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Corona crisis: Scotland's fishermen about to end

Winter is passing and Easter is just around the corner. Every other year the port of Fraserburgh in north east Scotland is busy at this time of year. Under the blue early spring sky - in every normal year - dozens of fishing boats set out for the rich fishing grounds of the North Sea and return with large quantities of fish on board. But this year everything is different: the harbor is quiet.

Mark Robertson, an experienced skipper from Fraserburgh, estimates four-fifths of the fishing fleet is out of service. Like many industries around the world, the UK fishing industry has collapsed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. "The demand is dead. We don't export anything. There is no more market," laments Robertson. As in the rest of the UK fishing industry, most of its catch, more than 80 percent, was for sale in mainland Europe.

As the COVID-19 wave hit the continent and Europeans got used to staying home, the demand for Robertson's catch dipped to zero. As long as the hotels and restaurants in France, Italy and Spain - the main buyers of fish from the UK - remain closed, British fishermen have only the choice of either freezing their catch or shutting down completely.

Hope and despair

The first option - freezing - is helpful in normal years when demand has dropped somewhat in the meantime; now, freezing would only postpone the problem, says Robertson. Cold stores make the fish more durable, but when the crisis is over and the frozen fish floods the market, that would ruin prices.

Fischer Robertson (left) and son Adam: "Demand is dead"

This brutal realization comes at a time when British fishermen were optimistic about the future. As outspoken supporters of Brexit, they had hoped that the departure from the common EU fisheries policy and the abhorred Brussels fishing quotas would bring a breath of fresh air to their businesses. But now that Corona has closed the door to Europe, many of them fear the worst.

"The industry can shrink to health at times, but if the restrictions persist, they can be the beginning of the end," said Mike Park, chairman of the Scottish White Fish Producers Association (SWFPA). He believes the corona crisis exposed the sore point of the UK's export-oriented fishing industry; annual sales averaging 1.6 billion euros are at risk. "We have always believed in our resilience to a certain extent. But we are particularly dependent on certain market segments and have to find solutions for how we can deal with them," says the head of the association, Park.

Old habits, new solutions

It won't be easy. For islanders, the British have a surprisingly conservative taste in fish: they prefer to eat cod, haddock, tuna, salmon and shrimp. And most of them are deep-frozen imported from cheap supplier countries - although they can be found in abundance in British waters. In return, the best that Great Britain has to offer is served by its European neighbors: fresh lobster, crabs, squid and much more.

"Fish is one of the most widely traded goods in the world," says fisherman Bryce Beukers-Stewart. "The current problems with the Corona crisis have shown how dependent the British fishing industry really is on trade with Europe and, to a slightly lesser extent, with other countries such as China.

Will change in the face of the crisis? You can't say that yet, says Beukers-Stewart. An increase in self-sufficiency and the consumption of domestic products would certainly be a "silver lining".

Fishing boats in Fraserburgh: State support only from twelve meters in length

SWFPA chief Mike Park agrees. It is now up to the industry to find ways to put British fish on British plates, he says. That could mean "training the UK on how to consume fish: how to cook it, its freshness, health benefits, omega 3s and stuff like that".

This puts Park in line with the London government, which recently launched the # SeaForYourself campaign: an initiative to introduce consumers to local fish. But that's a long-term goal; radical changes in the taste of a country do not just happen overnight.

Existences are at stake

Meanwhile, British fishermen are literally on dry land, says Mike Park. They would have to continue to pay wages, especially to foreign crew members who are not self-employed. In addition, there are harbor fees, insurance and rental of equipment: Skippers still have a lot of expenses, but now no more income.

And they are not alone in their predicament: whole stretches of coast in Great Britain live from fishing. To support the fishing companies, the Scottish government has therefore decided on an aid package worth the equivalent of 5.6 million euros. There will soon be similar programs in England and Wales. But this support will only make up 50 percent of the average income and the money will only be paid out to owners of boats over twelve meters in length.

That excludes fishermen like Mark Robertson in Fraserburgh. He knows exactly what is at stake, even if he wants to remain optimistic. "All I have is invested in fishing and I watch it go down before my eyes."