Feverish feelings for the silver darlings

The EU has caught the fishermen of Fraserburgh by surprise
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The Independent Online
In the folklore of north-east Scotland, fishermen who go to sea without success are said to come down with "herring fever". In the grey town of Fraserburgh yesterday, with rain and summer fog obscuring the North Sea, medical diagnosis of the town's new-found depression was unnecessary. Without a net being cast, herring fever was back - this time with a special European variant.

At the harbourside the crew of the Kimora made last-minute adjustments before casting off. The Kimora is a large boat, part of the 50-strong fleet in Fraserburgh that specialises in catching the pelagic, or open- sea, species of herring and mackerel. Herring, or the "silver darlings" as they are known locally have been the mainstay of the town for hundreds of years.

The Kimora crewmen worked in silence. Asked what they thought of the decision by the European Commission to cut by half the annual herring quota in the North Sea - with immediate effect - as part of an emergency conservation measure, one crewman replied: "It's no' too clever for us."

Fraserburgh appears to justify the economic claim that there is no other town in Britain as dependent on the fishing industry. A new net store is being built; the noise of drills and machinery echoes round the harbour as improvements are made; welders and engineers are busy. Offices, agents, and fish-processing factories continue in the daily grind of the town's only industry. Even the seagulls look as though they are working shifts.

But there is concern behind the facade. John Carno, skipper and owner of the Ocean Crest, was preparing his crew for a trip. His view of the Commission's decision was plain: "It's a real disaster," he said.

Fishing is in the Carno blood. John's father was a skipper, and John has been at sea for the past 16 years. In January this year he took delivery of a new boat costing almost pounds 1m. His fishing licence from the Scottish Office will add another chunk to the loan from the bank.

"If I'd known now that this was going to happen I'd never have bought [the boat]," he said.

The apportioning of blame is a heated topic in the bars like the Dolphin and the Oak around the quayside. In local parlance the European Union is still the "Common Market".

"The Government ... doesn't care about the fishing industry," Mr Carno said.

"The Norwegian government, now, they care. Basically we should be out of the Common Market. If they left it to us we would be fine."

The slash and quota will hit Fraserburgh hard and there is worry that if the stocks of herring do not recover there will be further quota cuts and even a return to the complete bans of the 1970s.

With the pelagic fleet only one half of Fraserburgh's fishing industry - there are also 300 smaller boats which fish out of Fraserburgh for white fish such as haddock and cod - talk of a dying community cannot totally be justified.

But the local psyche is still haunted by the "disaster" of 1884, when small villages from Fife to the Moray Firth died as the market was flooded with poor-quality fish. Entire communities vanished.

Mr Carno said he will not be selling his new boat - yet. Instead, like others beyond Fraserburgh, he will leave the North Sea fields earlier than usual and head for Scotland's west coast fisheries, and also spend longer off the Cornish coast.

The International Council for the Expiration of the Sea said urgent action was needed to ensure herring were allowed to mature and stocks could be renewed. But to the fishermen in Fraserburgh this is just "the words of scientists".

George Macrae, secretary of the Scottish White Fish Producers and of the Harbour Commissioners at Fraserburgh, said: "You'll never get fishermen to accept what scientists say.

But, he added: "The quota cut won't be a disaster. We will survive." He talked of the need for "effective stock management" and said:"it's clear that there is a problem ... it is not insurmountable, but we cannot fish for 365 days a year".

In the short-term Fraserburgh will suffer. The town's large processing plants, employing hundreds of people, will need to import fish from foreign markets. The pelagic fleet will need to look beyond the North Sea. And the economic pressure on skippers like John Carno simply to sell up and take decommissioning cash will increase. Whether they accept, said Mr Macrae, "will depend on what is on offer".

But in the meantime the herring fever is in evidence.