No international swaps as EU and Norway talks drag on

Scotland’s whitefish sector is facing a crisis over quota shortages and quotas that are well out of line with stock abundance, particularly North Sea cod and whiting, reports Tim Oliver.

Provisional quotas have been set for the rest of 2021 as negotiations with the EU and Norway over quotas and access drag on, but they are basic allocations only.

The Brexit Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) means there is no ability for POs to arrange vital swaps with the Continental POs as they formerly did, and the lack of a deal with Norway means boats cannot fish in the Norwegian sector to ease the pressure on UK stocks and quotas.

There is also no deal with Faroe in 2021, where around a dozen larger Scottish whitefish boats normally fish, which again puts more pressure on Scottish waters and quotas.

Skippers are being forced to spend much longer in port to try to make their quotas last, which makes for volatile markets and prices as supplies fluctuate far more than normal. This, in turn, is hitting processors, who are not getting enough raw material and continuity of supply for their needs. 

North Sea cod and whiting quotas in particular are far out of line with the relative abundance of these species on the grounds, and there are calls for a mid-year review of the cod quota. 

The UK North Sea total cod catch in 2018 was 21,100t, but the UK allocation in 2021 is only 5,824t – a 75% reduction. “Not many businesses can survive that sort of cut,” said David Anderson, chief executive of the Aberdeen FPO. 

Skippers are finding it difficult to avoid catching cod and whiting, leading to a rapid uptake of their inadequate quotas and fears of early tie-ups if they result in chokes under the landing obligation, which prohibits discards of quota species

A former top skipper in the Scottish industry, Andrew Bremner of Wick, said the job had been ‘OK’ before Brexit, but ‘from 1 January, it was as though someone had flicked a switch’. “The problems in the industry are just unbelievable,” he said. 

He now manages the family boat Boy Andrew, which is skippered by his son, also Andrew, but still makes an occasional trip to sea. 

“One of the biggest problems is there is too much cod, and the quota is totally out of balance with the fish we’re seeing on the grounds,” he told Fishing News.

“The 2021 quota has been cut by 12%, plus it was cut by 40-50% last year, but there is so much cod on the grounds you can’t avoid them, and it’s nearly impossible to stick to the landing obligation. 

“If I told my son to go to sea for three days and just catch as much as he could, he would come back with 500 boxes of cod, no problem, but to catch 500 boxes of haddock would be impossible.” Yet the haddock quota is up by 60%, while cod was cut dramatically. 

He said there was also an abundance of whiting in the northern North Sea, and particularly on the west side of Shetland.

“There has been an abundance of whiting in the northern North Sea for a lot of years, and I would very nearly say there’s the most I’ve seen on the west side of Shetland in my career, and I’ve been fishing for over 40 years.

“This year, our boat has seen some really good hauls on the west side of Shetland. The boats are steaming all the way out to the Norwegian line and seeing whiting on what would normally be haddock grounds – there’s very little haddock just now, and we’re hoping they come on again in the summer.” 

Science out of line

Andrew Bremner said the science was ‘once again’ out of line with what skippers were seeing on the grounds. He was at a briefing in 2019 on the ICES advice, and scientists said there were very few indications of whiting around Shetland. 

“They said they hadn’t picked them up in the Scotia survey trips, but everyone knows you get most whiting around Shetland – around 60% of landings in Shetland are whiting. Now, two years later, they’re abundant in the northern North Sea.”

The imbalance between cod and whiting quotas and the fish on the grounds brought skippers into conflict with the landings obligation, he said. “You’ve either got to lie in the harbour, or go to sea and dump fish because you haven’t got the quota – that’s the choice fishermen have.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many boats lying in the harbour, because skippers are trying to spin their quotas out. If you go to sea, you’re dumping fish, but you can’t lie in the harbour forever – you’ve got crews to pay.”

He said Boy Andrew had quota from four or five boats that the family had formerly owned, and was still lying in harbour. “We’re catching our quota too quickly. We’ve caught 80% of our whiting quota already and 75% of our cod quota – and that’s when we’re trying to avoid it.”

He said the science was ‘totally out of line’, cod was ‘vastly underestimated’, and there should be a mid-term review of the quota.

“If there are no international swaps, it’s going to be very difficult,” he said.

Lack of access to the Norwegian sector was another problem, said Andrew Bremner, putting more pressure on Scottish waters and quotas. “The Scottish fleet needs to fish there, to spread the boats out and get a better class of fish.

“If we don’t get access to the Norwegian sector, there will be casualties this year in the Scottish fleet. There is too much effort on the UK side of the line this year by the Scottish fleet.”

He said the lack of quota was also bad for the processors, because Scottish boats aren’t able to supply them with what they need.

“Peterhead market is very inconsistent for buyers,” he said. “You normally get 4,000 to 5,000 boxes a day, but then it drops to 1,000 to 2,000 on some days, and then is back up to 4,000 to 5,000 again.”

This opened up the danger that processors will be forced to source fish elsewhere and may continue to use the new sources, he said. 

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