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Marine / Urgent measures sought to help shellfish sector

Market undermined by continental closures

Whitefish continues to be sold using the temporary market facility at Scalloway. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

THE FISHING industry is seeking urgent help for the shellfish sector with the market for crabs and scallops taking a hammering “overnight” owing to coronavirus.

Discussions are ongoing with the Scottish Government for temporary help for the sector which is hardest hit among the local strands of the fishing industry.

Shetland’s continental exports are mostly crab and scallop, but prawns (nephrops), which form a huge part of Scottish seafood exports, are also badly affected.

Shetland Fishermen’s Association executive officer Simon Collins said that it was essential to support a sector that in normal times was very healthy in order to tide it over till the effects of coronavirus had broken.

With the Spanish tourism industry said to have collapsed overnight, restaurants and other outlets that buy shellfish are no longer on the market.

Collins added: “Shellfish is heavily dependent on a healthy shellfish market. The kind of vessels getting hit are the smaller vessels, some are single crew boats and that is the same around the coast of Scotland.”

Shetland Fishermen's Association executive officer Simon Collins said the white paper's "headline points are precisely what we have insisted on from day one".Simon Collins, executive officer of the SFA. Photo: Shetland News

Collins said that while the Scottish Government was trying to come up with ways to help the broader food and agriculture sector there was a dedicated team dealing with the seafood sector.

“We are asking the government for emergency assistance and that will be discussed in the coming days within the industry and with government. The real focus is on the shellfish sector, particularly the under 10m fleet.”

There are over 100 registered shellfish boats in Shetland with some 50 to 80 in the SFA, according to Collins, making it the biggest sector by numbers of vessels in the local fleet.

The broader industry is monitoring developments in the Covid-19 pandemic “on a daily basis” with prices starting to slip for some of the dearer white fish species that feed the continental market.

Fish salesmen and buyers held a meeting following Monday’s markets to discuss developments but the outcome was to keep business as usual. No landings are expected for Wednesday as a result of the weather.

Shetland Fish Producers Organisation chief executive Brian Isbister said that fishermen would make their own decisions about continuing fishing for the moment based on commercial factors like the price of fish.

Isbister said: “The high-end stuff (monkfish, megrim etc) is a fairly big component of the catch here and goes into continental restaurants. Having said that, the continent is still buying fish, but more for sale through supermarkets. Like here they do not pay the prices we have been seeing.”

Isbister said that the industry might try some form of supply control if the demand was not there on the market. In meantime, whether to keep fishing would be a decision for the skippers.

So far fish that is consumed in the UK like cod, haddock and whiting has been making stable prices this week with the 800 boxes landed in Lerwick on Tuesday remaining consistent with recent prices, though there were some signs that monkfish, megrim and the like were slackening.

LHD fish salesman James Aitken said there were no plans to close the market but the industry was closely monitoring the situation.

“There have been fears that the price will come back a bit but so far there has been nothing catastrophic. There is always going to be a demand for fish.”

But the price has come back for the likes of monkfish, lemon sole and crab, he acknowledged.

Martin Leyland of Shetland Seafood Auctions, which runs the electronic fish auctions at Lerwick and Scalloway said: “These are extraordinary times and we are reviewing the situation from day to day.”