Scottish fishermen have been saying for years they know as much and perhaps more about stocks than scientists – and new research shows they may be right.
The study compared skippers’ knowledge and their own catch and effort data with information gleaned through more scientific methods.
Surprisingly, there was general agreement about the distribution and abundance of stocks in the North Sea.
International fishing quotas are set entirely according to scientific surveys.
But now fishers have proof in the form of a paper published by Paul Macdonald, a scientist at the NAFC Marine Centre in Scalloway, Shetland, with colleagues at science journal Marine Policy.
They studied data for the increasingly commercially valuable species megrim – a species of flatfish – in an area stretching from the edge of the continental shelf north-west of Shetland to the north-east coast .
The northern North Sea megrim population has increased in size and range in recent years, and has also been caught in shallower waters than normal – 160 to about 165 feet instead of the usual 820-1,300ft.
Mr Macdonald and his fellow researchers concluded that fishers’ perceptions of changes in distribution and abundance of megrim were consistent with scientific survey data.
They urged regulators to pay more attention to skippers when deciding fish quotas
Current quotas for many species are perceived to be too low, relative to the amount of fish available, resulting in high levels of discarding.
The research report said: “The results of this study indicate that there is considerable potential for the use of fishers’ knowledge and data in the assessment and management process in the demersal (white-fish) fishery in the northern North Sea.”
Shetland Fishermen’s Association chairman Leslie Tait said: “This research shows very clearly that fishermen have an intuitive understanding of the levels of fish stocks and where they are at any given time.
“While it relates specifically to megrim, I’m sure the same could be said of most species caught in the North Sea.
“I hope our regulators in Brussels, London and Edinburgh take note of this paper and recognise that fishermen can play a vital role in managing the industry, specifically by feeding data in to the process of setting quotas.”