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Reviews / Collective action to yield better results for fishermen

Shetland Fishermen’s Association celebrates its 75th birthday this month with the publication of a tome of a book that charts its remarkable history. Former SFA secretary John Goodlad has already had a chance to read it.

Former SFA secretary John Goodlad.

FISHERMEN are individuals, mostly competitive and not generally inclined to work collectively. It is therefore little short of remarkable that there has now been an association representing the fishermen of Shetland for 75 years. The men who decided to form the SFA in 1947 are the great grandfathers of many of today’s fishermen.

This is a story that needs to be told and this book, written by Dr Ian Napier of UHI Shetland and published to mark the association’s 75th anniversary, does just that. While structured chronologically, the important events and developments are set out in discrete sections. This allows the casual reader to easily dip in and out of the book. Other readers, once they start, will probably not stop until they reach the end.

The layout of the book is excellent as are the brilliant selection of high-quality photographs showing the fishing industry at work – both afloat and ashore. The narrative is punctuated with fascinating excerpts from the SFA minute book. Providing a glimpse into the early days of the association when funding was limited, the decision to allow the secretary to buy a second-hand typewriter is a particularly telling excerpt.

In these early days the association was staffed by one part time secretary working from his home in Burra. Meetings were held as and when problems arose and most activity focused on the price of fish and the provision of adequate piers.

One early demand was the need to provide training for fishermen. During the 1960’s and 1970’s the Association regularly wrote to the education committee in this respect.

Something which always perplexed me is the attitude that used to prevail in Shetland (and probably still does in some quarters) that fishing is only for people who don’t succeed at school. Such an attitude is beyond preposterous when you look at the millions of pounds invested in the modern Shetland fleet. And yet it took a long time to change.

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Before the fisheries college (NAFC Marine Centre, now part of UHI Shetland] was built, a classroom had been provided at the Anderson High School for fishermen to train for their skipper’s tickets. At long last it seemed as if the educational establishment was taking fishing seriously. And then the class was turfed out at a few days’ notice because the room was needed for music lessons. This kafkaesque episode galvanised the association to press for proper training facilities and, eventually, with the support of several pro-fishing council members, the NAFC was eventually built.

By this time the association had become much more active, with an office in Lerwick and several staff. Just as well as it now had to deal with more than just the price of fish. The Shetland fishing industry faced the huge challenges of the oil industry, the entry of the UK into what was then the common market and the emergence of a vociferous and often anti-fishing NGO movement.

Responding to these and other challenges, the association soon developed into an effective champion of its members’ interests. Amongst other things it set up the Shetland PO (a sister organisation focused on managing quotas), created the innovative local shellfish licensing scheme, bought fish quota, invested in various fish processing facilities (including Shetland Catch) and helped establish the hi-tech electronic fish auction system in Lerwick.

Political lobbying, however, has always remained central to the association and its representatives were regular visitors to the corridors of power in Brussels, Westminster and Holyrood. Even at one time opening a temporary office in Brussels, the association recognised that it had to be active outside Shetland if it was to have any hope of influencing the political decision-making process.

To many observers, the association probably seems to speak with a united voice. And there is no doubt that it is always at its most effective when it does this. However, consensus is not always easy in an association that represents so many different interest groups. The range of vessel size and the many different types of fishing method are always a source of potential conflict. And there are probably as many views on fisheries policy as there are fishermen. The book sheds a light on some of these internal debates and discussions over the years.

Located in its new offices above the fish market at Mairs Quay, the association has a dedicated team of hard working and able staff who all share the vision of representing the fishermen of Shetland. Armed with Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook, the association is clearly a very different organisation from the one that was established in 1947.

Its greatest strength now, as it was then, are its members. For as long as Shetland fishermen continue to recognise that collective action will always yield better results than individual activity, there will need to be an association.

The importance of having an association was probably most clearly articulated by, of all people, a straight-talking American lawyer. At the time of the Braer oil spill, the association faced a huge challenge in keeping all its members focused on negotiating a collective settlement. One of the lawyers who had advised Alaskan fishermen in the aftermath of their Exxon Valdez spill was in Shetland helping the seafood industry prepare its case.

At a packed meeting in the NAFC auditorium, he picked up the tensions between different fishermen who had different views on how to negotiate the best settlement. “Guys, you have a simple choice”, he said, “you either hang together or you will hang separately.” He had perfectly summed up the vision of the founders of the association some 75 years ago.

Edited by Paul Riddell and Lou Jackson, the 240+ page hardback is available to buy from the Shetland Times Bookshop, The LHD Shop in Lerwick, or online via (£40.00)

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