The following article by Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, appeared in The Scotsman newspaper on 21 June 2016.

Among the many good news stories about fishing in recent years has been how innovation by our fishermen has spearheaded new designs of selective fishing gear that helps to conserve stocks.

One of the difficult aspects of managing a commercial fishery, which targets a wild population, is that you don’t know exactly what fish will be caught. In mixed fisheries of this sort, discarding, or high grading, can be an issue. The stock would be larger and the fishery more productive if these fish grew to a larger size and also had an opportunity to spawn to safeguard future generations.

The challenge, therefore, has been to develop types of trawl that retain mature and marketable fish, whilst releasing juvenile or unwanted species. Of course, it is impossible to do this fully, but recent design innovations have helped to significantly reduce discards.

This is good for our fish stocks and also helps fishermen to comply with the discard ban regulations that are being phased in over the next few years.

Much successful work has already been done over the last decade in developing such selective trawls, but a new initiative is now underway to take these developments a stage further. This involves the Gear Innovation Technology and Advisory Group (GITAG), which seeks to build upon the body of work around gear selectivity and catch and discards reducing devices.

GITAG was formed in the second half of 2015 after the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation’s wholly owned subsidiary company SFF Services Ltd secured funding from Marine Scotland to develop and trial innovative fishing gear exploring practical solutions aimed at reducing the amount of discards.

GITAG aims to address these research and development gaps by working with key partners including the fishing industry, Marine Scotland Policy, Marine Scotland Science, Scottish Association of Fish Producer Organisations and Seafish to promote and encourage innovation from the fishing industry as a whole.

It is a two-phase approach – the first part is aimed at encouraging individuals or groups of skippers to come forward with innovative proposals and conduct initial gear trials. Phase two will involve the industry and gear technologists coming together to develop and assess further trials with the purpose of assisting skippers maximise the potential of their ideas and meeting their responsibilities under the discard ban. This phase will also look to work with all sectors to develop gears that will offer a choice of options and solutions over the coming years. A second application for funding is being submitted to the Scottish Government and European Maritime & Fisheries Fund for financial support running to 31 December 2019..

Already there have been encouraging results from this initiative following trials with a new type of prototype prawn trawl developed fishing skipper Jimmy Buchan and netmaker Mark Buchan of Jackson Trawls.

Initial fishing trials with the new trawl on the fishing vessel Amity II resulted in a significant drop in the amount of unwanted whitefish retained without any reduction in the prawn (langoustine) catch. Furthermore, the quality of the prawns was noticeably better compared with those caught in traditional trawls.

The new design features an inclined panel which separates fish from the prawns within the trawl. The fish are directed upwards with many escaping through large meshes in the top part of the net, whilst the prawn catch is retained in the bottom section of the trawl. The whitefish which remain in the net are covered by the boat’s fish quota for the mixed fishery, keeping discards down to a minimum.

The trials, which are still ongoing, have been experimenting with different configurations and mesh sizes to ascertain the optimum design. Subsequent trials have delivered similarly encouraging results.

Other skippers are also being supported by GITAG in conducting their own projects in developing their own new trawl designs to reduce discards.

As skipper Jimmy Buchan puts it: “We are entering a new era in fisheries management where fishermen are challenged to find new and better ways to harvest the sea.

“This gear trial is part of the outward focus in finding workable solutions that are acceptable to all stakeholders and where fishermen can continue to fish responsibly. Much work has yet to be done but early indications are showing promising results.”

Such current work, and of course the huge amount of past work done by many others, has played a key role in ensuring the healthy state of most of our commercially important fish stocks. With keystone species such as haddock, saithe, mackerel and herring all independently certified under the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) ecolabel scheme – and North Sea cod currently under assessment – the future of our fisheries does indeed look bright.