Mallaig sinks to bottom of Scottish fish landings table

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A leading Scottish economist is predicting the local economy of Mallaig is at risk of permanently shrinking after two bad years and with the Lochaber fishing port sinking to bottom of the Scottish league table for fish landings.

Inverness-based Tony Mackay, an adviser to the World Bank and a former professor of economics at Aberdeen University, was speaking after reviewing figures from Marine Scotland’s annual report on Scottish Fisheries Statistics 2020.

The report gives detailed figures on the landings of fish in all 18 ports and districts in the country, with numbers disaggregated by species, tonnage and value.

The annual report shows there was a 21 per cent decrease in the real terms value of landings by Scottish vessels to £488 million, between 2019 and 2020, which was driven by a decrease in the value of shellfish and demersal (white fish) species.

According to the figures, Mallaig was in 18th spot – bottom – for the value of landings in 2020, falling by a massive -49 per cent to £3.5 million last year, while the tonnage dropped by -48 per cent to 1.5 million.

The report also states lockdowns and restrictions imposed as a result of the Covid-19
pandemic impacted many fishing vessels’ ability to land and sell fish during these months.

Mr Mackay agreed the lockdowns and restrictions are obviously the main reasons for the falls at Mallaig.

In terms of tonnage landed at Mallaig, the biggest landings were sprats, nephrops (langoustine) and scallops. In terms of value, shellfish accounted for 59 per cent of the total, demersal 34 per cent and pelagic (mackerel and herring) just six per cent.

The Marine Scotland report shows that there were 44 registered fishing vessels at Mallaig at the end of December last year, which was two per cent of the Scottish total of 2,088.

Commenting, Mr Mackay explained: ‘The general feeling in the industry is that 2020 and 2021 have been unusually bad years and that 2022 will be much better.

Economist Tony Mackay, pictured, has analysed fish landings for ports around Scotland. NO F41 Tony Mackay
Economist Tony Mackay, pictured, has analysed fish landings for ports around Scotland.

‘However, I am sure that the financial losses experienced in the last two years will force some fishermen out of business and also related businesses such as fish processors and fish shops. I believe therefore that there will be a permanent contraction in the Mallaig economy.’

Giving its reaction to the Marine Scotland figures, Mallaig Harbour Authority (MHA) said there was no doubt that 2020 was a difficult year for the local fishing fleet.

However, it pointed out that the majority of the Mallaig fleet would normally land shellfish, and as Mr Mackay had alluded to, this market was the hardest hit by the pandemic.

The MHA pointed to the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) which had also released annual figures confirming that the shellfish sector was hit most severely and that this was entirely consistent with the drop in the value of fish landings in Mallaig.

The other factor to bear in mind said the MHA is that, although Nephrops (langoustine) would normally be landed whole for export, particularly by the smaller creel boats, in the last year this wasn’t possible so the Nephrops were often ‘tailed’ prior to being sold.

This reduces their value, but also the weight landed as the heads and claws etc., are discarded at sea.

A spokesperson for the MHA told us: ‘The reality of 2020 for our fishing fleet was that many of the boats tied up at the start of the lockdown in March, and only fished sporadically for the rest of the year, as markets opened and shut both at home and abroad due to various lockdowns.

So while Tony’s statistics are correct, and look bleak when taken in isolation, they have to be taken in the context of Mallaig’s main landings being shellfish, and in particular Nephrops, for which the overall decrease in value in 2020 was 44 per cent. ‘

Asked to explain why the MMO statistics showed a larger fall in the the catch landed in Mallaig than those in the Marine Scotland figures, Mr Mackay pointed out that the MMO only recorded landings by UK-registered fishing vessels, while those from Marine Scotland included foreign boats – an important difference when gauging the impact on a particular port’s economy.

Mr Mackay told us: ‘The Harbour Authority receives payments from the foreign vessels when they land fish in Mallaig. Local businesses also benefit when they transport the fish from the harbour to the markets for it.

‘Fish processors and fish shops benefit from this supply of fish. Other local businesses may supply goods and services, e.g. fuel, for the foreign vessels.

‘The foreign vessels seem to have accounted for just 200,000 tonnes of the landings in 2020 but a massive £1.8 million of the value  – which was more than 50 per cent of the total.’