Choppy waters ahead for North Sea fishermen


There is trouble ahead for Scottish fishermen as the demersal discard ban kicks in and the North Sea management plan becomes a reality. It is cold comfort, but Scottish fishermen are not alone in contemplating the future with some trepidation.

Last week I found myself on Urk, the largest fishing port in the Netherlands. People say ‘on’ Urk rather than ‘in’ because once upon a time Urk was an island.  Back in 1930s, to forestall further devastating floods, the Dutch government decreed a dyke would be built around the key fishing grounds of Urk. Slowly but surely the land to the south was painstakingly reclaimed and Urk joined the mainland. In the by-going the waters to the north, behind the great dyke, were transformed from salt to fresh water - not ideal for fishermen who depended upon herring. The fact that Urk remains the largest fish market in the Netherlands is a testament to the determination and adaptability of the fishermen of this former island.

Peter van Dalen MEP, my colleague on the European Parliament’s Fisheries Committee, invited me to meet Dutch fishing leaders and talk about the issues facing the fishermen of the southern North Sea. It was interesting to contrast the challenges north and south of the same sea.  In both areas it is the discard ban which is most feared. In the southern North Sea flat fish are the principal catch and plaice the ‘choke’ species. In the northern North Sea, white fish are key and cod the ‘choke’.

In both Scotland and the Netherlands, the Governments have yet to offer a workable solution to the ‘unmarketable’ landings which will follow the discard ban.  In both the Netherlands and Scotland no one seems sure of the scale of the problem.  Whilst the relatively compact nature of the Netherlands (you could drive from each of the key fishing ports in only a few hours) may help, several days and several ferries would be required to drive port-to-port in Scotland.  Peter and I have our work cut out keeping up the pressure on our respective governments to ensure that the landings ban in brought in a workable fashion

Also on our agenda was the impending North Sea Management Plan. In truth it is hard to forecast when the Commission will publish its proposals, what with the Baltic Sea Plan mired in such dispute. The Baltic plan, covering as it does only a small number of species, was meant to be the ‘easy’ one.  The Parliament is seriously planning to take the scientifically determined Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) threshold, the figure used to determine quotas, and lop off a further, arbitrary 20% for good measure.  Again, Peter and I are on the case. We know what it would mean for fishermen.  We know it is dubious at best, destructive at worst.

Fortunately, the fishermen of Scotland and the Netherlands share more than common problems. Our fishermen north and south have embraced innovation and ‘out of the net’ thinking.  Dutch fishermen, wrestling with increasing fuel costs have all but abandoned the traditional beam trawl, preferring instead the more economical twin rig system. Electric ‘pulses’ now commonly ‘coax’ the flat fish from the bottom rather than the ‘ticklers’ of the past.

Scottish fishermen have pioneered on-board cameras as a means of verifying catch and discard and have already established a ‘Gear’ Group to develop and trial innovative fishing technology. Scottish fishermen well remember the trials of the cod crisis.

Perhaps most striking feature of Urk is its state of the art fish market. No wandering the  frozen market floor for these Dutch fish buyers. All now sit in a centrally heated auction room, gazing at a wide screen TV, as bids flash across the screen.  In truth, buyers don’t even need to be in the auction room; all bids can be cast on line. Not content with an on-line auction, the Urk market is in the process of installing, an extraordinary fish sorting machine. This multi-million euro investment automatically grades by size and deposits them directly into boxes for loading on to lorries for dispatch across Europe.  With fresh fish, the less time the fish linger on the market floor the better, and the fewer hands which touch the fish the lower the overheads for the fishermen. Not an easy equation to balance, but an important one to try to balance.

There will be challenges ahead.  However, as we left Urk, Peter and I were in agreement. The answers to those challenges lie far closer to the pier head than they do to downtown Brussels.