Fishers contribute to Denmark’s green transition

by Thomas Jensen
David Lange

Sustainable practices build stock resilience

This article was featured in Eurofish Magazine 5 2023.

The Danish Small-Scale Low-Impact Fishers’ Association and Producer Organisation assists small-scale fisheries adjust to environmental changes brought on by climate change and prepares them for the green transition.

“Foreningen for Skånsomt Kystfiskeri Producentorganisation” (FSK-PO), or the Danish Small-Scale Low-Impact Fishers’ Association and Producer Organisation, is an association of ­small-scale fishers who practice low-impact fishing. More precisely, the organisation represents fishers who use lines, hooks, pots, seines, and nets, and whose vessels do not exceed 17 meters in length. FSK-PO is one of three producer organisation representing commercial fishing in Denmark. Through its involvement in political committees FSK-PO advises the government and the Danish Parliament on fisheries-related issues. And through its membership of LIFE (Low Impact Fishers of Europe), an umbrella association representing 33 organisations of small-scale fishers in 15 EU countries, FSK-PO represents and advocates for low-impact, small-scale fisheries at the European level. Its primary goals are to protect the livelihoods of small-scale fishers while also promoting the sustainable development of coastal fishing to defend both the marine environment and future generations of low-impact coastal fishers.

Fishing sustainably has become ever more important as it contributes to fish stock resilience in the face of climate change and other pressures on the stocks. David Lange, FS-KPO’s director, and Tine Hansen, the ­organisation’s communications director, say the most notable impact of climate change for fishers has been alterations in the species composition in Danish waters due to rising sea temperatures. As waters warm rapidly, fish are forced to migrate to regions where water temperatures remain within the limits they are accustomed to. In fact, the highest sea temperature ever measured in Denmark was recorded this April, Mr Lange said. These changes affect FSK-PO’s members more than other types of commercial fishery because temperature changes are more apparent in coastal environments where small-scale fishers operate. In the Baltic, the most notable change for fishers has been the challenge to find enough fish. A further impact FSK-PO’s members have noted is the change in oxygen and salinity levels.

Cod’s decline makes waves in the sector

Small-scale fishers have reported that sardines and large stocks of mackerel have entered Danish waters, as has the Atlantic bluefin tuna, a species that hasn’t been seen in Nordic waters since the 1960’s. Perhaps the biggest change experienced by FSK-PO’s members has been the decline in cod populations in Danish waters. Cod has traditionally been the most popular fish caught by these ­fishers, so the decline in cod ­quotas has had a significant impact on the entire sector. In the last five years, cod quotas have decreased by more than 90%. Since 2022 quotas for cod exist only for bycatch, there are no quotas for a dedicated cod fishery. Fishers need to find replacements for cod, and while they are trying to do so with turbot, brill, and high value flatfish (Dover sole, lemon sole), the process is, of course, difficult. Though it is easier for small scale, low-impact fisheries to prevent bycatch than larger commercial fisheries, because of the high selectivity of the fishing-gear, preventing bycatch while fishing for alternative species has been an additional challenge.

Quotas for plaice in the Baltic Sea, on the other hand, are increasing. However, according to Mr Lange, this has not been reflected in the experiences of fishers. In fact, he reports that FSK-PO’s members are unable to catch even 20% of the quota. He suggests that plaice populations are still too small and individuals too young to catch and hopes the plaice populations will grow as predicted. However, the discrepancy between legislative and scientific recommendations and the actual experience at sea has made the jobs of ­fisherman even more challenging.

Small-scale fisheries prepare to go green

Denmark is committed to a 70% reduction in CO2 emissions from 1990 levels by 2030 and the small-scale fishing sector is well positioned to contribute to these efforts. We stand at the forefront of any green transition because our vessels don’t require much fuel, explains Mr Lange. As such, with spikes in fuel prices in recent years, the small-scale fleet has had a slight advantage over other forms of commercial fishing which require more fuel. Across the industry there are discussions on electrifying vessels, but electrification is slowed by concerns associated with ensuring that larger ships will not be stranded at sea. Because small-scale vessels operate close to the coast, the sector does not share these concerns, and thus it will more readily electrify its fleet. Electric vessels are already used in Norway, and though there is still a way to before Danish vessels are electrified, Mr Lange believes the small-scale fleet is well on its way in this direction. Many small-scale vessels already have the capacity to run on biodiesel or biofuels (made from biomass or other renewable sources), however, they are ten times more expensive than regular fuels, says Mr Lange, so for now this is not an option for small-scale fishers. However, the pelagic fleet, he says, which catches higher volumes of fish is considering charging a higher price for products fished with biofuel which would accelerate this fleet’s conversion to more sustainable fuels.

A European Commission report on the energy transition for fishing and aquaculture also mentions e-fuels (produced using sustainable electricity), hydrogen, wind, and solar power, and batteries as energy sources for ships that are expected to become increasingly common in the near to medium future. These alternate fuels are likely to be deployed on larger ocean-going vessels initially before their use trickles down to the aquaculture and fishing sectors. Another possibility mentioned in a UK report on electrifying the fishing fleet is hybrid diesel electric systems that could be based on existing technologies. The EU programmes Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe as well as the EMFF and EMFAF support several projects that develop renewables to power shipping which will result in knowledge and innovation that may be transferable to the fishing and aquaculture sector. Already now several European fishing vessels, as well as some used in the aquaculture sector, are powered with hybrid diesel electric propulsion or pure electric motors. LNG (liquefied natural gas), hydrogen, solar power, and wind are other energy sources that are being used by some fishing vessels in the European fleet, solutions which could also be applied in Denmark. The commission report points out that it is not just propulsion systems that can make a difference to emissions. Fishing techniques too can be optimised to yield savings in fuel consumption and thereby fewer emissions. For example, lighter nets and larger mesh sizes reduce drag, innovations in trawl doors, more efficient onboard systems for compressed air, and the use of LED lighting all contribute to reducing energy consumption. The use of apps can help skippers avoid unwanted catches and reduce discards, cut down on waiting times by optimising arrival and delivery to the market, and use AI to better plan sailing routes. Modifications to the hull is yet another area that can contribute to greater fuel efficiency by reducing vessel drag. And over time the Danish small-scale fishing fleet will benefit from these developments.


New Danish grant programmes to aid the green transition in fisheries and aquaculture

Denmark’s green transition is not yet focusing major projects on the fishing sector specifically. There are, however, EU projects on the horizon to support the green transition of Europe’s fishing industry. Mr Lange suspects that within Denmark specifically, the green transition of the fishing sector will stem from developments in a larger industry, like the shipping sector for example, and the innovations will be adapted for the fishing sector. The Danish Fishers Producer Organisation (DFPO) which represents over 1,000 fishers and 600 vessels, says that the industry has already reduced emissions by 62% compared to 1990 and expects to reach the targeted 70% reduction with adjustments to the fleet and investments in new climate friendly technologies. The organisation has suggested the launch of two grant schemes, one to support the development of new technologies including the electrification of the coastal fleet as well as the testing of new ways of propulsion for the ocean-going fleet. The second scheme would support the deployment of existing technologies that can reduce emissions from the fishing sector. In response, Jacob Jensen, Minister for Food, Fisheries, and Aquaculture, announced in July three grants totalling EUR19m (DKK138m) to support the green transition in fisheries and aquaculture. Of this EUR11m is dedicated to developing and testing technologies that reduce emissions in the fishing sector as well to investigate the possibility of targeting new species such as the greater weever (Trachinus draco), and of developing new ways of optimising catches.

While environmentally friendly fishing gear, for example, biodegradable nets, is being developed, small-scale fisheries are continuing to use the gear for they have trusted for decades. Though this may not sound very innovative, instead of using resources to replace our gear, using the same gear we have been using for years is about as green as you can get, claims Mr Lange. One transition the sector is considering is the implementation of regenerative farming in coastal areas. Various seaweeds, mussels, and oysters have the capacity to mop up nutrients in the water. Such species may have a future within the sector as a source of food for human consumption providing a new source of income for small-scale fisherman, while also improving water quality.

Some FSK-PO members use the NaturSkånsom (Naturally Low-Impact) label on their catches. NaturSkånsom is government-backed, giving the label a high degree of credibility in Denmark. Criteria that the fisher and the vessel must meet to use the label contribute to lowering emissions in the fishery. For example, fish must be caught from healthy stocks with low-impact gear, the vessel cannot exceed 17 m in length, and 80% of its fishing trips in a calendar year must be less than 48 hours. Many of these criteria also contribute to the green transition. Currently, however, only 10-15 of the organization’s 100 members use the label. Introducing a new label suffers from the chicken or egg problem, says Ms Hansen. When first introduced, awareness of the label is low, so fishers are not interested in using it. Yet awareness will only increase if the fishers start to use it, thereby creating a contradiction. However, FSK-PO is hopeful that with time and with close cooperation between the government, fishers, markets, and ­consumers the label will become better recognized and established.

Denmark’s offshore wind projects could be a blessing or a curse for the industry

As Denmark develops more offshore windfarms for its green transition, FSK-PO views turbines as both a threat and an opportunity. The placement of the windfarms determines whether their effect on the sector is positive. Turbines built in spawning sites or high value fishing grounds can be detrimental. In contrast, if they are not placed in these sensitive areas, the turbines can function as artificial reefs which are underwater structures that provide space for marine life to flourish thus creating new fishing potential. There is debate within the fishing industry as to whether artificial reefs play a role in increasing fish populations or if they simply attract fish from other areas with no net increase in numbers, and while it is still scientifically uncertain, Mr Lange explained that many FSK-PO members believed the presence of reefs results in growing populations. DFPO too acknowledges the need for offshore windfarms if Denmark is to meet its emission reduction commitments, but it recommends regular dialogue between the fishery and the windfarm industries to safeguard the interests of both. This could take the form of a marine planning forum that would include all the different stakeholders to develop solutions acceptable
to all parties.

DFPO also seeks more international initiatives involving the countries around the Baltic Sea to combat anthropogenic causes of oxygen depletion, increased acidity, and pollution. These are not issues that can be solved by one nation alone and the organisation encourages Denmark to take the lead in an ambitious multi-nation effort to improve the ecosystem in the Baltic Sea. Another point DFPO mentions is the extraction of raw materials from the sea. This activity should not be permitted in fish breeding grounds as it will have an impact on fish stocks and by extension on the fishing industry. By increasing the resilience of fish stocks these initiatives could reduce the need for fishers to travel as far or for as long in search of fish and could thereby contribute to the green transition.

Sustainable energy production should harmonise with fishing activity

In addition to offshore windfarms, Denmark also has plans to build two “Energy Islands,” a project expected to produce unprecedented amounts of energy from windfarms placed even further offshore than existing windfarms. Unfortunately, their construction requires the extraction of materials from the ocean floor. While the project is on pause for financial reasons, Ms Hansen expressed concern about the impact that this sort of project could have on marine ecosystems and thus small-scale fisheries. With plans like the development of extensive windfarms and Energy Islands, there is much concern surrounding the ocean’s “tipping point.” Ms Hansen explained that many Danes believe that forces like climate change and pollution have pushed the ocean towards a critical moment, and even though these projects are intended to save the environment, it is also possible that the disruption that they pose to life beneath the ocean’s surface could very well push the ecosystem into a lethal spiral from which there is no recovery.

In February 2023, the Danish government amended its “open door” policy following advice that it could be in breach of state aid rules. The original policy enabled manufacturers to circumvent lengthy assessments and permitting procedures to quickly develop wind farms. Abundant and cheap sustainable energy is critical to produce the e-fuels that can contribute to the greening of the fishing industry. But Mr Lange feels there was little consideration regarding the turbines’ placement and that these structures could have a negative impact on the small-scale fishery. Despite these hiccups the fishing industry will continue to do its bit to contribute to the green transition in Denmark in collaboration with the other players in the field.

Nora Goodman

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