David McRobbie shakes his head after unloading the meager catch gained from two weeks at sea in his trawler. "Every year it gets harder," says the 35-year-old captain on the dock at Peterhead, a Scottish fishing port that processes most of Britain's cod catch.
The future looks even worse. McRobbie's call at port on Feb. 14 coincided with the start of a 12-week European Union ban on fishing in vast areas of the North Sea to allow cod to spawn. McRobbie figures he'll tie up his boat for the period rather than fish even less productive seas.
The fishing ban is designed to promote the recovery of cod, which face commercial extinction in the North Sea. Decades of overfishing by an increasingly efficient fleet have taken their toll, though rising sea temperatures are also blamed for chasing away the fish. Scientists and fishermen agree that only half the 150,000 tons of female cod needed to ensure the species' commercial viability now exist. Reacting to dwindling stocks, the EU in December slashed the total amount of cod that can be caught in the North Sea by almost half, to 48,600 tons this year. Britain's quota has been whittled from 55,000 tons in 1999--of which fishermen were only able to land 60%--to just 19,000 tons.
Fishermen warn that the cod recovery plan might work for the fish but will cripple their industry. So far, their calls for $140 million in compensation from the government have not received a response. "Nothing has been ruled in, nothing has been ruled out," says a Fisheries Ministry official. McRobbie fears he will have to sell his trawler, the Karen Ann, which still carries a $600,000 bank loan. "If I get help, I will survive. If not, I am finished," says the 18-year veteran. He adds that the average crew member this year will only take in half the $32,000 he earned in 1999. "We are an endangered species, just like the cod," says George Geddes, vice-chairman of the Scottish White Fish Producers' Assn. Of some 500 Scottish boats going after white fish, 100 to 130 may leave the business.
WIPEOUT? British and EU politicians promise they take the matter seriously. In coming months, they'll discuss matters such as increasing the mesh of fishing nets to let younger fish escape. A five-year recovery plan should soon be on the drawing board. And more bans will be imposed on fishing off Scotland's west coast in March.
But the Scottish Fishermen's Federation is worried that the bans will simply lead to overfishing of other species. "We could easily end up saving the cod and destroying the haddock," says Chief Executive Hamish Morrison. Fishermen add that once the closed areas are reopened to fishing, a host of trawlers will steam out to them. The rush, they say, could wipe out the fish there in a matter of days.
Thanks to their love for fish and chips, the British go through 170,000 tons of cod a year. Although less fresh cod won't cause the 8,500 "chippies" in Britain to close, they must either rely more on imported frozen fillets or persuade customers to switch to other types of fish, says the National Federation of Fish Fryers. Other eateries have found their own solutions: The 40-strong Conran Restaurants, with $116 million in revenues last year, decided three months ago to take cod off the menu for environmental reasons, says Managing Director David Loewi.
Already, 60% of cod eaten in Britain is imported. To trim the dependence on foreign fish, the private Sea Fish Industry Authority started a pilot cod-farming project in 1997. "We wanted to show it could be done," says Malcolm Gillespie, head of the project. He seems to have succeeded: Last year, the first harvest of 10 tons of fish hatched in tanks on the West Highland coast was sold by retail chain Marks & Spencer (MASPY ). The fish were hatched by the authority, then given to two fish farms that completed the process and sold them to the store, the idea being to interest other fish farmers and investors. Reared on fish meal and fish oils, the cod have a taste close to wild fish, according to taste tests the authority performed. Gillespie is aiming for production of 10,000 tons within 10 years, spurred by booming commercial salmon farms set up in the sea lochs found only on the rugged Scottish coast. The farmed cod cost $2.64 a kilo to produce, whereas retail prices of top-quality fish have soared to $15.50. So these cod are worth a lot of chips.
By Jane Knight in Peterhead
EDITED BY HARRY MAURER