Fife’s fishing industry is ready to take the next step towards sustainability

Fife’s fishing industry is ready to take the next step towards sustainability

Ronald Kerr talks to Pittenweem fishermen’s spokesman Billy Hughes

The fortunes of Fife’s fishing industry may fluctuate like the spring tides, but the sea continues to exert a compelling hold on men such as Billy Hughes.

Having entered the industry as an apprentice fish auctioneer in the 1960s, the secretary of the Fishermen’s Mutual Association in Pittenweem cares passionately about the fishing in the Forth – past, present and future.

Still in thrall to an industry that has changed beyond recognition during his lifetime, Hughes believes that Fife is still capable of supporting a viable, sustainable fishery.

The days when Fife harbours were brimming with boats and auctioneers could sell as many as 2000 boxes of fish in four hours are gone, but in fishing nothing stays the same for long.

‘The dynamics of the fishing industry show us that change is inevitable and history proves that change occurs with or without over-fishing. Nature has overall control, not fishermen,’ says Hughes.

Men have fished in the Firth of Forth for hundreds of years, and change and diversity are constant themes. Oyster and mussel beds were plentiful in the 18th century; line fishing for haddock, cod and ling thrived until the late 1800s; and salmon and sea trout were caught until an annual cycle of fishing for white fish and herring emerged in the 19th-century boom years.

It is now ten years since white fish were landed at Pittenweem. Prawns, crabs, scallops, lobsters, clams and razor fish have taken their place.

These days, there are two separate fishing industries in Fife. The wholesale merchants supply fish vans, shops and hotels throughout Scotland – mostly with fish bought daily at ports in the north-east of Scotland.

The merchants also fillet white fish, as well as smoking haddock and salmon, but they have little or no dealings with the 100 or so fishermen who still operate out of Pittenweem. Their interests are represented by the Fishermen’s Mutual Association, which markets all shellfish landed at Pittenweem. This shellfish is bound for European markets where demand is greater than in the UK.

‘It’s a precarious industry. Particularly round here where we’ve gone from more than 50 boats landing white fish 30 to 40 years ago to a position where half that number land only prawns today.’

These days, depending on the time of year, there are up to 25 trawlers – and as many as 15 creel boats – with many independent vessels creeling between St Andrews and the Forth Bridge.

Between them, in 2008, they landed almost 1800 tonnes of shellfish, which is, encouragingly, about 20 per cent more than was landed ten years previously.

In France, Italy and Spain where the appetite for shellfish appears insatiable, Fife crab and lobster is rated highly. ‘On continental Europe, there is always an appreciation of quality which allows fresh Scottish shellfish to be at the head of the queue as far as price is concerned, relative to market conditions.’

But for the industry to survive, and indeed thrive, Hughes believes it needs to evolve further: ‘The time is now right for another change in the Firth of Forth. The catching of species such as sprat, cockles and mussels must be shown to be viable and sustainable.’

Smoking allowed

Former Edinburgh caterer James Robb is the man behind a new smokehouse for the Fife coast, bringing what he describes as ‘great new tastes to an ancient old craft’. East Pier Smokehouse is based in the fishing village of St Monans, and sources its salmon from the RSPCA Freedom Food-monitored farms of Loch Duart in northwest Scotland. Their product range is striking both in taste and colour, with a robustly flavoured ‘3-day smoke’, a contrasting ‘lox-style’ that’s much more lightly smoked, and a third option that’s cured in beetroot juice before being smoked, creating a pink-hued, sweetly flavoured fish in a Scandinavian style. Local stockists include the Little Italian Shop in St Andrews and Ardross Farm Shop, while online shopping is also available, and on weekends in July and August the smokehouse plans to be open for back-door sales of smoked salmon and freshly smoked langoustines.