Marine ecologist Malcolm MacGarvin surveys the past, present and future of Scottish fishing

The sustaining seas

According to the 1849 Report of the Fisheries Board, ‘The fisheries of Scotland present a remarkable contrast to the soil. They seem almost destined by nature to compensate for the natural infertility and insuperable difficulty for cultivation of large tracts of land.’

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the first Scottish settlers followed the coast, leaving vast middens of shellfish. These contained mostly limpets, but also fish bones, notably of saithe (coalfish) but also cod, which suggests that even then they have fished some way from land.

Trade and industry

In the Middle Ages many fisheries had become locally important, with herring and salmon together making up one of three principal Scottish exports along with wool and hides. Whitefish (variously ‘mullones’, ‘stockfish’ and ‘haberdynes’) were also exported. These were probably large cod, suitable for salting, but ling, saithe, hake and haddock could also have been salted, and turbot, flounder, and plaice were certainly caught.

By the late-18th century increasing division between labour, risk and profit were becoming established. Lairds in Shetland provided the capital for the ‘haaf’ fisheries: in effect, bonded labour for four-oared ‘fourern’, and then ‘sixern’ boats long-longing (baited hooks on a line, even then up to seven miles per boat) for saithe but also catching ling and cod. A similar system emerged for the herring drift net fishery with the curers providing the ‘golden handcuffs’ of capital for boats, captured in Neil Gunn’s The Silver Darlings, centred on the Moray Firth. On the west coast, Pennant, in his 1769 Tour, describes not only the Loch Fyne herring fishery, but also that for tunny, ‘called here Mackerel-Sture’ – the Scandinavian root suggesting a long association with the area.

Stocks away

The Age of Enlightenment brought better statistics, and those for the Moray Firth fisheries led to a prescient voice speaking out against the assumed inexhaustibility of fish stocks. James Bertram observed that, between 1818 and 1863, the area of herring drift nets per boat grew from 4500 to 16,800 square yards, yet the catch fell from 125 to 82 crans (barrels).

Statistics also help illuminate the salmon fishery, initially mainly by net at estuary mouths. In the late 1700s some 500,000lbs (225 tonnes) of salmon were caught annually on the Dee and Don, falling to 80,000lbs (35 tonnes) a century later. By then salmon were also being targeted offshore with stake and bag nets. These are remarkable numbers, but, even allowing for other rivers, they are dwarfed by Scotland’s current aquaculture production of around 130,000 tonnes annually.

Steam power created another revolution. Steam trawlers, often funded by share-owners, were powerful, mobile and hugely controversial. They were strongly resisted by those inshore fishermen who had neither the resources nor inclination to join in. A Royal Commission Inquiry, held in the 1860s, was inconclusive about the impact of trawling on fish quality and environment impact. However a precautionary decision was taken and, as a result, between 1867 and 1897 trawling was banned throughout the Moray, Tay, Forth and Clyde firths. However, the ban couldn’t be enforced on foreign boats, and eventually, Scots started to drag purse seine (encircling) nets along the sea bed, and by the 1920s the protected areas had effectively been abandoned.

The deep water fleet

New deep-sea trawlers able to exploit near-virgin stocks, icing, the railways, and the perfection of the deep-fat frier combined to make a ‘pile-it-high, sell it cheap’ approach profitable. The era of fish and chips had come. This may have sustained the working classes, but left a legacy and attitude regarding sustainability and quality which has perhaps still to be fully overcome. There were also other deep sea methods, notably long lining out of East coast ports for halibut between Scotland and Iceland, where the fish during the 1930s were still abundant, and so large to be considered a real problem to handle. But in many areas closer to home, by the early years of the 20th century, levels of fishing pressure and stock depletion were – surprisingly, perhaps – not so different from now. Fishing immediately after the First and Second World Wars, when fishing was constrained, saw a major bounce in landings of cod, plaice and rays, although not of salmon. In the first five years after the Second World War, boats fishing out of Aberdeen could make a quarter of a million pounds, an enormous amount of money in those days, and crew joked about film-star salaries. All of which shows that stocks can recover rapidly with sharp cuts in fishing, and probably quite fast with more manageable transitions.

The Present: inshore fisheries

From Scottish Sea Fisheries Statistics 2007 we learn that there were some 1494 Scottish boats under 10m in length. These, along with a few larger boats, make up the bulk of the inshore day boats, to which a restauranteur would naturally turn for local fish caught that day and of the highest quality. What is immediately striking, compared with an area such as Cornwall, is the lack of variety. There were 1292 creel fishing boats (crabs, lobsters, langoustine), 95 langoustine trawlers, but just 29 liners and ten demersal gill netters throughout Scotland. There were also 35 diver boats, mainly scallopers. Put positively, there may be an opportunity here for boats switching to fish for top-end local restaurants who are after the very highest quality.

The Present: offshore fisheries

Mackerel and herring fisheries, the historic focus for thousands of Scottish boats, are now dominated by 23 large (50m and over) modern trawlers and seiners. The fisheries are highly controllable and, due to the shoaling nature of the fish, highly selective. For this reason in December 2008 these vessels received MSC certification, a remarkable turn-around from the first half of the decade.

In 2007, demersal trawling landed 62,534 tonnes of fish (typically haddock, whiting, saithe, plaice, anglers (monk) and cod), worth £88million, while langoustine (Nephrops) trawling landed 30,484 tonnes, also worth £88million. Compared, for example, to Norway, it is again noticeable how narrow the fishing methods are, with very little long-lining, trapping or netting. The single most valuable category, langoustine trawling, is also associated with the worst concerns, of by-catch of immature whitefish, seabed damage and high fuel use.

The Future

Warmer water species, including anchovy, red mullet, bass and john dory are beginning to make an appearance and other species, such as the Moray Firth squid fishery and spoots (razorshells), are beginning to be exploited. As for the mainstream Scottish fisheries, how intensely, and by what method, they are exploited will make the difference between a lost opportunity and a renaissance. Current slight signs of recovery of stocks, and of the industry, should not be squandered, although history warns this is the usual outcome. It does seem that it is with the Cinderella of inshore small-scale fisheries that the most immediate opportunities now lie for diversification, higher quality, greater employment on and off boats, local restaurants and markets. Having gone through phases of subsistence, trade, capitalisation and industrialisation, such diversification – taking into account wider sustainability and other interests (such as anglers), quality of life and food miles – fits with the current spirit of the age.

Malcolm MacGarvin is a marine ecologist, researcher and environmental consultant based in the Highlands of Scotland. He has recently worked on the Pisces Responsible Fish Restaurants scheme, which seeks to link restaurants directly with small-scale fishing boats using sustainable practices.

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