SCOTTISH fisheries secretary Richard Lochhead left Shetland on Friday morning with a clear message not to tamper too much with the way the fishing industry is being managed.
The Shetland whitefish fleet is in better shape than for many years, with fish stocks rising and crews investing in new boats.
The Yell fishing boat Guardian Angell is being replaced with a modern, fuel efficient vessel, with the old boat being passed on to a new young crew.
Trondra-based Trevor Cumming and Partners are bringing a new boat into the 25 strong fleet from the Scottish mainland, and there are rumours of other enquiries being made about a new build.
The Scottish government last year ran a four month consultation on how Scotland’s fishing quotas should be best managed to make sure fishermen have “access to the quota they need”.
The consultation emerged with much praise for Shetland’s unique system of sharing quota between vessels in the Shetland Fish Producers Organisation.
The Shetland system allows boats to lease quota from each other, sometimes at very short notice, so they can minimise the amount of fish they have to throw back into the sea.
During his visit Lochhead praised the Shetland approach, hinting that it could serve as a template for the rest of the country.
However Shetland Fishermen’s Association chairman Leslie Tait said that they had warned the fisheries secretary that any changes to the current system could have “unintended consequences”.
Tait said: “The whole quota system is hugely complex, which is why if you start tampering with it, although the system is not perfect, you usually end up robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
The major worry amongst fishermen this year is the implementation of the discards ban on 1 January for pelagic vessels, while whitefish boats have a further two years before any ban is fully imposed.
This week the European Commission eased some of restrictions to be placed on whitefish boats, including the need for catches above 50kg to be logged and undersized catches to be separated into different boxes.
Tait said he thought it was “improbable” that a discard ban could ever be made to work, but he did believe a significant reduction was achievable.
“I think what we could have is not a discard ban, but a huge reduction in discards; but to do that there has got to be some drastic changes to the management system that has come out of Europe over the years.”
One suggestion under discussion in Brussels is the introduction of a “mixed species quota” to take account of the mixed fishery around places like Shetland, rather than having individual quotas for individual species.
Tait said Lochhead had made it clear he and his officials were lobbying hard to make sure any discard ban did not put boats out of business.
He added: “The minister offered us assurances that any reform introduced after the consultation on the way the quota system operates would not jeopardise our fleet.
“We share his aspiration to bring more young people into the industry and in Shetland we are already working hard to achieve this.
“But as ever, the devil will be in the detail and it was made clear to Mr Lochhead that radical change to the quota system has the potential to undermine confidence in the industry in these relatively buoyant times.”
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