A cautionary Scottish tale
Update: The Dutch super-trawler Margiris is due to arrive in the South Australian town of Port Lincoln today to spend five days preparing for it’s new role fishing the Southern Ocean.
The north-east coast of Scotland is a string of beautiful villages which for centuries have relied on North Sea fishing from small boats operated by generations of the same families.
The town of Peterhead, the most easterly point of that coastline, has streets named after whaling captains. Some of the grander older houses were built by trawler owners. Fishing families grew up in tiny homes across the street from the boat berths.
Many harbourside homes and those in streets leading to the wharves have cramped rooms for the residents along with large spacious lofts where the nets once were hung to dry. And there are still lively ambitions to own a boat, hire a crew and exist off the sea. Those ambitions are being battered by huge fishing vessels which look more like tankers and warships than trawlers.
The prospect of the 9500 tonne Dutch-owned Margiris working off the Tasmanian coast is a sign that these monster fishing factories also can operate in the southern hemisphere and bring with them serious questions about the survival of fish stocks and the structure of the fishing industry.
There is no direct link between the Scottish circumstances and the current Australian debate, and it must be remembered the owners of the Margiris have not applied for a licence to operate here. And the big-haul operations are not without local support.
But the northern hemisphere experience might be a clue to emerging issues we will have to consider.
To get some perspective, Peterhead is the home of the 19m prawn boat the Amity II, skippered by Jimmy Buchan, which featured in the BBC series Trawlermen. The Margiris is 142 m long.
In 2011 there were 133,000 tonnes of fish landed at the town, worth around $250 million, making it Britain’s biggest white and pelagic fish port.
A fish market sells fresh catches by the box every morning, but only a tiny fraction gets processed locally. Much of it is pumped directly into trucks and taken to big cities, where the local jobs have also gone.
It can take months of dangerous work for the regular trawlers to fill their quotas. Well off shore is a small number of super trawlers who can exhaust their catch limit in a few days.
These boats can detect a massive shoal of mackerel, for example, and simply scoop it up, take it to a port, and leave again for more fishing.
In some minority cases, the quotas are filled so quickly the temptation is to pick up a bit extra. Last month there were instances of big boats being dealt with by courts for trying to sell more than their allocation on the sly, a move particularly despised by the ethical fishing community.
That community also is talking about other practices which, while perfectly legal, are galling and worrying.
The monster trawlers can cost tens of millions of dollars but such is their income capacity they can be paid off in a few years. Some owners, tired of seeing them idle most of the year because of the quota limits, have sold their boats, and along with them their quota for the coming season.
What galls many is that these companies usually are not British owned, and have been given, essentially for free, the quotas which they are trading for big money to another company, which is also likely to be registered outside Britain. And quite possibly reaping European Union subsidies as well.
The unhappy vision is of more fishing jobs and income going offshore.
In Australia operators pay for a licence and are granted a quota, which also is tradeable.
Fishing Minister Joe Ludwig and Environment Minister Tony Burke will be involved in the final decision should the Margiris apply for a licence. Mr Burke told ABC TV Monday night he was waiting for further advice on guarantees only the fishing targets - and not other seas and bird life - will be captured by the ship.
“The principal thing that I’m looking at is whether, at the same time that they’re targeting the particular bait fish that they’re going out for, what other marine species get taken as by-catch and get swept up in the nets at the same time,” he said.
“I am challenged by some of the reports that I’ve seen. There were questions that I still had after I’d met with the person who owns the fish quota, and I’m waiting for that information before I can make a decision.”
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