WHITEFISH landings in Shetland are down by around 40 per cent as a consequence of the industry adapting to the impact of coronavirus.
With overseas demand for fresh fish disappearing overnight as a result of the closure of the UK borders and UK restaurants being told to close at the end of March, the industry has managed to keep fishing albeit on a much reduced level.
The pandemic also brought any outstanding work at Shetland’s two new fish markets to a sudden halt just weeks before both new facilities in Lerwick and Scalloway would have been ready to operate.
Shetland Fishermen’s Association’s chief officer Simon Collins said the whitefish fleet had to quickly adapt to a radically different set of circumstances to prevent over supply and the danger of prices collapsing.
The association’s member vessels shared what was available by tying up voluntarily for half of April, while as of May a Scotland-wide scheme has been introduced that requires fishing boats to be tied up for eight consecutive days in a bid to reduce fishing effort.
It is a balancing act that involves individual fishing partnerships, fish agent LHD as well as the Shetland Fish Producers’ Organisation, which manages the local quota allocations.
“It helps to keep prices up, but it also helps the transport industry and the wholesale market during the Covid situation. You can’t have boom and bust, you have to smooth the situation,” Collins said.
Collins said the whitefish fleet was not in a hardship situation yet, a marked difference to the state the Scottish prawn fleet finds itself in whose situation he described as “desperate”.
He added: “Income for the fleet is down, but it is too early to say what that will mean for the year. The [local] shellfish fleet is in a more difficult position, and the Scottish Government was quick to come in with support. That support is not available for the whitefish fleet.”
Martin Leyland of Shetland Seafood Auctions said that currently around 5,000 boxes were landed per week, which is about 3,000 fewer than what would normally be sold.
The reduced volume helps the fish market operations at Lerwick and Scalloway to comply with social distancing regulations.
“The fact the we have two fish markets means that our staff is already separated, and we are also working in pairs and not in groups,” Leyland said.
Work practices have been adapted accordingly, so hauliers are only allowed in the market to fetch fish for onward transport to the UK mainland once fish market staff have completed its tasks, for example.
Shetland had been on track to welcome two brand new and much larger fish markets this spring, with the Scalloway market having already been handed over to its owner Shetland Islands Council in February before Covid-19 struck.
The Lerwick market, which is being built at Mair’s Quay for Lerwick Port Authority, was following closely behind. Both new facilities have been built in response to the steady growth in whitefish landings, and the confidence that this would continue following Brexit.
All that is needed to complete both markets is the floor layout markings and the essential paperwork from the local authority’s environmental health department.
Victor Sandison of Lerwick Port Authority said: “We hope to be in a position to open the new market at the earliest possible opportunity once the remaining works are complete and it is safe to do so.”
Leyland added: “Ideally, that kind of space and the more open layout in both new markets would really help in terms of social distancing, but you can’t go it at the moment.”
Shetland Seafood Auctions also has to wait for its new state of the art electronic auctioning equipment to be installed.
Leyland said: “We are also investing in a new web-based auction, but this is now also on hold. The system would be allowing a wider range of buyers access to the market. However, it turned out to be a completely different year.”
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