FISHING - Red Herring

  • 2008-04-16
  • By Anton Dwyer and Marge Tubalkain-Trell

Staple diet: Trawler fishermen look over their catch.

TALLINN - Here's something you've probably heard: Fish stocks are depleted due to overfishing and environmental damage.  We need to cut down on the amount we catch and conserve.  If you believe all that you'd be wrong.

The fishing trade is as complex an issue as the eco-system which supports it. Platitudes can't explain it and the 'shortage of fish' story is one common misconception that laymen buy in to.

"There are fish in the sea and the situation is getting better and I might say that as there are more sprat in the sea, trawlers should have more work," Toivo Orgusaar of the Estonian Fishermen's Union said.
Despite this, fishermen are not happy. The unions say things have never been worse  and it is getting harder  for fishermen to earn a living.

"There were 148 trawlers some years ago, I can't really tell how many there are today, but probably there are less than fifty of them left," Orgusaar said.

He added that the average age of fishermen is getting older because people don't want to go into the trade anymore.

"There are only a few young fishermen. Since fishing doesn't feed very well anymore, mostly young [people] leave the job and do other things for a living,"  Orgusaar said.

Yet ministries across the region maintain that thanks to EU membership everything is great. The Estonian Ministry of Environment, for example, has announced that salaries increased by 44 percent in 2007 and maintains that demand is increasing, whereas at the same time stocks are replenished.

"The two most important species to Estonian open-sea fishermen are sprat and small herring, both are in a good state. Last year the market favored them, so the situation in that sector was generally pretty good as well," Ain Soome, Fish Fund Department manager at the ministry said.

This illustrates the central problem facing the industry. Governments are saying one thing and workers are saying another. With other industries there is a consensus 's telecommunications is doing well while real estate and banking are doing badly 's but with fishing there is just confusion.

The European Common Fisheries Policy is very unpopular across the region because it sets quotas on the number of fish that can be caught. Fishermen also complain that there is too much red tape involved.
This is a terrible state of affairs for an industry that depends so much on  the largesse of the ministries.
Part of the reason for all this is that there are, in fact, four different types of fishing and they all face unique problems.

Trawl fishing is done in the Atlantic Ocean, open sea fishing in the Baltic sea with 20 meter nets, coastal fishing with stationary toils like weel fishing nets used for catching small herring and finally there is fresh-water inland fish farming. 

The diversity of the industry explains some of the contradictions. Cod stocks are depleted but Estonians and Latvians (Lithuania doesn't have much of a fishing industry, see FAQ aside) don't fish for cod and haven't done so for years.

Estonian and Latvian trawler fishermen catch shrimp. If they catch cod in the process of netting shrimp, to meet EU quotas as part of the CFP, they throw the dead fish back in the sea.

"I'm afraid most of the fish caught will feed animals, not people," Orgusaar said.

Membership of the EU is a mixed blessing. The EU has deep pockets to allow member states to modernize their industry, but EU directives have also forced the region's government to pension off many of its decrepit and moribund trawlers. The CFP also has strict rules on where fishermen can work and sell their produce.
Estonian unions say that the much vaunted salary increase is as much sleight of hand by the government as anything else.

"How much you earn depends on how much you catch. Since there are fewer ships, one ship can get more fish. I don't know the exact figures but compensation was paid to people whose ships were retired and that's been included in the salary figure," Orgusaar said.

The way fish are brought to the market is a total shambles. Some fishermen are not in the habit of putting their fish in ice, so the greatest problem is how the fish can get very quickly from the beach to the buyer.
Fishermen don't have a cartel 's it's the middlemen who set prices which means fishermen often sell their goods for cheap. Some Latvian fishermen have resorted to traveling to Sweden to sell their fish at a higher price.

For the poor souls who earn their living in coastal fishing areas the situation is worse..

"Today fishermen get by, somehow. Tomorrow there will be no way for that. All over the world demand for raw fish is high but we [coastal fisherman] haven't been able to build our industries. The price of fish has been kept as low as possible and that means no investment," Arne Taggo, Parnu head of the Coast Fishers Union, said.

Taggo went on to say that in his region in 2007 there were 450 licenses handed out as compared to 375 in the same period this year, a 20 percent drop in the number of people wanting to fish.

Taggo maintains that Estonia has squandered an opportunity in EU membership in that it refuses to help fishermen until the EU grants arrive.

"Estonia is in the worst condition in using EU support money. The government today isn't capable of using EU grants. A lot of countries give fishermen credit until the money from the EU arrives but here nothing is done."

"This week the Environment Commission said fishermen don't have problems. But they're only talking about those who do it for a hobby. The government is totally estranged from the peoples' situation," Taggo said.
It seems the only thing that will keep fishermen going is their love of the sea.

"The thing that keeps me still fishing is affection for the job because I can do it diligently. I make my own meshes. This is knowledge passed from father to son," Taggo said.