The demise of the seafood sector has been greatly exaggerated in the Faroes, where the specter of legislative change continues to spread uncertainty in the fishing industry — while aquaculture grows with leaps and bounds to rival wild fish catch in export value.
Changes happen quickly even in the remote and rocky Faroe Islands, and the seafood industry is no exception to the rule. Gone are the days when cod was king or herring ruled the universe of the resource-rich archipelago. Today’s gold is known as farmed Atlantic salmon. From 2009 to 2013, the export value of products made from this species doubled to 2.5 billion dkk (328.5 million eur), according to Statistics Faroes.
Wild caught species remain a big exporter for the 50,000-strong population of the northeast Atlantic archipelago, however the three main pelagic species combined — Northeast Atlantic mackerel, Atlanto-Scandian herring, blue whiting — generated a total export value of about only half of that of farmed salmon. As for the main groundfish species taken together — cod, haddock and saithe — these brought home just about 900M dkk (120.5M eur) last year (2013).
Rising sharply to new record highs in value, total seafood exports amounted to 5.774BN dkk (773.3M eur), compared to 5.011BN dkk (671.1M eur) in 2012. This is based on a volume that has remained relatively stable over the years, fluctuating marginally around the half a million tonne mark in total for wild caught fish; as for farmed fish, the tonnage has been steadily growing in a few years, however is still considerably lower than that of wild fisheries.
Representing some 95 percent of the value of all exported goods, the Faroese seafood sector is a remarkable success story, notwithstanding the common complaint that the country’s exports are too dependent on a single source of income and therefore potentially vulnerable.
True or not, that notion has largely been left unchallenged, with a predominant narrative circling about the perceived urgency of finding real alternatives to seafood to diversify exports and make the economy more healthy.
‘No guarantee’: With such a theoretical necessity long established as an important element in official policies, the pressure is meanwhile mounting on the seafood sector to pay attention to public perception.
As technology advances and society becomes more focused on services, fewer workers are needed for production. Because of that — and perhaps for other reasons as well, not least cultural ones — more and more young people are attracted to career opportunities elsewhere than in seafood. This trend has been prevailing for years with no signs of abating. Clearly, as far as concerns its appeal to youth, the fishing industry in particular, and to some extent aquaculture, is facing an uphill battle.
There are several dimensions to the image problem, which seems to reinforce itself by spreading among intellectuals who have little or no direct relationship to, and little knowledge and understanding of, the industry.
The discourse emanating from such circles — on a bad day you might borrow Auberon Waugh’s term “the chattering classes” — appears to be reaching such levels nowadays that the industry is becoming nervous. As signs of political consequences emerge, it seems the industry has long been suffering from some sort of paralysis when it comes to dealing with communication issues.
Paradoxically, the astounding success of fish farming and pelagic fisheries has spurred heated debates on fishing rights, in which most pundits are questioning current license systems while proposing radical changes in the way catch quota are awarded, administered and paid for.
At the core of the debate is the idea of establishing an auction of fishing rights to make sure “the property of the people” — an official designation of the living marine resources found within the Faroese exclusive economic zone — is properly paid for by anyone seeking to exploit it.
Similarly, outlandish rental fees have been suggested to impose on fish farms.
“Many of us are perplexed over such strong opinions coming from people who seem to have no interest otherwise to engage,” said a fishing industry insider who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I don’t find their proposals problematic in themselves — they should of course be discussed as appropriate. What spooks me is the way people treat some rather serious issues with no apparent respect; it’s as if they have no idea of the implications that could arise if some of those measures were to be introduced. They seem to reduce the fishing effort and all the costs involved, all the history and time spent to establish good fisheries; they make it sound as if the government is paying you grants when in reality it awards you a license to fish based on history. Holding a fishing license is no guarantee of making money, unless you want to sell your right to someone else.”
You never know: Money. That’s where it becomes sensitive. It’s probably a culture clash of sorts as well — are you in it for the long haul, or are you an asset manager type focused on exit strategies. It would seem that by far the majority of the people running the Faroese fishing industry belong to the former category.
“Is it all about the money?” another insider asked rhetorically. “I don’t think so. You have to make money to survive and pay your bills and grow your business; but many fishermen and vessel owners are enthusiasts — it’s a way of life. There’s no guarantee you’re going to make money in this business, typically there will be good money for a few years followed by a period of hard times and losses. You need extra cash to survive such bad periods but some people don’t seem to understand it. They think you’re rolling in money and that your fishing license is the magic vacuumer that brings it to you at the expense of the tax payer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Besides, they don’t seem to realize that the fish is a renewable resource that would have no commercial value if it weren’t for the efforts of fishermen.”
Pundits with no idea of what they are talking about is hardly noteworthy in itself. Yet a negatively charged cocktail of socioeconomic, cultural and political flavors can easily ignite controversy in a small community.
“It’s a complex situation,” a vessel operator said. “I mean, there are legitimate concern about, for example, the dwindling number of industry players. Now, I do think that has to do with larger issues linked to international finance or monetary policies. We see consolidation taking place in so many industries, in so many places around the world. That, of course, is no excuse for not taking the right kind of action here and I think many of us agree that this is something that should be carefully considered and dealt with where necessary.”
In other news, the inshore cod fishing was exceptional around the time this publication went to press. Hopefully that will encourage the smaller players, many of whom have left the industry in recent years. Arguably, a fishing nation such as the Faroe Islands — admitted, there are fewer and fewer people doing the actual fishing but that’s beside the point here — needs the skills and expertise of small-scale and artisanal fishermen. They are the foundation upon which the fishing industry is built and, as they say, you never know what the future may hold.