Fishers - strategies and choices: feasibility study

This social research publication explores what influences the decision making of Scottish fishers. It presents findings from twelve interviews with fishers. The main findings are focused on the social, economic, governance, and environmental drivers in fishers’ decision making.

4. Interview findings

In total, 12 in-depth interviews were conducted with fishers from across Scotland. A summary table of the sample size from each region is provided in Table 3. The analysis of background data and qualitative data deriving from these interviews is provided below.

Table 3 Summary table of interviews by area
Area Sample size
Shetland 1
Orkney 1
Western Isles 2
West of Scotland 3
North & East Coast 5

4.1. Analysis of background interview data

The analysis of background interview data demonstrated that some fishers had been working in the fishing industry for at least 24 years, with one fisher having over 50 years’ experience. The majority of fishers interviewed worked in the shellfish catching sector (n=9) where the main species caught included lobster, velvet crab, brown crab, nephrops and squid, with some fishers diversifying to target cuttlefish in the English Channel. The remaining fishers worked in the finfish catch sector (n=3) and primarily targeted haddock, whiting, cod, saithe, hake, mackerel and herring[5].

Interestingly, there was a clear distinction between capture sector and size of vessel, with fishers targeting mainly shellfish operating a range of vessels up to 24 metres in length while fishers targeting finfish all operated vessels over 24 metres (see Figure 1). The size of a vessel typically determined the duration of fishing effort, with smaller vessels mainly conducting day trips while larger vessels going out for several days at a time. This was generally the case for the interviewed fishers whereby fishers operating vessels under 10 metres or between 10 – 15 metres in length would go out for the day; whereas larger vessels of between 15 – 24 metres and over 24 metres would typically spend over 4 days at sea, sometimes up to 14 days.

Figure 1: Distribution of vessel size by capture sector
This Figure 1 is focused on fishers who took part in the interviews and what size of vessels they operate. There are four categories of sizes, with the majority of vessels (four vessels) under 10 metres.

To catch their fish or shellfish, a range of fishing gear types were utilized by the fishers, as shown in Figure 2. Pots and creels were the main gear deployed by fishers (n=7) followed by nephrops trawlers (n=4), an expected outcome due to the high number involved in the shellfish sector. Interestingly, hook and line gear was only included in combination with potting, suggesting a seasonal diversification for the creel sector. Within the finfish sector, fishers mainly deployed mobile fishing gear, including pair trawls, pelagic trawls and seine and pair seine net gear.

Figure 2 Range of gear types used by fishers[6]
This Figure two is focused on the types of gear that fishers who participated in the interviews use. There are six gear types in this bar chart, with the majority of fishers using pots and creel.

4.2. Analysis of qualitative data

During the qualitative analysis, interview transcripts were manually coded to identify common themes and patterns in fishers’ responses. A summary of the key interview findings is provided in Annex 8. In this section of the report, each theme is presented as a narrative, explaining specific context and the importance for fishers’ decision making. These themes are listed in a random order and are supported by representative quotes to illustrate the themes.

1. Difficulty recruiting and retaining crew

Throughout the interviews, a dominant concern raised by fishers (particularly fishers operating vessels between 15 – 24 metres) was the limited availability of local crew. Crew related issues were frequently mentioned when fishers were talking about daily and seasonal (three-month basis) planning. Recruitment into the industry was discussed as a challenge, because fishing work is often seasonal and wages are relatively low for a job which requires crew members to work long hours while undertaking physically demanding tasks in harsh conditions. In addition, crew members are required to have specific training and certificates, depending on the type and size of vessel, which can be time consuming and expensive to complete. These certificates ensure that individuals have completed basic safety training, are medically fit to work on a vessel, and have a valid Seafarers’ Identity Document (SID). These complex demands often makes it difficult to attract workers to the industry, especially young people. One fisher summarised this by saying,

‘The big issues are crew with very few people wanting to come into the industry and trying to get reliable crew is a nightmare. I would love to take a young crew member on but there is no one’.

Often, crew are family members who join to support and potentially carry on the family business. However, while tradition and culture are a major social driver for fishers entering the fishing industry, competition from other industries such as aquaculture farms presented a significant challenge to attract workers. One fisher said,

‘It’s really hard to get crew, fish farms offer workers two weeks on and two weeks off so the fishing industry can’t compete’.

Because of the competition for workers with aquaculture sector, it was hard for fishers to retain crew once they’ve completed their training. One fisher commented that the success rate of home crew coming through training is only 5 – 10%, which means that many workers leave for other jobs shortly after receiving their training.

The difficulty in recruiting local crew has resulted in a high reliance on migrant workers from overseas. Fishers commented that this comes with its own complications due to the requirement of attaining work visas. Few fishers raised the issue that foreign crew may travel to their home, resulting in a reduced workforce until their return. This means that more local crew needed to be hired during such period which brings the issue full circle. The issue of crew recruitment was particularly important for fishers operating larger vessels (over 15 metres) on the west coast of Scotland. One respondent described the issue of crew recruitment in the west coast as ‘in crisis’, while another fisher said that ‘the crew issue could be the end of the west coast’.

2. Seasonality and weather conditions

Fishing is a seasonal industry, with weather conditions and the abundance and availability of fish varying throughout the year. From the interviews, there was a clear consensus that seasonality plays a major role in fishers’ decision making process. This includes influencing fishers’ choices on where to fish (inshore or offshore), which gear type to use, and what fish species to target. For example, one fisher commented,

‘Decisions are made based on the time of year. When it is winter, we fish more inshore for haddock’.

In addition to seasonality, local weather conditions and tidal events can dictate fishing activity on a daily and weekly basis. Fishing is very weather dependent due to safety concerns at sea, especially for smaller vessels (under 10 metre) or if the vessel is single-handed. Adverse weather conditions can make it difficult to handle fishing gear and navigate the vessel, endangering the crew, fishing gear and other vessels if something goes wrong. Many respondents said they monitored weather forecasts on a daily basis and longer-term forecasts to determine when it will be safe to haul gear. In conjunction with the weather, fishers also mentioned the tides can affect the best times to go out fishing. Tidal fluctuations can affect fish behaviour, availability of fish, accessibility of fishing grounds, as well as exit and entry to harbours. Fishers must, therefore, plan and adjust their daily fishing practices based on local weather conditions and tidal events.

3. New policies and legislation

On an annual basis, legislation was a primary factor influencing fishers’ decisions regarding their fishing activity. Fishers frequently expressed concern regarding new policies and legislation and the impacts these have on the industry. For example, fishers viewed the designation of wind farms and enhanced marine protections as a major issue due to potential greater restrictions to where they can fish and reduced access to their traditional fishing grounds. Fishers commented that further ‘spatial squeeze’[7] is likely to result in greater gear conflict. One respondent commented that it was already starting with ‘more and more creels moving further out’. The combination of new policy and the ‘spatial squeeze’ was increasing pressure on the fishing industry, leading to long-term concerns about potential reduction in fishing opportunities. This has resulted in some fishers’ reluctance to invest in the industry due to uncertainty about fishing business in the future. During the interviews, fishers indicated that the industry is likely to resist some of these policies, especially the proposals to designate at least 10% of Scotland’s seas as Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) by 2026 (consultation about these proposals ran during the time of the project).

The HPMA proposal envisioned that at least 10% of Scotland’s seas would be designated as HPMAs by 2026, including restricted fishing and other human activities in selected sites. The HPMA consultation[8] ran from December 2022 – April 2023. Following the consultation period, the Scottish Government confirmed that while it remained committed to the outcome of enhanced marine protection, it would no longer progress the HPMA proposals as consulted on[9].

The HPMAs were frequently referred to as a significant concern by fishers. The perceived lack of evidence and data on how HPMAs will work was commonly raised as a frustration for the fishers. Fishers also mentioned perceived lack of communication from the government to engage and cooperate with the industry. One respondent emphasised that HPMAs were being ‘imposed on us’, while another fisher called the HPMAs as ‘a disaster for the west coast’. According to respondents, HPMA proposals caused a loss of trust between fishers and the government as fishers felt that the government does not understand the importance of fishing to local rural communities. One fisher commented,

‘I am very worried about HPMAs and the impact this could have on the island community as well as MPAs where we have two already. There will be a hard fight to ensure that these HPMAs do not come about. There is no evidence and no basis for them’.

4. Recent and rapid changes in regulations

Related to concerns of more legislation, fishers were also worried about the increase in the level of regulation over the past few years. In particular, fishers identified the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) as a major source of stress. While fishers acknowledged the importance of improved safety onboard, the manner in which the MCA were carrying out their inspections to ensure compliance was characterised as a negative and stressful experience by some fishers who felt the process was too bureaucratic. In addition to the MCA, one fisher raised an issue about regulations concerning mesh size for a square mesh panel[10]. They felt that the regulation had changed without warning to trawlers and this had created a problem for him, because he had recently purchased a new net before becoming aware that the regulation changed. The respondent said,

‘Manufacturers didn’t even know about it and with Brexit you still cannot get the right sized mesh’.

Trying to keep up with changing regulations can, therefore, result in an economic burden on fishers due to the expense of new gear necessary to comply to new regulations.

5. Access to quota

Quota availability is a major economic driver of fishing activity as it dictates what fish species to target, where to deploy gear, and the duration of fishing effort based on how much quota has been legally allocated to the Producer Organisation to which the vessel belongs. This can have an overall impact on how much revenue fishers generate from selling their catch, thereby enhancing the financial viability of their business. This means that a lack of quota can also be a constraint on fishing. For example, when fishing in a mixed fishery, quota must be available for all the targeted species. Therefore, fishers have to adjust their fishing practices to avoid potential issues from landing species for which they do not have quota. In addition, there is also the impression that quota is not representative of the full picture. One fisher emphasised that there is a ‘disparity between what is being seen on the ground and the level at which the quota is set’. These frustrations are exacerbated by the perception that the government’s promise to increase quota shares has not been fully implemented, prompting one fisher to comment that ‘I would also like to know where the quota gained through Brexit has gone’.

6. Level of government support and engagement

As a result of the recent changes in fisheries management and the introduction of new policies and legislation, many fishers feel disenfranchised. Some fishers thought that the government does not sufficiently engage with industry. Fishers also felt that their concerns are not listened to. One fisher said,

‘We want government to talk to us. I am experienced, I have been in the industry a long time and I want to use this’.

Similar responses were given by other fishers who wanted to see more engagement between the industry and the government, to work together in introducing legislation and policies via a collaborative approach, instead of the current top-down approach, as perceived by fishers.

Overall, the uncertainty about the future of the fishing industry has cultivated a negative attitude towards government agencies. Many fishers also conveyed their frustrations that the government does not understand the industry, or the cultural and economic importance of fishing to rural coastal communities, and how fishing plays a major role in their identity and heritage. As a result, there is clear disappointment regarding the perceived lack of support from the government to help fishers diversify and build a more resilient business, against the backdrop of increased management and legislation. One fisher stated, ‘We want Marine Scotland to champion the industry’. Another fisher felt that ‘fishing is not promoted as it should be’ and appealed for government agencies to be more active in their support of the industry. From these statements, it is evident there is enthusiasm from the fishing industry to work collaboratively with government in order to protect their livelihoods and ensure fishing is sustainable in the future.

7. Mental burden on fishers

Many fishers commented that the past year has taken a significant toll in terms of their mental health. While many respondents have not considered leaving the industry, a few had and one fisher mentioned their mental health as the main contributing factor to their decision to leave. The respondent explained they had now come ashore to manage the business stating,

‘This is due to my mental health which has suffered with the strain of trying to make a business work against a backdrop of regulation, environmental NGOs constant targeting of the fishing industry. I feel deflated and defeated’.

The increased stress and pressures on fishers was widely acknowledged, as well as the negative publicity targeted at fishers. One fisher summarised the general feeling by saying,

‘It is 50/50 whether I will stay in the industry which I have done all my life. The combination of crew issues, the constant barrage of pressure from environmental non-government organisations (ENGOs), the squeeze on fishing grounds and the impact it has had on my mental health will decide what I do’.

Fishers often have to make a variety of sacrifices due to the nature of the job. Fishing is time-consuming and requires long, unsociable hours, with many fishers spending extended periods of time away from home. Fishing requires high investments in equipment, crew, vessel. etc. There are many external considerations such as quota availability, seasonality, weather conditions and tides. Because of these issues, fishers often cannot schedule fishing operations to within normal working hours (i.e. 9am-5pm Monday to Friday). Fishers must take advantage when the conditions are right to ensure their business is viable and making a profit. This can cause additional stress and impose strains on personal circumstances. Some respondents said it is not uncommon for fishers to miss family events. However, many fishers explained they were now older and were striving to strike a healthy balance between family and fishing.



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