.
Leslie Tait is now chairman of Shetland Fishermen’s Association. He stresses that the Shetland and Scottish pelagic fleet have made substantial efforts to ensure the sustainability of the stocks on which they depend.
He cites the MSC accreditation, as well as the doubling of the herring quota in 2012, which indicate that overfishing prior to 2005 had no long term adverse effects on the stock.
Tait also highlights the fishermen have had three penalties for their actions – lost quota, confiscation orders imposed in December and now fines.
“Whatever short-term financial benefits these fishermen may have gained through their illegal landings have been more than outweighed by the losses they have suffered through the pay-back of quotas and other penalties that have been imposed on them.”
He too draws attention to the more serious threat coming from Scotland’s northern neighbours who are buttressing their ailing economies by grabbing extra quota in defiance of international agreements.
“The ‘illegal’ catches being taken by (Iceland and Faroe) far exceed the illicit landings made by Shetland fishermen and pose a much greater threat to the sustainability of this fishery.
“There has to be a level playing field; we cannot have a situation where our fishermen are penalised for overfishing, but fishermen from other countries are allowed to fish the same stocks without restraint.”
Simpson is reminded of the way the UK lost the argument over the blue whiting fishery, finding its share reduced from 57 per cent to 22 per cent because the two island nations along with Norway built up an “illegal” track record.
Meanwhile Whalsay is coping with the stigma of being labelled a “millionaires’ island” funded by criminal fishermen in its own stoic fashion. Simpson says people may be talking about it at the moment, but it’s not been a big topic of conversation on an island that depends almost entirely on fishing for its continued existence.