Future-proofing the small-scale fishery

by Thomas Jensen
EM1 21 EE Coastal

New report analyses small-scale fishing in Estonia and suggests ways to rejuvenate it

This article was featured in EUROFISH Magazine 1 / 2021.

The coastal fishery in Estonia is defined by fishing at a depth of up to 20 m. The small-scale fishery is specified as professional fishing on vessels below 12 m and using only passive gears, trawling is forbidden. The two categories overlap—the coastal fishery includes small-scale fishers as does the inland water fishery on Estonia’s largest lakes.

The most important fish species targeted by the coastal fishing sector are perch and herring in coastal waters with marginal volumes of smelt, flounder, round goby, and vimba bream. The small-scale coastal fishery has been fairly stable over the last 10 years according to some indicators—the number of fishers (about 2,300) and the landings of fish (13-14 thousand tonnes)—however, the catch value has increased over the last decade by 27% to just over EUR10m, and the average age of the fishers has been increasing and now stands at 53.

Stationery gears of different kinds characterise coastal fishing

In Estonia coastal fishery catches are regulated by gears, mainly trap nets, gill nets, seine nets, and to a limited extent, longlines. Fishers have permits for a certain number of gears which deter- mines how much they can catch, and the number of gears is based on historical fishing rights. How- ever, the number of gears is not commensurate with the resource (the number is too high) according to Toomas Armulik, the head of the Fisheries Information Centre in Estonian Fishery 2018, however, attempts to reduce the number of gears is resisted by the fishermen. One way forward he suggests may be for the state to buy historical fishing rights (analogous to decommissioning vessels) or to link subsidies to a reduction in effort.

The marine areas where the fish- ers operate include the Pärnu Bay, Gulf of Finland, Gulf of Riga, the Väinameri Sea and the Central Baltic near the Saaremaa and Hiiumaa islands. The catch structure and volumes caught vary in the different areas with Pärnu Bay responsible for the overwhelming majority of the catch (over 70) followed by the Gulfs of Finland and Riga at about 10 each. Catches in the Central Baltic amount to some 2. There are also slight differences in the gears deployed with all four gear types used in Pärnu Bay and pre- dominantly gill nets and trap nets being used in the Gulf of Finland, the Väinameri Sea, and the Gulf of Riga. In the Gulf of Riga seine nets and longlines are also used to some extent. While a large num- ber of species are caught in all the five areas, it is largely the same three or four species that dominate the catch in all areas, herring, perch, flounder, and smelt.

Perch and pikeperch are important target species for inland fishers

In Lake Võrtsjärv catches have been fairly stable for the last couple of decades. Over the eight years to 2018 they averaged 204 tonnes, while for the eight years before that the average was 206 tonnes. Pikeperch, bream, and pike are the dominant target species while gill nets and trap nets are the main fishing gears used. Lake Peipsi is shared with Rus- sia and is Estonia’s largest lake. Catches over the eight years to 2018 have averaged some 2,500 tonnes of which pikeperch, perch, and bream account for the lion’s share (over 80 in 2018). Trap nets, gill nets, and seine net are the main fishing gears of which different kinds of trap nets take the majority of the total catch. Both the number of companies that sought fishing permits and the number of fishermen have shown declining trends over the eight years to 2018. In the case of the companies the reduction has been gradual from 71 to 66 companies, while the number of fishers has fallen 35% to 264.

In Peipsi lake the fishing follows an “Olympic” system, where quota is not given to each user, but the fishing is terminated when daily reports and logbook records indicate that the quota is fulfilled. Currently the system encourages fishers to fish all they can until the quota is exhausted. However, this can lead to fulfilled quotas on one species choking the fishing for others as the gears are not species specific. In addi- tion, this system can flood the market with fish thus depressing prices. Discussions were there- fore initiated in 2019 between the stakeholders to replace the Olym- pic fishery with one of individual quotas. ITQs will stagger the fish- ery benefiting both the fishers by smoothening the income stream and consumers who will be able to buy fresh fish over a longer period. Fishing companies feel that individual quotas will be eco- nomically viable and will strike a balance between capacity and opportunities.


Very few full-time commercial fishers

Today just 10-15% of the coastal fishers are fully dependent on their profession, for most it is a part time occupation supplemented by other work usually unrelated to fishing. Fishers are still primarily catching and selling the untreated fish though value- adding activities are increasing (from a low base). There are some bigger companies involved in the sector and they are active along the entire value chain—catching, processing, and selling on the domestic market or also exporting.

As in other parts of the Baltic Sea region, in Estonia too the coastal fishery needs to reinvent itself to stay relevant, dynamic, and attractive to young people. The latter is particularly important, says Jüri Sakkeus, a consultant and co-author of a new report* on the Estonian coastal fishery, if the future of the coastal fishery is to be secured. One of the key ways of attracting new blood to the small scale fisheries sector is by making it a more lucrative activity. The coastal fishery today does not offer the same potential to earn and provide for a family as other sectors of the economy. At the same time boats and fishing gear are usually old and worn. Coupled with this are the often harsh working conditions— the weather is frequently inclement, hours are ungodly, and the job is physically demanding. While little can be done about the weather the report sees potential in increasing the local addition of value to the catch and in fishers diversifying their sources of income by, for example, offering fishing tourism services. The growth of the local market both from tourism and from an increasing trend that the pandemic has highlighted of peo- ple moving to smaller places and working remotely will also benefit the coastal fishery. In addition, ongoing measures to improve the status of stocks also contribute to the economic sustainability of the sector.

EMFF has an important role in supporting the coastal fishery

The coastal fishery already benefits directly and indirectly from the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) which, often through Fisheries Local Action Groups (FLAGs), has supported the construction of common infrastructure like ports, landing sites, and small processing facilities, as well as equipment for individual fishers such as seal scarers. FLAGs also design and implement turn- key projects that, for example, create accommodation, activities for visitors, places to eat, and other facilities, to make an area attractive for tourists and boost the local economy. The indirect benefits include sup- port for Producer Organisations (POs) of which coastal fishers are sometimes members. The EMFF 2021-27 will continue to support coastal fishing considering it critical to the economic sustainability
of coastal communities as well as a repository of cultural value. EU strategies including the Farm to Fork strategy and the 2030 Biodiversity Strategy, both part of the European Green Deal, are relevant to coastal fisheries. Representatives from fisheries areas and private and public stakeholders in coastal communities should explore the opportunities offered by these strategies to develop and support projects that increase sustainability thereby benefiting both the community as well as the environment.

There are thus several factors that influence coastal fisheries— positively and negatively. Based on these, the report considers four scenarios arranging them along two bisecting axes: the Y axis represents coastal communities and extends from thriving to failing, while the X axis represents the coastal fisheries which extend from profitable contributors to the local economy to marginal activities (fishing as a lifestyle/hobby). The most desirable outcome is thriving coastal communities and a profitable coastal fishery. This scenario is based on healthy fish stocks, the presence of large integrated companies that cover the entire value chain, as well as increasing demand from both tourists and residents that encourages local small–scale suppliers of fish and fish products as well as of other goods and services. Another slightly less attractive scenario assumes decreasing catches but increasing value addition, a growing coastal community thanks to tourists, migration, and recreational fishers who acquire fishing rights from commercial fishers. At the other end of the scale, the least desirable outcome foresees coastal fishing reduced to a lifestyle activity or hobby and coastal communities that have withered. This scenario results from assumptions of a decrease in coastal catches due to unhealthy stocks and restrictions on fishing, the poor utilisation of support programmes, the ageing of fishers and the decline in their number, and the transfer of fishing rights to anglers. A slightly more positive scenario assumes that fishers do not add value to their catch, but sell it unprocessed, some sell their fishing rights to companies and go on to work for them, while others migrate.

Model helps policy-makers take informed decisions

While the probability of a scenario depends on factors that are difficult to control, for example, environmental conditions in the Baltic or the spread of a pandemic, the likelihood of a scenario is also influenced by deliberate policy changes. The model enables an analysis of the impact of policies on a scenario to see whether they contribute to achieving the outcome envisaged in the scenario. It is thus a tool that aids stakeholders make more informed decisions. Having identified the most desirable scenarios the authors also suggest strategies that will enhance the likelihood of achieving them and mitigating the threats. These strategies include improved management of fish stocks (building fish passes, restoring spawning grounds, neutralising the threat from predators) as they provide the foundation for profitable fisheries and flourishing coastal communities; infrastructure development, improved fishing gear, and a modern working environment to attract newcomers to the commercial fishing profession; encouraging and exploiting trends among people such as moving temporarily or permanently to coastal communities; and supporting Fisheries Local Action Groups as they are representative of their communities and most knowledgeable about local needs.

As the report shows, the right policies and incentives will go a long way towards securing the future of the coastal fishing sector and the communities it supports.

*Coastal Fishing – Visions and Future Scenarios, Jüri Sakkeus, Silja Lassur, Aado Keskpaik, November 2020

The loss of the Horeca market is a blow to producers of high value fish species
Pandemic affects coastal fisheries too

The pandemic had both negative likely to be from the loss of jobs and and positive effects on the coastal the lowering of living standards as fishery. Among the former was the government support programmes temporary loss of export orders as wind down. On the brighter side the international demand for the high coronavirus forced people to work value predatory species (pikeperch, remotely accelerating an existing perch, and pike) fell because of trend where people spend more the collapse of the Horeca (hotels, time working, for example, from restaurants, catering) sector. Re- summerhouses. As these second strictions on travel also influenced homes are often located in coastal the number of foreign tourists areas this trend strengthens the coming to Estonia though this may community because these tempo- have been compensated for by in- rary residents create a market for creased domestic tourism. Longer locally produced goods and services term damage from the pandemic is including fish and fish products.

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