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Fleet in crisis as fish quotas dry up

Frank Urquhart


21st August 2003

SCOTLAND’S beleaguered white fish fleet has been plunged into an unprecedented crisis, with skippers forced to put their vessels up for sale after completely exhausting their depleted catch quotas - four months before the end of the year.

Almost half the boats in Scotland’s dedicated white fish fleet have already caught their annual haddock and cod quota entitlements, despite being restricted to only 15 days a month at sea under legislation brought in this year, it was revealed yesterday.

Skippers are now being "held to ransom" in their efforts to buy or lease additional quota in an effort to keep their vessels fishing.

And increasing numbers claim they now have no choice but to quit the sea, pay off their crews and put their boats on the market.

Details of the fresh crisis sweeping the industry were revealed as it was announced that just 37 of the 69 skippers offered grants under the Scottish Executive’s 40 million decommissioning scheme have accepted the cash, with only a day to go before the deadline for acceptances expires.

There are increasing fears within the industry that the lack of interest could jeopardise the 15 days at sea scheme under which the fleet is currently operating.

Scottish fishermen, who were originally restricted to fishing for only nine days a month, were granted an additional six days on the understanding that the fleet’s cod catching capacity would be reduced through decommissioning by 15 to 20 per cent.

That target may now be unachievable.

Mike Park, the chairman of the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association, told The Scotsman that the fleet was facing "total wipe-out" as a result of the latest developments in the deepening crisis.

He said: "A lot of the skippers who applied for decommissioning have reassessed the situation because they have realised that if they leave the sea there is nowhere else for them to go. They will try and carry on as long as they think they can trade their way out of the situation.

"But that is going to be extremely difficult, because half the boats now have no quota left for the rest of the year and no financial back-up to lease or buy it in. It is just becoming a nightmare".

Mr Park claimed that so-called "slipper skippers" - owners of scrapped vessels who have held on to their boats’ quota entitlements - were holding the fleet to ransom by holding out for increasing prices to buy the extra quota they need to remain at sea.

He said: "We have boats in August tying up because skippers can’t lease or buy any more fish.

"And these are skippers who had never applied for decommissioning, whose boats are now up for sale because they cannot get their hands on any quota.

"The situation is absolutely dire and we have warned the Executive that if this goes any further then you are talking about the total wipe-out of the fleet."

He revealed: "It has been costing me 600 a tonne to lease cod.

"I have had to pay a pensioner 40 a box for the privilege of landing a box of cod. But right now I can’t lease any cod for love nor money."

Mr Park claimed: "This is exactly the situation we warned Ross Finnie, the Scottish fisheries minister, would happen. We told him that unless they took the quota back from the decommissioned boats, the vessels that were left would be no better off.

"All it means is that 40 million will be going to the banks."

The quota crisis, however, could be further exacerbated by the poor uptake of decommissioning cash offers, and the affect on the additional six days a month at sea.

Said Mr Park: "My concern is that it will now mean up to 80 boats leaving the fleet. But that will mean slipping down the scale to smaller vessels which catch very little cod.

"If we fail to reach the target reduction, where will we stand next year and where will we stand with our additional six days?"

A spokesman for the Scottish Executive said that once the final number of acceptances was known, officials would start working on the reserve list of applications.

A total of 177 skippers originally applied for the scheme and it was not possible to say what the ultimate possible shortfall might be.

Meanwhile, the European Commission yesterday imposed a trawling ban to protect the Darwin Mounds, a spectacular cold-water coral reef off Scotland’s north-west coast, from being destroyed by deep sea trawlers.

The mounds, thought to be more than 4,500 years old, were discovered only five years ago 150 miles off Cape Wrath and hundreds of feet down, by oil industry geologists.

The corals extend across more than 40 square miles, reaching 16ft high in places, but recent studies revealed trawl-scars up to two and a half miles long where fishing boats had damaged the ancient reef.