THERE is not a fishing inspector alive who takes at face value what a commercial fisherman reports about his catch.
Statistics published annually by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation are “reported landings” from each country’s government. The only question about these numbers is the accuracy in each case. In truth, no-one really knows.
One assumes that under-reporting is common, but a few years ago the reported catch from China was “uncovered” as being far too high. It was thought that China wanted to lodge higher numbers in anticipation of future increases of their catch – or to show scientists the industry could sustain higher numbers.
But now, at least in Scotland, thanks to the diligence of the Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency, now part of Marine Scotland, we are starting to get an idea of the true numbers caught by certain Scottish fishermen in 2001-2005. In that small window, some 170,510 tonnes of fish went undeclared at Peterhead and Shetland.
The image of hardy trawlermen risking their lives on the open seas to put food on our plates has suffered a severe beating. At least 16 of the 26-strong pelagic Scottish fishing fleet were involved in what is being called a £62 million scam. The fines levied against the fishermen add up to close to that figure, and Scotland’s future quotas are being reduced by the EU.
Of course, not all fishermen lie. But some cheated themselves and all of us with their actions.
How are those who work in this sector supposed to account for apparent declines and abandonment of habitats, without knowing the full picture of what is going on in the ocean?
Scotland is currently rolling out an “ecologically coherent network” of marine reserves. There is a growing number of fishermen who see the provision of highly-protected areas as not only a positive, balanced approach to protecting ocean ecosystems, but as a way that their children may have a future in fishing through the protection of juvenile stocks and sensitive habitats.
Over the next year or two, the current generation of Scottish fishermen will have a chance to say what they think about these plans.
• Erich Hoyt is senior research fellow at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society