Fish industry sees a catch-22 in new regulations

  • 2004-04-29
  • By Roxanne Khamsi
RIGA - Baltic fishermen and fish processors will witness a sea of change in industry regulations come May 1, but the two sides of the fish industry don't see the introduction of new rules in the same light.

Differences between the two groups were particularly apparent in the EU accession referendum in September 2003.
"I think all of the fishers voted 'yes,' but fish processors voted against it," says Inarijs Voits, president of the Latvian Fisheries Association. The association, which includes 55 private companies in the Baltic state using over 140 fishing vessels that operate outside the country's territorial waters, has closely followed the types of changes that will go into effect.
Some new requirements, such as data reporting, are highly technical and require sophisticated equipment. For instance, every two hours each fishing vessel must communicate with an orchestra of international satellites and relay its name, position, speed and course. The satellites then send the information to a monitoring center in Latvia.
Though the fishermen have to cope with these complicated new measures, fish processors actually face much rougher regulatory waters, explains Voits, who also serves as president of the Latvian Fish Processors Union.
"While the fishers have to deal with 13 main regulations from the European Union, fish processors have to deal with 2,160 regulations that involve issues relating to human consumption," he says.
According to Normunds Riekstins, director of the national board of fisheries within the Latvian Ministry of Agriculture, many older factories used by local processors require major improvements in order to meet strict EU standards that relate to, for example, sanitation.
The challenge of coming to grips with the changes has led these fish processors to ask the EU for more time. "Some have asked for a transition period until the end of this year," Riekstins says.
Processors that can handlesprat and small herring – two of the most important species for Latvian fishermen – will find business slightly more complicated, at least in the beginning. Because these two types of fish are uncommon on Western menus, the bulk of sales go to countries like Russia in the East. Here's the catch: though it will be easier to trade with fellow EU members, these countries use sprat and herring only as ingredients for animal stock. But processors in Latvia make the biggest margins when they can add value to the fish by canning it for human consumption.
What's more, with new trade rules applying, selling products to Eastern countries will become more complicated.
But not all accession-related developments mean hardship for fish processors. For instance, while each type of fish has only one main market price in Latvia, after May 1, the price of a fish variety will be divided into specific size categories. Although this means more sorting work for fishers, processors will benefit from being able to choose the size of catch that they want.
And although the regulatory changes open up new possibilities for fishers – giving them greater access to work in northern parts of the Baltic Sea that contain high-value cod – they too will have to swallow the bitter pill: After accession to the European bloc, a value-added tax of 18 percent will apply to all purchases of fishing supplies, including fish nets, fuel and repairs on vessels.
As Voits explained, these expenses did not apply previously.
There are also toxicity standards that will apply. EU regulations outline maximum levels of harmful particles like dioxin, and Germany and Denmark do not use herring or sprat with high concentrations of dioxin.
"Until at least 2006 Sweden and Finland can use fish with concentrations above EU levels in their own market because of traditions," Riekstins says.
In general, fish from the Baltic Sea already have high levels of dioxin, though narrowly below the maximum amount deemed acceptable.
Riekstins says that Latvian fishermen's ability to sell fish might be seriously jeopardized if dioxin levels increased.