A top north-east skipper warned last night that the white fish fleet is facing its biggest crisis for 30 years and called for urgent action to stop boats being forced out of business.
John Buchan claimed the annual end-of-year negotiations on rules and quotas for the next 12 months were “an irrelevance” against a backdrop of industry despair.
He hit out as Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead met the European Union’s top fisheries official to spell out concerns about the hardships facing Scots trawlermen.
Mr Buchan, owner and skipper of the Peterhead-registered Fairline, said fishermen grapple with “crippling” restrictions.
“This is the biggest crisis I have seen in the industry in 30 years,” he said.
“We are living in a recession and struggling to cope. The burden of bureaucracy on us is stifling our ability to remain viable.
“All of the ingredients we need to ride out the recession are there but current restrictions force us to dump good fish overboard.”
Mr Buchan believes vessels should be allowed to retain whatever they catch, which he insists would mean fewer fishing days and less discards – dead fish dumped in the sea because it is over quota.
The industry argues that current quota limits force boats to spend longer at sea and use more fuel, while dumping far too much good-quality catch overboard.
As a result, many fisheries have run out of their 2009 quotas long before the end of the year.
Mr Buchan is one of several Scottish skippers involved in a trial which uses on-board CCTV cameras to monitor every fish his nets haul in.
It is hoped the scheme will lead to a reduction in the amount of quota set aside to compensate for discards by showing the vessels are fishing responsibly.
The potential merits of CCTV were raised by Mr Lochhead in talks yesterday with EU Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg in Brussels.
Mr Lochhead highlighted the threat to Scotland’s fleet from current and future EU controls, with further cuts in quotas and fishing time a real possibility.
Speaking after the meeting, he said: “Tightening the screws on the days-at-sea regime is likely both to exacerbate the industry’s current difficulties and potentially present real challenges to the conservation of cod stocks, given that the fleet may be denied time to steam to certain grounds.”
Fishing rules and quotas for 2010 will be decided over the next few months.
Mr Lochhead said there was little chance of the European Commission budging over plans to cut days-at-sea by a further 10%.
He added: “New effort restrictions compounded by low fish prices as a result of the recession have made this year very tough for Scots fishermen.
“Next year looks like being no easier unless we take some radical steps to change fisheries management and attract better income from the top-quality fish we land.
“In the coming weeks and months, the Scottish Government will work with the industry to achieve a sustainable and profitable sector.”
Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF) chief executive Bertie Armstrong said: “The SFF welcomes this exchange of views at the beginning of the negotiations for catching opportunity for 2010.
“As we approach the decision-making, it is absolutely vital that Scottish initiatives and sacrifices are taken into account.
“There will be stark choices to be made in the speed and severity of new management measures.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat fisheries spokesman Liam McArthur said further cuts could spell “disaster” for parts of the Scottish fleet.