Simon Collins: Scotland's fishing communities can flourish again if given the chance

Imagine, if you will, a small island '“ say seven-and-a-half square miles '“ with a population of just over 1000.

Whalsay is once again reinvesting in its fishing fleet. The islands first new whitefish boat in 16 years, the Resilient, arrived this summer and more vessels are on the way. Picture: contributed
Whalsay is once again reinvesting in its fishing fleet. The islands first new whitefish boat in 16 years, the Resilient, arrived this summer and more vessels are on the way. Picture: contributed

Then try and visualise a small, sheltered harbour on the island’s western side teeming with fishing boats of all shapes and sizes, right from some of Britain’s largest and most modern to single-handed inshore creel vessels.

Take a step further. Those seven very big boats – 70 to 80 metres long, towering over the far end of the harbour – represent a quarter of the UK pelagic fleet.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

These ships focus on high-volume species such as mackerel and herring, caught with an absurdly low carbon footprint* and sold to markets all over the world. Next to them, fighting for space on adjacent piers, are the island’s whitefish boats and scores of smaller shellfish craft.

A blast from the past, you might think, before decline set in all around the British coast, a sight as unlikely these days as a fleet of tea clippers.

You would be wrong. The island of Whalsay, part of the Shetland archipelago, has been synonymous with fishing for centuries. And unlike so many other fishing communities, it has not only managed to hang on to that tradition but has kept its eye firmly on the future. Its fortunes have certainly waxed and waned over the years, but if you were a City type you would look enviously at its current asset value and income forecasts.

That’s not the way they look at it in Whalsay. For the owner-crews of these boats – and they are all local families – fishing is a way of life. Many have taken staggering risks to sustain jobs and therefore the community itself.

And with fish stocks in the North Sea in robust good health once again, the island is once again reinvesting in its fleet.

The island’s first new whitefish boat for 16 years, the Resilient (LK 195), with four partners and three crew, arrived home in the summer; and a second, to replace the Tranquility (LK 63), is due for delivery in 2018.

And shortly a brand new, 75m pelagic vessel, the Antares (LK 419), built in Norway at a cost of well over £20 million, will arrive in that small harbour at Symbister

She will be followed in 2018 by a new Serene (LK 297), which is due to be constructed in Denmark for a similar cost.

A third vessel in Whalsay’s pelagic fleet, the Antarctic (LK 145), will be lengthened next year.

All this on an island whose population would have to be five times bigger for it to qualify as a town.

This dynamic, entrepreneurial spirit is not unique to Whalsay, and you don’t have to look far across the North Atlantic to find remote communities of great vitality based on fishing in even more inhospitable climates.

The difference is that Whalsay has worked a near-miracle in surviving the attentions of a European Union that has long specialised in destructive fisheries management and giving away vital fish stocks to other countries.

In places like Norway, as close to Whalsay as Aberdeen, similar fishing communities have thrived too. But in close partnership with government, not in constant conflict with Brussels.

Which brings us back to the future. Norway remains a major fishing nation, with a management regime that could serve as a model for what this country might adopt in a post-Brexit world.

Norway decides itself who else can fish in its waters, and when. It negotiates its own quotas and operates a workable discard scheme. Above all, it recognises that a vibrant fishing industry based on sustainable harvesting can make a significant contribution not only to GDP but to maintaining rural communities.

As they prepare for the start of Brexit negotiations, the UK and Scottish governments would do well to consider that example.

Coming generations of fishers in communities with traditions as long as Whalsay can make a real difference, if only we’d give them that opportunity.

(*A 2015 NAFC Marine Centre study showed that the carbon footprint of the Shetland mackerel fishery was the lowest of the major protein groups – 8.5 times lower than the 
lowest scoring meat product, pork, and 47 times lower than the highest, beef.)

Simon Collins is executive officer of the Shetland Fishermen’s Association