Fishermen braced for the deepest of cuts

Quotas will hit family businesses, writes Danny Penman
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The fishermen of Lowestoft were returning home yesterday to the prospect of another round of cuts in their industry.

Nine vessels were in the Suffolk port and another four were in the North Sea steaming home. The fate of their industry will be decided on Thursday when European fisheries ministers complete their bartering and agree on next year's fishing quotas.

The ministers are expected to agree to a 32 per cent cut in the amount of plaice and sole that can be landed by Europe's fishermen. The cuts will hit Lowestoft hard, which specialises in plaice and sole, but for many it is a small relief from the proposals put forward by fisheries scientists who called for a 47 per cent reduction.

"It's still absolutely awful," said Hugh Sims, chief executive of Lowestoft Fish Producers' Organisation and spokesman for Colme Shipping Company, the largest fishing boat owner in the town.

"The conclusion we've come to is that they think more of the fish than the fishermen," he added. Colme Shipping runs 13 ships - at 40 metres they are far too big to be called boats - out of Lowestoft. Another operator has six but they only land their catches in the Netherlands.

The ships are multi-million-pound affairs and come with the most effective fish locating and trawling equipment yet devised.

Colme Shipping replaced two vessels four years ago at a cost of pounds 6m. While in port over Christmas, the fishermen will be relaxing but the support crews will be overhauling each ship's computers, global positioning system, sonar and radar.

The high-tech ships havemassive overheads and must be worked hard to make a profit. Insurance alone costs about pounds 500,000 per ship.

But the ships when working flat out can earn pounds 40,000 for a 12-day trip. The captain will receive 10 per cent of the catch worth on average about pounds 4,000 and an 18-year-old deck hand will earn about three per cent, or pounds 1,200.

"Forget the fisherman with his roll-neck jumper. He will arrive at the docks with his Jaguar and copy of the Financial Times rolled up under his arm. He will start up his computer before the engines," said Mr. Sims. The quota cuts will hit the profitability of the Lowestoft fleet. The running costs will remain the same but the revenue will be slashed by 32 per cent.

For the fishermen of Lowestoft it is a boom and bust business. They have no holiday or sick pay and they live entirely by what they catch.

For the town it has been mostly a bust industry. The numbers employed have declined by nearly 1,800 in the last 15 years. The industry now supports only about 800 people in the town.

In Lowestoft the fishermen have invested in big powerful ships. Their strategy is the opposite to that employed by the Cornish fishermen based in Newlyn. In Cornwall they have stuck with small boats and pursued higher- value prey.

Colme Shipping sold their oldest and cheapest boat, The St Georges, to Stevenson's based in Newlyn last year. It became their newest and most expensive ship.

The quota cuts may force a change of strategy on the Lowestoft fishing fleet. They have recently bought a pounds 10m vessel which allows them to fish close to the coast.

"We may soon have to start pursuing the Cornish strategy," says Mr Sims.The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food says it hopes the quota cuts will bring a period of stability. The industry has suffered lurches in the quantities of fish that could be landed from year to year, the ministry said.