Orkney has seen industries come and industries go. In the past whaling and kelp were two such huge sectors. They are gone. Then we had the oil boom and the construction of the Flotta oil terminal, still there for a few years yet but with a much reduced workforce. Today the new boom sectors are renewables and tourism.
Throughout all of this boom and bust the two sectors which have remained constant are farming and fishing.
The Neolithic inhabitants of Orkney thrived as farmers who also fished. For thousands of years the landscape of the islands was sculpted by farmers. Ancient boat nousts can still be seen nestling in sheltered bays.
Farming is about to experience massive changes as the UK leaves the EU and power is transferred to the UK Government intent on widespread reforms to the industry. Will small family run farms and crofts survive as businesses? Highly unlikely as the reforms favour larger enterprises. 86% of Scotland is farmed under the Less Favoured Area Scheme. This acknowledges that farming is more difficult in Scotland due to climatic factors and distance from markets. Although the Scottish Government will continue to make payments they can only afford to do so for a short time.
Orkney has already lost the Orkney Beef and Lamb protected named status as the island no longer has an abattoir. Scotland will follow with the loss of the protected named status for Scotch Beef and Lamb as the UK leaves the EU. Threat to Scotland’s Quality Food Standards
Why does that matter? Because those are signs of quality which consumers are prepared to pay that bit extra for knowing that what they buy will be grass fed, excellent products.
There are 106 fishing vessels registered to Orkney, employing around 170 individuals full time. The fleet has decreased by 6% over a short 8 year period. The trend is downward as, just like in farming, fewer young people are choosing these traditional industries as a career.
A report by Hannah Fennell of Orkney Fisheries Association The Continuity of Orkney’s Fishing Industry should be required reading for all of Orkney’s Councillors, MSPs who represent the area, the MP Alistair Carmichael and the newly elected MEPs for Scotland.
Most of Orkney’s fishing vessels are under 10m. It is an Inshore Fishing fleet mostly bringing in brown crab, velvet crab, and king scallops. In addition to these premium fish are queen scallops, lobsters, prawns, and whelks. In 2015 the economic value to Orkney was £6,264,459. The average Orcadian crew can expect to earn between £25-40,000 a year.
But its about more than fishing vessels – there’s a whole support network of businesses built up around fishing. There are 2 processing factories – Orkney Fishermen’s Society (OFS), located in Stromness, on the Orkney Mainland, and Westray Processors in Pierowall, Westray and local suppliers to equip the vessels. The processors employ over 130 full time staff and have a turnover of over £10million.
Orkney’s Inshore Fisheries prides itself on embracing sustainable fishing practices. It has done much to protect the marine environment upon which it relies. Can the same be said of some of Orkney’s more recent entrants to the marine scene? – fish farms, ship to ship transfers and cruise ships?
Hannah Fennel’s extensive report is just one part of a two-year EMFF-funded project focusing on making Orkney’s fisheries more environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable. Her colleague Cara Duncan has also been looking at ways to make the industry more efficient whilst continuing to be sustainable.
Orkney has seen in the past the problem when it embraces boom industries to the detriment of traditional ones. The landowners who forced the tenanted farmers off their fields and onto the shoreline to collect and process kelp which for a short time made huge profits for the wealthy did so to the detriment of the farms. The people who worked the land had a hard life forcing many of them to choose emigration. Farming and fishing is still here, however, and the kelp industry is long gone, it’s need replaced by chemicals.
A diverse economy is essential for Orkney’s future but whilst all eyes are turned on the new entrants – renewables and mass tourism – it would be extremely foolish for decision makers to forget the role of farming and fishing as the strong foundations of the islands economy – past, present and future.
Reporter: Fiona Grahame