Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A sea of prawns

Even though my travels have left Scotland behind, I would be negligent not to write something about the Scottish west coast, both as a distinct part of the Scottish fishing industry and as one of the most beautiful places I have seen this year. Traveling from Aberdeen on the east coast across to Inverness in the heart of the Highlands and then on across to the Isle of Skye, the “jewel of the Hebridean crown,” the largest of the islands in the inner Hebrides, the rolling landscape rose up into the Cuillin Mountains and a rugged sheep-dotted coastline.

Even though the Scottish fishing industry is regulated as one entity, and has increasingly called for separate consideration from both EU and overall British fisheries as a single entity, anyone will tell you that the east and west coast fisheries are highly distinct. Most of the boats on the west coast are much smaller, many smaller boats only fishing close to shore and returning to port every night and even the larger boats rarely staying away longer than a week.

In Portree, a small port on the Isle of Skye, the fishing boats on the pier seem as much a part of the picturesque landscape as an industry.

As with fishing towns all across the northern Atlantic and in particular in the wake of the decommissioning in Scotland, decreases in the number of boats fishing have led the town to diversify, and Portree is fairly typical of much of the west coast in having come to rely largely on tourism – by far the main industry in town – and to a lesser extent on salmon aquaculture.

These are salmon pens in the water between the islands, complete with a little floating building that seems to serve as a sort of storage facility and office.

Mallaig, one of the main fishing towns on the west coast, just south of the Isle of Skye, which came to prominence as a fishing port in 1901 when the railway to Fort William (the same railway line used for filming the Hogwarts Express scenes in the Harry Potter movies) was completed and created a transportation link for fish landed in Mallaig to be taken to market, has maintained a much larger fisheries infrastructure, including a boatyard and processing plants both for the prawns being caught by local boats and for farmed salmon. But the loss of vessels has also hit Mallaig hard – perhaps even harder than on the Isle of Skye, which has been more successful in attracting tourists.

Although there are still many boats in the Mallaig harbor, it was certainly not full when I sailed in on the ferry from Skye,

a very different picture than the harbor even thirty years ago.

Most of these boats, whether the smaller day-boats in Skye or the larger boats out of Mallaig, are trawlers, some fishing with a single trawl net and most of the larger boats pulling two trawl nets (prawns are most likely to be caught at the edges of a net, so larger boats find that they catch more by pulling two smaller nets than one larger net). Unlike the east coast fisheries, where whitefish is dominant and even in the Fraserburgh-based prawn fishery whitefish is an essential part of the catch for an industry that relies on its mixed fishery, the fishing boats on the east coast are catching almost exclusively prawns – the common term for the Norway lobster, Nephrops.

Nearly all the west coast fishermen aim for a catch of clean prawns by using large square mesh panels in the top of their nets that allow the fish to escape, a decision driven largely by the expense of acquiring whitefish quota and the many regulatory difficulties of catching cod under the Cod Recovery Plan.

A net laid out on the Mallaig dock for maintenance on a stormy day. This is a pretty good way to see the net design: note the main part of the net with rockhoppers on the bottom (the black pieces on the left side of the picture) and floats at the top of the net opening, and the two wings out on the side that are attached to the trawl doors and hold the net open. You can also see the orange square mesh panel near the back of the net where the prawns collect (the cod end).

A more close-up view of the square mesh panel. This one has 110mm meshes.

Most fishermen I talked with think the square mesh panels are helpful in keeping from catching small fish, citing both scientific tests of the nets that demonstrated their effectiveness and reductions they have found in the amounts of small fish they have had to discard since putting the panels in their nets.

The other reason, though, that the west coast boats don’t catch fish along with their prawns is because the fish just aren’t there. As the large herring shoals that built up towns like Mallaig and provided the mainstay of the Scottish fisheries in the beginning of the twentieth century disappeared in the late 1960s and 1970s, seine- and trawl-caught whitefish became increasingly important on the west coast. But the fishermen I talked to said that even before the restrictive conservation measures of recent times were put in place, the whitefish was becoming more and more scarce and the smaller boats that did not venture as far offshore were no longer finding fish. So as the herring fishery ended (a combination of the loss of the stocks and a change in regulatory structure such that now all pelagic fish are caught by large boats and there is no quota or processing capacity available for the herring that has returned to the inshore areas of the west coast) and whitefish became hard to find, the boats switched over to catching shellfish – mostly prawns. Even as many people I talked with question the wisdom of the Cod Recovery Plan, which has forced reductions in the size of the fishing industry as on the east coast, they are quick to acknowledge that the whitefish are gone from the area as a result of overfishing. It was only after the fish – a top predator – disappeared, they say, that the prawns began doing so well. It has worked out well for them now, but worry that it probably isn’t so good for the long term.

For now, though, the fishermen are still out catching prawns. The catch has a very short shelf life and, other than the small tails which are breaded and sold as scampi in Britain, most of the prawns are exported to Spain and France for a high-end market that pays top prices for top quality seafood. Thus the west coast fishing industry, even on small boats fishing out of ports with only a few hundred residents, has developed a well-coordinated system of getting prawns from a Scottish boat to a consumer in southern Europe within a week. The smaller day-boats that I saw in Portree come back to port every night but usually land their catch once every two days, and even the larger boats usually don’t stay out longer than five days, meaning that the catch is still very fresh when the prawns are landed.

The boats come in and tie up at the pier just as it is getting dark.

Like the way whitefish boats sort their catches, the prawners sort their catch by size while still aboard the boats. They remove the heads from the small prawns destined to become British scampi; all the rest are landed whole.

Unlike most whitefish boats, however, prawns are usually not sold on auction but directly to buyers who truck the catch straight to the processors. (This is mostly because the market price of prawns is much more stable than for whitefish.)

Boxes full of prawns are taken up out of the hold by crane and then transferred onto the dock. Larger boats like this one have a largely-automated system for doing this, but some of the smaller boats I saw in Portree still use old-fashioned manual labor to haul up their catches.

Trucks come to meet the boats as they land their catch, and after the catch is weighed – in a larger port like Mallaig in an established indoor sorting area and scale, but in a smaller port like Portree the truck carries its own portable scale in the back.

Prawns landed in Portree can make it all the way across Scotland to Fraserburgh in one night – one truck makes the rounds of all the small ports of the Isle of Skye and drives to Inverness, where it meets another truck that makes the rest of the journey to the processing plants in Fraserburgh. (Because processing plants rely on a steady input of prawns to keep regular employment for their workers and hold their reputation as regular suppliers in overseas markets, the prawns go long distances from where they are landed even before they are packaged for export so as to balance out the supply across Scotland and keep the processing plants running.) Most Mallaig prawns are processed closer to home, just a 90 minute drive down the road in Fort William. In both cases, though, the prawns arrive as the processing plant the morning after they are landed and within a few days are shipped out of the country and off to the seafood markets in Spain where Norway lobsters are in high demand.

Despite the reliance on a sophisticated international market to provide an income from the prawns, the west coast fishery still sees itself as a traditional lifestyle-oriented fishery as opposed to the more business-oriented fishery on the east coast, generally moving slower to adopt new technologies or expand their fishing operations. Most fishermen have found that they are making a decent living just catching prawns, and don’t see the appeal in the additional investment and longer trips away from home necessary to catch whitefish or bring back larger catches and larger profits (when I asked one skipper of a small boat in Portree how long he stays out, he laughed and said he didn’t fancy “night fishing,” and even the younger skippers who stay out for a week nearly always return every Sunday, as religious traditions still hold sway here). West coast fishermen are proud of this: one man told me that the difference between the east and west coast fisheries in Scotland is that they are greedy in the east, that they all are living in mansions and getting rich by towing big nets that are catching too many fish, while in the east they just want to make a decent living. It’s a hard argument to buy – the fishermen in met in Peterhead lived comfortably but not lavishly, and the living as a fisherman on both the east and west coast has become so unattractive for young Scots that most skippers have started hiring Filipino crews. But the sentiment is instructive – while fishermen throughout Scotland are interested both in maintaining their communities and making a living, the east coast is generally more business-oriented and open to change while the west coast is more focused on tradition and maintaining their ability to make a living from fishing in areas with few other industries to turn to if the fishing fails.

Even among the larger of the west coast boats fishing out of Mallaig, many are wooden boats with the wheelhouse located aft (a holdover from the days of sail), showing their preference to keep to old tried-and-true fishing styles.

My favorite of these Mallaig boats was the Reul A Chuain, which means Star of the Ocean in Scottish Gaelic (not the same as Irish Gaelic). The skipper is one of the growing number of west coast Scots who speak fluent Gaelic (now taught in schools and found on street signs throughout the Highlands and Hebrides). During decommissioning, he sold his old boat and took the chance to go back to school at the Gaelic college Sabhal Mor Ostaig on the Isle of Skye, where he learned Gaelic culture and language – to catch up with what his daughters were learning in school, he told me – and also studied North Atlantic fishing, including taking a trip to the Faeroe Islands. When he bought a new boat and went back to fishing he wanted a proper Gaelic name for his boat (even though, like many who worry about the future of fishing, he would like to get a job doing something else, he said there wasn’t really anything else he could see himself doing). He also said he tried to pick a name that would be easy to pronounce, but I think he might have overestimated the abilities of the general public…I must admit, he laughed a little when I tried.

This skipper, I think, is what I will remember most of the west coast Scottish fishery: a man who is tied to his heritage and his home and has been fishing all his life, and indeed can’t think of anything else he would want to do, but still worries that with stricter regulations and reductions in the number of vessels fishing and an ecosystem that has been radically changed even in his lifetime, there may not be much of a future in fishing. He is proud that his children can speak Gaelic, but glad that none of them want to be fishermen.

1 comment:

Steve Sauter said...

I was last on the west coast of Scotland 35 years ago this May- there instead of attending my college commencement!

Hilary- I hear the good news that you will be in Amherst this summer. Heeyaah! (or whatever Dean yelled when he lost Iowa).