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The Adenia on the quayside at Lerwick

Investment by Shetland pelagic fleet nets environmental benefits

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Friday, March 01, 2024, 01:00 (GMT + 9)

Investment in new vessels and the latest state-of-the-art fish handling technology has ensured that the Shetland pelagic fleet is at the forefront of catching premium mackerel, herring and blue whiting where carbon emissions are kept as low as possible, and in the process, help ensure the Scottish food sector progresses on its path towards meeting overall net-zero targets.

Indeed, the eight-vessel strong fleet in Shetland is on the cusp of having undergone a complete  renewal cycle over the last eight years once the new Antarctic, currently being built in Spain, is delivered in the summer 2024.

Seven of the boats in the fleet are members of the Shetland Fish Producers’ Organisation, and according to Chief Executive Brian Isbister, this renewal is a remarkable achievement and testament to the dedication of Shetland fishing families in ensuring a sustainable future and protecting global food security through the provision of nutritious protein for markets around the world.

“With regards to the Shetland, and the wider Scottish pelagic fleet, there are many plus points when it comes to sustainable fishing and environmental responsibility,” says Brian. “The investment by fishermen in new vessels ensures operational efficiency and catch quality that are second-to-none.”

Two recent studies revealed that Scottish-caught pelagic fish has among the lowest carbon footprints compared when it comes to protein production, including chicken, beef and pork. Other research indicates that pelagic and other wild capture fisheries have a lower carbon footprint than many plant protein sources.

Sheila Keith, executive officer at the Shetland Fishermen’s Association, says: “There is this continual narrative from environmental NGOs that big is bad, and they have this vision of an artisanal fishing industry comprising entirely of small vessels. However, the reality is, confirmed by research,  that pelagic fish caught by large trawlers have the lowest fuel consumption per kilo of fish caught – in other words the smallest carbon footprint.

“Of course, there is nothing wrong with small boats, and the great strength of the Shetland fishing industry is that we have this wide mix of vessel sizes working a wide range of different fisheries, including shellfish and line-caught mackerel. But the key point is, big vessels are an environmentally sensible way of catching pelagic fish.”

Brian Isbister agrees, pointing out: “Other environmental factors that favour the pelagic trawl sector include it being a targeted, clean fishery with virtually no by-catch of other species and the nets don’t touch the seabed. Furthermore, large vessels are essential for working safely offshore in the stormy waters of the north-east Atlantic.

“With the progressive development of discerning export markets for Shetland pelagic fish, including in Japan, it is vital the fleet has the most sophisticated fish handling and cooling technology to ensure the UK can compete effectively in the export market for mackerel, herring and blue whiting. Scotland has a global reputation for the quality of its seafood, including pelagic fish, which is a marketing advantage that needs to be maintained and enhanced through continued innovation and investment.”

He adds: “This dedication by our crews in ensuring the high quality of the fish is essential as we move forward and it is great to see Japanese buyers showing strong interest in landings coming into Shetland.”

The enthusiasm in which the Shetland pelagic fleet has embraced scientific data collection initiatives has been another significant sea-change in the sector in recent years, heralding a new collaborative approach to fisheries management. Under the scheme, fishermen collect fish samples on-board directly from their individual hauls, which are supplied to scientists for analysis. This collaboration has been developed by the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association (SPFA), UHI Shetland and the Marine Directorate of the Scottish Government.

In 2023, UHI Shetland in collaboration with the other partners processed a total of 5,850 fish and 1,918 otoliths from the mackerel, blue whiting, and herring fisheries. The information gathered through these sampling programmes is used by the Marine Directorate of the Scottish Government, together with similar information from other parts of the country, to contribute to the assessment and management of commercial fish stocks.  

Sheila Keith says: “This is a great example of an industry-led initiative and sound science is key to ensure an evidential based approach to fishery management that will help secure the future sustainability of pelagic stocks. Such work is supporting the next generation of fishers and the future of our industry.”

Brian Isbister says: “Fishermen and scientists have entirely different jobs, and it is extremely beneficial that this collaboration enhances the understanding between the two professions, which bodes well for the future. It enables us to learn more about stocks, and to learn more about what is possible and what is not possible when it comes to further developing such initiatives.”

The Shetland pelagic fleet landed £90.55 million worth of fish (95,818) tonnes in 2022 in Shetland and elsewhere. While mackerel formed by far the biggest component of these landings, MSC certified North Sea herring is also extremely important, and according to Brian Isbister, it is a fish that has future potential to become a more popular food. While still in good demand in Germany and eastern Europe, herring has gone out of fashion as a popular food item in the UK.

“Herring is a superb product that was formerly part of our staple diet, but which for a variety of reasons is not in nearly much demand in the home market in recent times. This is a pity, and it would be good to seeing funding made available to market herring to revive our past love for this great tasting fish. Similarly, there is scope to develop the human consumption market for blue whiting.”

While such potential gives hope for the future, a major hurdle lies ahead in resolving the quota shares dispute among coastal states for mackerel and blue whiting in the north-east Atlantic.  The UK has meticulously abided to its traditional share while Iceland, Russia, Norway, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands have unilaterally increased their catch allowances without international agreement, putting pressure on the stock. One undesirable impact is that through the unsustainable actions of others, the Scottish mackerel fishery lost its coveted MSC status.

“Resolving this impasse is essential and other coastal states must move on this issue to ensure fair and equitable quota shares,” says Sheila Keith. “We have abided by the rules and the ball is in their court for reaching an agreement. Zonal attachment - the principle that quota shares should be apportioned according to the presence of fish in each party’s waters – should be the key principle in any allocation, and past unilateral quota increases must be ruled out as a starting point in the negotiations.” 

Despite such challenges, the Shetland pelagic sector can look to the future with optimism, sustainably harvesting a low carbon footprint, tasty and nutritious food resource. Sheila Keith says: “Shetland has a fishing tradition going back for many generations, and it is this empathy with the sea that I believe will ensure a bright future for the industry and communities it supports.”

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