FISHERMEN aboard Shetland’s large pelagic vessels, which catch mackerel and herring, report sightings of killer whales almost every time they haul in their nets.

These magnificent mammals are rightly revered for their intelligence and speed, characteristics that allow them to feed on the fish that get away. I guess it makes a change from hunting seals.

Much like the Orcas, the pelagic men are the big beasts of the fishing industry, catching and landing large volumes of high-value fish in vessels that they have invested scores of millions of pounds in to keep them safe in wild winter seas that have of the type that the history books tell us thcclaimed the lives of too many fishermen.

But they know full well that, just as the Orca is no more important than the sand eel in the ecosystem, this does not make them better than the inshore fisherman who lives next door and makes his living from shellfish or jigging for cod or mackerel.

Equally, the guys who go to sea to catch the white fish – cod, haddock, monkfish, megrim, hake – that you buy in your fishmonger feel neither superior nor inferior.

That is because the industry has its own ecosystem, with all the parts dependent on each other to function harmoniously.

In Shetland, it is possible to witness this in action on a daily basis. 

From my office window in Lerwick Harbour I can see vans from a range of different marine and electrical engineering companies parked next to whitefish vessels while repairs and servicing work are carried out on board.

Those same companies, which provide highly skilled employment of the sort that keeps young people in our community and lay the foundations for a strong future, support the pelagic and inshore fleets.

Take away any of these fleets and our vibrant engineering sector would be unsustainable.

Similarly, without all of these fleets operating, the supply chain – fish markets, buyers/processors and haulage firms on one side; and net-makers, gear providers and wholesalers on the other – would be gravely weakened. Jobs would go, people would move away to find work, and the community would shrivel. You can see how it works.

Furthermore, the lifeline ferry and freight services that we are currently encouraging the Scottish Government to enhance to match the volume of seafood being exported, would look a great deal different.

To put this volume in context, more fish is landed in Shetland every year than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined.

Beyond that, there’s the specialist training of fishermen and marine scientific research provided by the NAFC Marine Centre in Scalloway, which is part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, and the small-boat marinas and remote rural piers kept up by community organisations and the local authority. 

All are at risk from any upset to the delicate balance of the fisheries ecosystem.

One of the more persistent and unhelpful myths about the fishing industry is that success in inshore fisheries – however measured – can come only at the expense of an offshore fleet. 

The many variants of this theme pitch “haves” against “have-nots”, “big” against “small” and “large-scale” or “industrial” against “artisanal”. 

The main recommendation arising from this viewpoint is typically the reallocation of quota between different parts of the fishing fleet. 

This argument fails to acknowledge the complexity of the relationship between different fleet segments in places where inshore fisheries are successful, as I have outlined.

Quota is only one factor behind the success or otherwise of inshore fisheries, and quotas already allocated to inshore fleets are often poorly utilised as it is. 

Some species cannot be caught economically, safely or in an environmentally responsible way except by large, modern boats capable of operating both close to shore and far offshore. 

Dividing the fishing industry into completely separate segments is not a helpful exercise. 

Our experience suggests that different classes of fishing vessels catching fish in different ways effectively combine to create a critical mass in onshore services, from engineering to sale, transport and marketing.

This is particularly true of the more remote coastal and island fishing communities, where an inshore fleet of small boats may not be enough to sustain the onshore businesses crucial to successful operations. 

So, when we look at policy prescriptions to solve this or that “problem” in the industry, we really need to see them in a much wider context, to understand the whole and not just the part or parts, and recognise that they are interdependent elements of an ecosystem that suffers if radical surgery is carried out without consideration of the broader impact.

That’s not another way of saying that the industry is resistant to change – in my experience the level of innovation, investment and re-investment in fisheries, often as a result of the need to adapt to new situations, whether enforced or naturally occurring, is remarkable.

Rather, that when we consider how life in our coastal communities can be improved, we ought to reflect on how we can lift all boats and not just some.



Simon Collins is Executive Officer of the Shetland Fishermen’s Association.