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Stephen Jardine: What to do with Russia’s fish?

Mackerel is the most valuable stock to the Scottish fishing fleet, worth about �16 million  or 20 per cent of the catch exported to Russia each year. Picture: Getty

Mackerel is the most valuable stock to the Scottish fishing fleet, worth about �16 million  or 20 per cent of the catch exported to Russia each year. Picture: Getty

WHAT CAN you do with a glut of Spanish peppers, a pile of German sausages and a mountain of Scottish mackerel?

It sounds like a nightmare version of Ready, Steady, Cook but in reality this is the challenge facing politicians and food producers across Europe this weekend.

Russia’s move to ban European food imports in retaliation for EU sanctions is sending out economic ripples which have reached these shores.

Mackerel is the most valuable stock to the Scottish fishing fleet, worth about £16 million – or 20 per cent of the catch exported to Russia each year.

Just last week new figures revealed record growth in the Scottish food and drink sector with industry turnover up 4.8 per cent to £14 billion. That puts us well on track to reach the industry target of £16.5 billion turnover by 2017 – but only if exports continue to grow.

The repercussions of the Russian ban show us just how vulnerable the food and drink sector is.

The Scottish and UK governments have reacted swiftly and are working together to help Scotland’s mackerel fleet and processors but there is no easy answer to the sudden loss of such a big buyer.

Alternative markets are part of the solution. If South American producers and processors step in to the breach to supply Russia they may leave markets short closer to home and there lies an opportunity. But the logistics surrounding infrastructure and transport are complex and expensive.

The chair of the Scottish Pelagic Fishermen’s Association is clear there will be consequences from the ban. “Trying to find a market out there to replace the hole left by Russia is impossible in the short term,” Alex Wiseman said.

A partial solution lies closer to home. The health benefits of oily fish are now well established, yet our consumption here is still low.

A clever campaign linking the proven benefits of mackerel with the plight of Scottish fishermen and processors could lift domestic sales.

But even that wouldn’t be enough to deal with the volume of fish currently piling up on the quayside. The only serious solution is to offer the fishermen some flexibility in what they land.

By leaving the fish in the sea and banking that quota until later, the immediate crisis of what to do with the fish being landed goes away. There is still the issue of the economic impact, but the industry will have won some time to plan its next step or draw breath until the situation is resolved.

Quota flexibility is a matter for the EU. The Brussels bureaucrats always say fishing policy is for the good of fishermen, consumers and the environment. Their stance on this will be a real test of that.

 

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