Estonian fishers, reeling from financial losses due to a poor harvest this year, requested 40 million kroons (2.6 million euros) in subsidies from the government to compensate for the 28 percent decrease in sprat and herring quotas for next year.
"Next year is going to be a bad year, and fishers want a compensation similar to what farmers receive for crop failure," said Toivo Orgusaar, head of the Estonian Fishermen's Association.
The International Fishing Committee earlier decided to cut Estonia's annual catch of sprat and Baltic herring from the present 80,000 tons to 58,000 tons next year. Since the Estonian government had not decreased quotas over the last two years, the forthcoming drop will be steep and have a strong impact on the industry, said Orgusaar.
To add insult to injury, fish prices have been dropping lately, he said.
Kalev Kotkas, a member of the Moderates Party, said that the decrease in quotas would exacerbate social problems on islands and in the eastern part of Estonia. "The state should face the fishers' problems and not leave them flying in the wind," he said.
Kotkas sent a note to the minister of environmental affairs asking how the situation would be solved. The minister is required to respond to the request within five weeks.
According to the fishermen's association, industry problems run deep. There are too many fishing boats and fishers in Estonia, but simply curtailing their number down would require EU and state support. Unlike farmers, fishers do not get support from the EU prior to accession but only about a year afterwards.
Andrus Noormagi, head of the Estonian Fishery Association, told The Baltic Times that in terms of fishing business it was not profitable to join the European Union.
The fishing industry would lose 500 million kroons from the loss of its free trade agreement with Ukraine, its biggest export market, and receive only about 75 million kroons in EU support in return, said Noormagi.
Last year Estonia exported some 1 billion kroons' worth of seafood products to Ukraine, which is about 50 percent of the total fish exports.
Noormagi said that the Ukrainian fisheries were not happy with the arrangement and were actively lobbying to end it.
Also, although Latvia, for instance, does not have a free trade agreement with the Ukraine, the neighboring Baltic state has become more aggressive in the industry.
"We are losing the Ukrainian market to the Latvians," said Noormagi, adding that Latvian fisheries have lower transportation costs and receive state support, said Noormagi.
Estonian fish exports to Russia have decreased from 700 million kroons to 6 million kroons in the last three years due to double custom tolls imposed on Estonian products. Latvia, by contrast, does not have these obstacles.
Noormagi said that it was difficult making headway to EU markets due to different culinary traditions and high marketing costs.
The Estonian fishing industry currently employs 5,000 people. The temporary closure of the free trade zones at the beginning of 2002 and a drop in the U.S. dollar have caused difficulties for local fisheries, many of which are expected to finish the financial year in the red.
The prolonged drought last summer caused water levels to sink and led to lethal oxygen levels, causing many fish to die.
"This year's drought has been the worst of the past 50, or even a hundred, years," Aarne Liiv, chairman of the Fish Farmers' Union, told BNS in September.
Fish and fish products account for 46 percent of Estonia's food products. According to the fishery association, the fishing industry exported 86 percent of its production last year.