For more than 100 years, Shetland fishermen have had an organised representative body. A “Shetland Fishermen’s Association” was formed in 1901 at an open air meeting at Freefield in Lerwick, with local fish salesman James Robertson as secretary. This was in response to herring curers frequently changing their bids for fish when the quality of the catch allegedly failed to match that of the sample. When Mr Robertson went to university, this association appears to have lapsed, although a successor, the Shetland Herring and White Fish Protection Association, which was opposed to trawling in Shetland waters, operated until 1930.
The Shetland Fishermen’s Association was once again active from 1930 to 1936, but it was not until after World War II, in December 1947, that it was permanently established. The first secretary was Burra man Jeemie Pottinger and the first chairman was skipper John Thomson.
With men and boats lost to the war, it took time for the industry to recover. The herring fishery declined and seine netting grew in importance. Catches of white fish exceeded herring in 1951 and the gap widened until 1958, when a scarcity of fish affected the industry in Shetland. New boats and new technology allowed the fleet to exploit the recovery from 1963.
The SFA dealt with a series of marketing and employment matters during the 1960s and in 1970 decided to prohibit Sunday fishing. But it was the arrival of oil in the early 1970s and the UK’s decision to join the Common Market that presented the association with its biggest challenges.
As Shetland prepared for the huge exploration and production effort in the North Sea, the SFA moved quickly to protect fishing interests. The first clash was over the routes of the Brent and Cormorant pipelines in to Sullom Voe, which cut across fertile fishing grounds such as Pobi Bank and Fetlar Grounds. Rather than alter the routes, the oil industry paid disturbance money to the SFA and published regular updates on pipe-laying activity. Some of this money went towards the creation of the Shetland Fishermen’s Trust. In a sign of the co-operative spirit that would eventually come to characterise relations between the fishing and oil industries, the purse seiner Wavecrest, skippered by Jim Henry, was given a contract to trawl along the pipeline route removing obstacles that might damage fishing gear.
The greatest impact on the industry in modern times, however, has come from the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which has regulated almost every aspect of fisheries since the UK, along with Denmark and Ireland, entered the European Common Market in January 1973. Initial anxieties about what the CFP would mean for fishermen – there was talk of the removal of all fishing limits and the granting of full access for fishermen from other member states – were not eased by the retention of the 12-mile limit for a period of 10 years. A campaign was waged by Shetland fishermen for a 50-mile limit.
The SFA joined the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF), which was set up by member organisations around the country to try to influence the development of the CFP. But there was disappointment when in December 1982 the SFF rejected the principle of regional or local fisheries management. Shortly afterwards, the Shetland fishermen decided to form their own producer organisation. These had been set up in the UK when the country joined the Common Market. But until then Shetland had been part of the Scottish Fishermen’s Organisation. Shetland Fish Producers’ Organisation approved a draft constitution in September 1982, with eight directors being appointed from the white fish sector and four from the pelagic sector. Before long, it was managing the fish quotas.
The following year a revised CFP was agreed, retaining the 12-mile limit, sharing out quotas and introducing the Shetland Box Licensing Scheme to regulate the number of large vessels that could fish in a wide area around Shetland and Orkney. Despite this concession, the SFA refused to back the SFF’s decision to support the UK government in signing up for the new CFP.
The CFP once again split the industry a decade later. Those behind the newly-formed Save Britain’s Fish (SBF) campaign lobbied for the UK’s removal from the CFP because, they alleged, it was failing to conserve stocks and through excessive regulation imposing an unnecessary burden, particularly on small fishing communities. In defence of the CFP, the SFA secretary, John Goodlad, and many others highlighted price stability and European funding for vessels, processing plants and harbours. In 1995 a referendum was held in Shetland, in which 152 fishermen (39 per cent) voted by postal ballot for withdrawal from the CFP and 242 fishermen (61 per cent) voted for reform of the CFP.
From the late 1980s, with a decline in white fish catches, on the advice of scientists the EU began to impose smaller quotas and restrictions on the number of days boats could spend at sea. The UK government also introduced a decommissioning scheme for vessels. This squeeze on the industry continues today. The result has been a smaller, technologically more sophisticated fleet (now less than two-thirds of the size it was in 1997) in Shetland catching a broader range of species (more than 30). The much larger pelagic vessels form a substantial part of the UK fleet. The vast majority of boats operating out of Shetland are still owned by the men who work on them.
Present challenges faced by the industry include the latest renegotiation of the CFP; the ongoing dispute between the EU and Norway on the one hand and Iceland and Faroe on the other over decisions by the latter two countries unilaterally to increase their mackerel quotas by substantial amounts; the deepening interest of environmentalists and government in protecting areas of sea, particularly the seabed; and the emergence of renewable energy firms seeking to develop offshore wind farms and wave and tidal generators.