Caught in a net of their own making: Angry fishermen want to stop the Russians - but the problem lies elsewhere, says Nicholas Roe

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A CURIOUSLY sad and inescapable chain of events led to this week's blockade of Teesport in Cleveland by frustrated trawlermen, desperate to keep out cheap Russian fish imports. The links are bitter and clear, and if you follow them closely you discover everything that is wrong with the fishing industry today. You also answer many of the burning questions that infuriate the man in the fish shop who wants, but cannot afford, a tasty bit of cod.

The first link was forged in October last year when the UK's quota of North Sea cod and haddock was reduced. Words such as 'quota' and 'set-aside' mean little to the public, but to fishermen they signalled devastation. Cod, haddock and plaice make up half of all the fish eaten in Britain: we are fish bores. Now, suddenly, fishermen were not allowed to catch any more and a main source of income was simply turned off. Who was to blame for this?

Everybody. Blame the technocrats who produced such sophisticated fish-finding devices that the hunter's art was replaced by cripplingly effective science. Blame the boat builders who designed mighty vessels that were nevertheless technically small enough to avoid quota restrictions, allowing stocks to be plundered. Blame politicians for setting limits but leaving fishermen to work out the details, in between managing gales and judging what they might catch next week. Finally, blame those same trawlermen who were better at catching fish than dealing with their own antiquated industrial processes.

There is no reasonable system for bringing fish to market. Boats go off at the whim of the weather and land their catches more or less at the same time, causing prices to dip sharply in response to sudden gluts. As one industry expert complains: 'It seems so obvious: they all go out at the beginning of the week and by Thursday and Friday they land heavily. You would have thought they would spread it to get better prices.' But they don't.

Most fishermen had slim resources to fall back on when the tap was finally turned off last October. Fishing incomes had fallen since 1987 by 30 per cent; here was a further blow. What were they to do? Some suffered - and some bent the rules by selling 'black' fish. Normally, when fish is landed it is first sold at auction on the quayside. Dealers snap it up and then sell it on to wholesalers in other parts of the country who in turn punt it out to retailers, with some going directly to the frozen-food industry, which accounts for half the total fish consumption in Britain. By the time a piece of fish hits a shopping basket in Bognor, it costs roughly six times the quayside price. This sounds appalling, but included in that rise is the cost of transport, storage and processing, together with probably three separate mark-ups by wholesalers and retailer. Black fish does not face this sort of cost. It is illegally caught, secretly landed and goes directly to users and processors, with the effect of further depressing the price of fish on the legitimate market: an ironic twist.

In January came the second link in the chain that was to lead, eventually, to British boats blockading their own port. New quotas were announced, giving Britain a rise of 82 per cent for haddock, which was great news for fishermen, except that now the third link suddenly arrived. Gales blew. Few boats could struggle out of port. The winds continued for almost a month, while boat owners nursed their overdrafts. Pressure had built up to such an extent that by February it was released in a gush. All the boats went out and returned with masses of fish. And the price went down.

Or did it? It certainly fell for the fishermen, and in general terms fish prices have been falling in the shops for almost two years, losing 14 per cent since 1990 (they had, however, gained 14 per cent in value from 1988 to 1990, so cheers must be muted). Besides these factors, however, nobody noticed a glut of cheap fish in the shops and the reason for this, says the industry, is simple: retailers act as safety valves, absorbing price falls 'and' rises, glossing over the bumps and lumps in a wild system. Nevertheless, industry experts concede that a few people did make a killing, courtesy of the glut . . .

Now we come to the end of the chain that put our fishermen out there against the Russians. Prices were low and here was a villain on whom to pin some of the blame. At least to do something instead of just suffering - and the French had already shown the way. But was it logical? Not really.

Russian fish make up a minute fraction of the total imported into Britain (they brought in 16,000 tons last year). They are not caught in EC waters and are not subject to EC conservation controls. The boats currently coming in contain frozen cod from Arctic waters, where catching is governed by localised, voluntary agreements. Certainly, the Russians are thought to play fast and loose with that system - but who can blame such a troubled economy for desperation? In any case, we need the fish. Peter Chaplin, chief executive of the Seafish Industry Authority, the government-established marketing, research and control body, points out that half of the 600,000 tons of fish supplied to the British market in 1991 was imported. The processing industry relies on imports.

The UK eats 25 per cent of the world's cod supply yet lands only 6 per cent. Mr Chaplin says, 'Banning imports will not work.' Here is another irony. Britain exports massive amounts of herring and mackerel to the old Russian states because we won't eat it. Some of that fish is paid for in barter - cod in return for herring. Stop the cod coming in and you stop the payment to the herring- catchers. Dog eats dog instead of fish.

But there have been many gloomy stories about the fishing industry, and there must, surely, be some answer to its problems? There are, and some are already coming into force. The Government is committed to 'buying off' an estimated 15 per cent of the nation's fishing fleet by 1996, which will reduce the scrabble for declining stocks; it is also working on final details of the Sea Fisheries Conservation Act, passed just before Christmas, which will permit curbs on how many days fishing boats can go to sea. None of this is enough, say some experts, because the planned fleet cuts are too small and the money put by - pounds 25m - is too low to compensate fishermen adequately. When the Conservation Act begins to bite, many trawlermen will face bankruptcy before the system shakes itself out. But it is a start.

To what future? At present we eat a depressingly tiny amount of fish: 5 1/2 oz per person per week, which is roughly the same as five years ago, despite medical evidence that eating fish is good for health, and despite the fact that Britain is surrounded by sea. The shred of comfort is that fish is eaten up and down the social ladder, with those at the top and the bottom tending to buy more of the fresh variety than those in the middle. Include frozen fish in the sums, however, and consumption sweeps right across the class divide.

Whethermore fish will be eaten from now on depends not only on how well conservation and control measures work, but also on the way trawlermen and their leaders get to grips with the basic competitive urge. Unbridled technology has emptied the seas; uncontrolled landing practices have done the same for many bank balances because severe price shocks tend to put off the punter for a long, long time. Given a fair wind, tomorrow's world could provide a vision of chock-a-block seas harvested by contented trawlermen adequately paid for a trying job. Alternatively, it could replicate the nightmare of infighting, inconsistencies and sheer bad management that we see at present. Either way, the Russian factor is an irrelevance.

(Photograph omitted)