FOR five generations, the menfolk of the Stephen family have braved the waters around Scotland's northernmost shores to make a living. Now however, James Stephen fears he will be the one to witness the death of that proud heritage.
The latest skipper of the Harvest Hope is just one member of an Aberdeenshire town's historic but beleaguered fishing community, about a quarter of which is facing "financial jeopardy" due to ever- rising oil prices, according to industry leaders.
With the price of oil hitting a record high of $142 a barrel yesterday, Scotland's fishermen find themselves plunged into an even deeper crisis.
About a fifth of Peterhead's fleet remains tied up in the harbour due to the prohibitive costs. Crews are looking further afield for work, with skippers finding themselves left with no option but to pare back wages in order to make some semblance of profit.
Ordinary consumers, too, are likely to suffer. The Sea Fish Industry Authority estimates that the fuel crisis means the retail prices of fish could increase by as much as 50 per cent unless action be taken.
The pain caused by the oil-price crisis in Peterhead is magnified by geography. Just over 30 miles away, Aberdeen is enjoying huge benefits from the black stuff. The average weekly earnings in the city are 606.30 – about 20 per cent higher than the Scottish average of 503.70.
Geoff Runcie, the chief executive of Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce, says the economy of the North-east is demonstrating "considerable resilience to world economic uncertainties".
He is right, but only where the urban sprawls are concerned – and that is a world away from the fishermen of Peterhead.
In the space of only 12 months, the cost of filling 45-year-old Mr Stephen's vessel with standard red diesel has doubled. Before he even leaves Peterhead's Port Henry harbour for a nine- or ten-day trip at sea, he must pay as much as 28,500 for fuel alone, compared with a maximum price in 2007 of about 14,000.
Furthermore, due to the way fish are sold at auction, fishermen such as him are unable to pass on the costs. At the end of a ten-day trip, he is left with just enough to pay back interest on his bank loans.
The Scottish Fishing Federation (SFF) – the flag bearers for the nation's 5,435 fisherman and 2,191 vessels, which last year landed catches worth 380 million – insists that the plight of Mr Stephen and others can only be alleviated by government support, either from Edinburgh or London.
"Fuel prices at the quayside have increased by 40 per cent since January, and perhaps 25 per cent of the industry is now in financial jeopardy," Bertie Armstrong, the chief executive of the SFF, said. "Fishermen do not pay duty on fuel, but the industry is unable to pass on increases in anything like real time (as] fish is sold at auction. We are price takers, not price makers."
Final proposals for a package of support measures for European fishing fleets will be decided next month, but what is clear at this stage is that, while some financial help from Europe may be available, the bulk of the funding will need to come from individual EU member states.
According to Mr Armstrong, if the UK fails to come up with support, this could deliver a fatal blow to segments of the fleet. "It would lead to the nightmare scenario where some European fishing fleets will gain aid to help see them through the fuel crisis, while the Scottish fleet is given nothing and is put at a severe competitive disadvantage," he said.
"The Scottish fishing fleet is the third largest in Europe and it is imperative that we get support – otherwise our fishing industry could face the tragedy of an unplanned collapse."