TALLINN - It is an economic paradox that the fishing industry - both in the European Union and Estonia - accounts for such a small proportion of national wealth while having significant political impact due to the number of people it employs.
Fisheries contribute only 1 percent of the European Union's gross domestic product, while in Estonia the share is even smaller - 0.2 percent - 0.3 percent of GDP.
At the same time, fish exports are one of the few items on Estonia's trade balance that provide net income. In recent years Estonia has exported about 25.5 million euros' worth of fish annually to the EU, or about one-fifth of its yearly catch. Still, fishermen are complaining about a lack of cooperation with the state, especially in the highly regulated postaccession environment.
Valdur Noormagi, managing director of the Estonian Fish Union, an NGO lobbying the interests of fish companies, says there should have been more mutual consulting between the state and the fish businesses.
"It seems to me that for the state, fish is just another item among natural resources. The whole sector of fishing and fish processing and related industries is in need of a unified and well-planned approach," Noormagi says.
EU regulations, which are often somewhat far-fetched in Baltic conditions, can make the average Estonian fisherman's life a nightmare, local experts claim. The latest example is assigning whale-watchers to fishing vessels longer than 15 meters. Watchers would observe and ensure that a unique whale species (of the Cetacea order) didn't get trapped in fishing nets. However, in Estonian waters these whales are extremely rare guests, and most fishermen have never encountered one.
Tiit Tammsaar, former minister of agriculture who participated in the accession negotiations on fisheries in 2003, describes the EU fisheries policy as focused on the proper management and eventual increase of fish stock. He adds that the compromises in the fishing industry were hard to achieve.
According to the deal reached with EU officials in December 2003, Estonian vessels can fish throughout the region's open sea, including areas closer to the shoreline. This is a vast improvement from the initial EU proposal that would have compelled Estonian fishermen to work near Danish waters.
On top of this, the quota for catching grouper and mackerel in the northeastern part of the Atlantic Ocean was prolonged for this year.
"One always wants a better deal. Estonian fishermen are not extremely happy with what they got from the EU as the fishing quotas were reduced. On the other hand, from this year on there will be various financial support options for fishermen," Tammsaar says.
Indeed, Estonian fisheries will receive 12.1 million euros from the EU before 2006, according to the Finance Ministry.
Vessels have also come under heavy regulation. In April the Ministry of Environmental Affairs closed the register of fishing vessels following a EU fisheries policy order that limits a nation's fishing capacity to a certain level. Only new ships of a certain class can be added to the registry once a similar ship has been taken out of operations.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the Estonian fishing fleet consists mainly of ships built in the 1970s that need to be either renovated or scrapped. Used ships from older EU countries could be an answer to modernizing the fishing fleet.
Andres Jagor, head of the fisheries department of the Ministry of Agriculture, says that one positive change EU membership has provided is the opening of the coastal fishing areas - 12 miles from the shore - for all the member states.
"As far as I know, Estonian fishermen already work in the coastal areas of Sweden and Denmark and sell their catch to local companies. The fish purchase price may be nearly the same there, but the Estonians can win on the fuel-price gap," explains Jagor.
Meanwhile, the breeding industry is also about to run into new regulations. Consisting of some 25 industrial-scale farms - about half of which breed rainbow trout and the rest carp - the industry also includes hundreds of small companies whose annual output amounts to several hundred kilograms, as well as 50 or so tourist-oriented farms where customers can catch a trout and have it cooked on the spot.
"Owners will have to make more room for the fish and provide a normal amount of oxygen," Jagor says.