Wednesday, 01 March 2017 00:00

Small fishing villages should benefit too

Falling numbers of coastal fishers and the disappearance of several fishing harbours due to a lack of activity have prompted parties in the Danish parliament to launch a series of initiatives intended to bolster this segment of the fishing sector and secure its long-term future.

Just over 2,360 Danish vessels were registered at the end of 2015. Of these nearly 900 were inactive, that is, they did not record any landing value. Of the remainder, 541 were commercial vessels, meaning they landed more than the threshold of EUR36,000, while almost 960 vessels were non-commercial, landing less than the threshold value. In terms of capacity, tonnage and engine power (measure in kilowatts), the commercial segment dominated the fleet with over 80% of the total tonnage and close to 70% of the total power.

The Danish fishery is highly diverse in terms of species targeted, vessel sizes, and gears used. There is an important fishery for industrial species, the value of which amounted to just under a third of the total value of Danish landings. The remaining value can be attributed to pelagic and demersal species for human consumption including finfish, crustaceans, and molluscs. Fishing vessels are divided into multiple length classes by the Danish AgriFish Agency. The biggest vessels in the fleet are responsible for the bulk of the catches. Vessels above 18 m, 140 in number, take almost four fifths of the total landed value of DKK3.4bn (EUR456m), and vessels above 40 m catch almost half the total value, according to the latest report on the Danish fishing fleet from the AgriFish Agency. The fleet uses a variety of gears including dredgers, passive gears, purse seines, pelagic trawls, beam trawls, as well as demersal trawls and demersal seines. Of these, demersal trawls and demersal seines are responsible for almost half (45%) the total value of landings, while pelagic trawls catch 31%. In terms of landed volumes, the largest vessels, those 40 m and above in length, catch two thirds of the total using purse seines, pelagic trawls, demersal trawls and demersal seines.

 

Introduction of tradeable quotas brought huge changes

The Danish fleet has been significantly restructured starting in 2003, when individual transferable quotas (ITQ) were introduced in the herring fishery, and continuing for the next four years with the introduction of ITQs in the other pelagic fisheries, and of vessel quota shares (VQS) in the demersal fisheries. This brought about a reduction in capacity in terms of numbers (-19%), tonnage (-9%) and power (-20%), which was in line with the objectives of the (at the time) new management system. These sought to increase the sustainable exploitation of fish stocks and reduce discards; to enable the individual fisher to better plan fishing activities; and to increase the profitability of the fleet. The fleet management system further ensures that capacity stays within the legally defined limits. However, the new management system contributed to the consolidation of fishery activities in the larger Danish harbours and the greater concentration of quotas and fishing capacity in the hands of fewer fishermen. Fishing and related activities are important sources of employment directly and indirectly in many coastal communities, where small fishing harbours can attract tourists and thereby contribute to the local economy. The difficulties young people face in becoming fishermen is another cause of concern as it presages the hollowing out of the fishing segment.

Allan Buch wears several hats. He serves on the boards of a bank, a fishermen’s insurance company, a waste water company, and on the municipality council, in addition to being the chairman of Bælternes Fiskeriforening. He is also a fisherman.

Allan Buch, the chairman of Bælternes Fiskeriforening (the Belts’ fisheries association) that is based in Middelfart on west Fyn, has observed first hand some of the changes in the Danish fisheries sector, first as a young fisherman and then over the 20 odd years that he has been chairman. When his fishing activities were hit by sustained low prices and then by predators, Mr Buch put the fishery on hold and went to university instead, coming back some years later to become the chairman of the local association and to restart his fishing activities. But for many fishers going out and getting a degree may not be a viable option. If prices fall and stay down or if predators prove an overwhelming menace this may drive fishers from the business.

 

Coastal fishermen’s numbers decline for several reasons

Back in the 80s, when Mr Buch got his first fishing vessel there were perhaps 15-20 fishers in many of the towns around the inner Danish waters – in Bogense, Fredericia, Juelsminde, Vejle Fjord, and Skærbæk. Even 20 years ago there were over 220 members in more than a dozen associations in an area stretching from southern Jutland to the island Langeland in the east. In 2003 the associations fused together into the body which he currently chairs adding members from southern Zealand as well. The number of members today totals some 55 fishers. The decline in the number of fishers he attributes to a variety of factors. When quotas became transferable it led to a degree of concentration as bigger fishers bought up quotas and vessels were taken out of service. But the size of the quotas also declined and that too means fewer fishers. Fishermen also started getting put off by the unpredictability in the fisheries: quotas would fluctuate violently, bans on fishing certain species would first be introduced and then relaxed. On top of the uncertainty, rules were getting more complex leading to more paperwork, which was a burden for many fishermen as not all of them were good at writing, yet mistakes could attract harsh fines.

Søren Jacobsen, chairman of the Association for Protective Coastal Fishing. Members of this association use fishing gear that has very little impact on the environment.

 

The sector is thus squeezed between older fishers stopping and younger ones not joining – deterred by the investment needed in quotas and vessel, or by the fact that it is a physically highly demanding activity, or simply for want of interest. In this regard, the sector too has played a role in discouraging young people from starting as fishermen, says Mr Buch. Older fishers tend to focus on how tough it is being a fisherman now compared to what it was like when they started. This may be true for someone who started 30 or more years ago, but the younger generation should be allowed to make their own judgement, when they have the experience. Established fishers need to do their bit by having young people as apprentices, training them and treating them well, letting them try things and gather experience. Fishing could be a good opportunity for kids who are not bookish and are willing to work with their hands, he feels. Taken together, these factors all contribute to the shrinking of the sector.

 

Fewer fishers means fewer fish traders

In the past when more fishers were active the fish used to be packaged and driven to fish traders in local cities. Today however the volumes are smaller and most of the traders no longer exist as a result. When fish is sold now it goes through an auction or to one of the few national traders. Fishers need to think of how they can add greater value to their catch. Perhaps by gutting, skinning, and even filleting the fish on the boat itself. Some municipalities are adding infrastructure to their ports, such as coldstores and ice machines, that also enhances the quality of the fish, and gives fishermen an incentive to land their catch at these ports. The association too tries to contribute by encouraging its members to come up with suggestions that could improve their conditions, for which the association will then try and find funding. According to Mr Buch, creating the conditions that lead the fishermen to use a port are also in the municipalities’ interest, as active ports are a magnet for tourists particularly in summer. They put money into the local economy, take pictures and return home and spread the word among their friends and acquaintances.

Gilleleje harbour has seen a steady decline in the number, value, and volume of fish landings between 2009 and 2015, according to the Danish AgriFish Agency, but is still among the biggest harbours in Denmark.

 

New package combines carrots with sticks

Fewer fishermen, less activity in fishing ports, lower tax revenues for municipalities, and a gradual waning of coastal communities were among the reasons that four of the parties in the Danish parliament put together a new growth and development package for Danish fisheries. Among the suggestions were measures to strengthen the coastal fishery, among other things, by releasing additional quota shares, encouraging the use of environmentally friendly gear and high exploitation rates, making the activity more attractive for young people, and, by creating a segment that fishers can join voluntarily but may not leave, thereby securing the long term future of the coastal fishery sector. The new rules came into force at the beginning of March with a deadline on 17 March for fishers to register this year in one of the two schemes, a closed scheme whereby all a fisher’s quotas and capacity are permanently tied to the scheme. As an incentive to join the closed scheme fishers will be allocated an additional quota share of 75% of their existing shares and further allocations are possible if they fish 100% of their quota the previous year. Fishers can also opt to join an open scheme that is limited from 2017 to 2019, and where the fisher can choose which of his quotas he wants to register. Fishers that earn less than EUR36,000 a year from fishing, the non-commercial vessels, also gain additional quotas of cod, plaice and sole. The schemes also have some built in restrictions: vessel sizes, for instance, are limited to 15 m for the closed scheme and to 17 m for the open scheme. Additionally, to qualify for the extra quota allocation a fisher will be expected to have fished at least 70% of the quota the preceding year. And, at least 80% of the fishing trips should be less than 48 hours in duration.

A package of measures put together in the Danish parliament for the coastal fishery is like a shot in the arm that seeks to inoculate it again long-term decline. Here, a fisher sells fresh fish at Gilleleje harbour.

 

All fishermen need to cooperate for a successful sector

The new fisheries package is not without controversy. Although the coastal fishers and their representatives are generally positive, other parts of the industry have their reservations. Mr Buch is broadly in favour of the new package, but he can see that it has the potential to create divisions among the fishermen. However, Mr Buch is pragmatic. In his view, the different fisheries (coastal, off shore, small vessels, large vessels) are dependent on each other and despite the squabbles between them, they need to cooperate, however difficult it may be. Most fishers are represented by the Danish Fisheries Association Producer Organisation through their local associations. In 2014, however, some coastal fishers became members of a new body, the Association for Protective Coastal Fishing, whose chairman is Søren Jacobsen, a fisherman based in Elsinore. “Protective” refers to the gear that these fishermen use – pound nets, Danish seines, fyke nets, traps, and hooks, that have minimal impact on the environment, almost no by-catch, and the vessels have relatively low consumption of fuel compared with other types of gear targeting the same species. The fisherman is often out for only a day and the fish is therefore very fresh when landed. Members of this association typically catch fish for human consumption, including plaice, brill, turbot, sole, cod, lumpfish, haddock, hake. This kind of fishery has a very high rate of quota exploitation, says Mr Jacobsen, with a discard fraction of just 2% of which about 60% can be returned to the sea alive. He feels there is a market for this kind of very fresh, environmentally friendly fish, that contributes to the preservation of small fishing ports around the country. In fact, in the future he would like to create a brand as a marketing tool that tells a story about the fish, and includes a quality element.

As a coastal fisher, he is very enthusiastic about the new package. Indeed, many of the ideas in the package originated in his association. One of the key aspects for Søren Jacobsen is the need to preserve the diversity in the Danish fisheries sector with different vessels, gear, and fishing methods. And both he and Allan Buch agree on one of the desired outcomes of the fisheries package, which is to maintain the fishing ports in the smaller Danish towns. In Mr Buch’s view this can only be done if there are different fisheries landing fish at different times of the year. This makes it interesting for buyers. Trawlers may have a poor reputation in some quarters, but without the trawlers landing their large volumes of fish, bigger harbours will not get the fish they need to justify the investments in harbour facilities like ice machines and cold stores. If the smaller boats are to have facilities, they depend on the large boats catching large volumes of fish and bringing it in periodically. The large vessels typically fish say the first three months of the year, where they catch a lot of cod and flat fish, this gives a turnover at the harbour, then they take off to Kattegat or Skagerrak, and fish for two quarters and then they come back in the last quarter and do some more fishing, when they catch less, but there is still fish coming into the harbours and this turnover is crucial to keep the harbours and their facilities going. Thus, the fisheries are all connected and all are needed to keep the harbours going, regular small landings interspersed with large landings, otherwise it cannot continue particularly as there are so few of the small fishermen left today.

All the species in the catch should be exploited

Finding markets for shore crabs and whelks

Allan Buch, the chairman of Bælternes Fiskeriforening, is also a fisherman. In 1985, he took over a coastal fishery in Middelfart, which at that point had existed for over 100 years, buying it from the owner who was the third or fourth generation to have fished. It is a typical coastal fishery with pound nets for eel, herring, mackerel, garfish, lumpfish, flatfish, and cod, and a few fyke nets for eel and shrimp. The fishing is divided by seasons; herring is targeted from mid March to mid May, eel from August to November, and a little flatfish and cod in winter. Today much of the day to day fishing activity is left to his current apprentice, and when he completes his training Mr Buch hopes to employ another. Until a couple of years ago the fishery had taken a back seat partly due to Mr Buch’s various other commitments, but also because of the fishery itself. Cormorants were becoming a menace and prices of eel had fallen and had failed to recover. Many of the fishers who had been targeting eel in the area stopped. But Mr Buch’s apprentice wanted to revive the fishery and the number of pound nets employed was increased. Mr Buch invested in the restructuring of one of his vessels to facilitate the fish sorting process. Now the nets can be emptied into a sorting box from where the valuable fish are removed, and the rest returned to the sea alive.

In the past, the fish would be sold to a trader, but Mr Buch prefers to deal with the final consumer directly as it gives him the best possible price for his catch. On an experimental basis, therefore, he has been sending some 400 potential customers in the area a text message when the catch is due to be landed. Interest in the fresh fish has been so great that Mr Buch is convinced that selling it directly is a feasible business. It is not just the local residents, who form a potential market. In summer Middelfart attracts thousands of guest sailors each year, and tourists come to play at the local golf course, and many of these people too may be interested in buying fresh fish. He is now investing in a coldstore and a room where the fish can be gutted and filleted to give a value-added product. Adding value and finding uses for new species are some of the ways fishers can improve the returns from fishing. One species Mr Buch is interested in is the shore crab. There is a bycatch of shore crabs in the pound nets, which has been increasing due to increase in population numbers. There is potential for using the crabs as bait in common whelk fishery, as well as for selling directly to the consumer.