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Last Updated: Sunday, 12 November 2006, 17:46 GMT
Murmansk fish processors fight to survive
By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Murmansk, Russia

Looking around Shakir Guseinov's deadly quiet fish-meal factory, it is easy to understand why he is longing for the good old days.

Fish meal factory
The collapse of the Berlin Wall silenced the fish-meal factory

The rusty machines in this formerly round-the-clock factory are only kicked into action once a week, and it does not even produce enough fish meal to cover the cavernous warehouse's floor space.

"During Soviet times, this was a hive of activity," says Mr Guseinov, director of the complex.

"Then, when Gorbachev came to power, the system was ruined."

Going elsewhere

Mr Guseinov remains stubbornly hopeful that the Murmansk fish processing industry will one day be revived, and he only half jests when he says he is concerned about industrial espionage.

"Five million tonnes of cod is caught each year in the Barents Sea. They could do something to bring the fish back to this country," he says.

But Russian trawlers no longer return to Murmansk to land their catch the way they used to.

Shakir Guseinov
The EU asks us to share our wealth. So why should we be left without income, without jobs?
Shakir Guseinov, Murmansk Fish Processing Complex

Before Perestroika reduced the Murmansk Fish Processing Complex to a shadow of its former self, fish was filleted and processed here," says Mr Guseinov, who is the director of the complex.

The much higher prices paid for fish in Western European markets, whose own waters have little fish left, have drained supplies away from Russia's processing industry, while changing consumer tastes have virtually killed off demand for their products.

In the West, ready filleted, frozen fish has had its day. Whole fish not only fetches better prices, it is also cheaper and easier to supply.

Lost jobs

So, because the fish heads and tails that used to be turned into fish meal at Mr Guseinov's factory end up in European landfill sites, the people who used to work here have been sent home.

Murmansk Marine Fishing Port
Deep sea fishing can be a dangerous but lucrative business

During the 1980s, the complex was filled with 85,000 worker who processed up to 1.3 million tonnes of fish per year. These days, only 25,000 people work here, and between 130,000 and 180,000 tonnes of fish is landed annually.

"We are not going to be the hired hands of the European Union," Mr Guseinov declares.

"The EU asks us to share our wealth. So why should we be left without income, without jobs?"

Red tape

Yet, while the situation is desperate for the city's entire fish processing industry, it is a different story offshore in the bountiful Barents Sea.

There, Russian trawlers fish more than half a million tonnes per year, enough weight for their owners to often be referred to as "fish oligarchs", eager to line their own pockets.

Sergey Bebenin, director of Murmansk Marine Fishing Port, understand their point of view.

It isn't just an economic question. It's not just an environmental question. It's a social question
Prof Oleg Alekseevitch Andreev
Baltic Institute for Ecology, Politics and Law in Murmansk

It is no wonder that the trawlers do not bring their fish to Murmansk, given that it can take 12 hours to land a load, as each ship is subjected to a string of bureaucratic controls by veterinary inspectors, harbour officials and customs officials, he explains.

"Control is obligatory in Russian harbours," he points out. "These days, everybody counts money and prefer to operate in jurisdictions with less restrictions."

But although Mr Bebenin is keen for the Russians to cut back the red tape, he also blames lax regulations in Norway and elsewhere in Europe, for many of the problems faced by the Murmansk industry and for the widespread problem of illegal fishing in the Barents Sea.

"Ship owners who would like to violate the law avoid the Russian control system, which is less comfortable than in Norway." he insists, pointing to the way the Norwegian control system relies on self declarations.

Serious threat

Norway strongly agrees that illegal fishing poses a serious problem in the Barents Sea, and not only by Russian boats. Trawlers from several other countries are also fishing illegally in these arctic waters.

"Illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing is a serious threat to fish stock," Norwegian fisheries minister Helga Pedersen tells BBC News. "It takes jobs from coastal communities and it undermines the markets."

Fish market in Murmansk
Consumers are having to face up to diminishing fish stocks

Yet, although she acknowledges that "most of the illegally caught fish is indeed [landed] in European markets", she rejects the assertion that lax regulations are to blame.

"We have strict controls in Norway," she says, insisting that action against trawlers breaking the law should be taken by their own governments.

"The big problem in the Barents Sea is that not all flag states take responsibility," she says.

Norway has been urging Russia for years to take action. Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin introduced a big rise in fines for anyone caught illegally fishing in Russian waters.

UK fisheries minister Ben Bradshaw cheers any action taken to curb illegal fishing.

And he insists that in addition to flag nations taking actions, commercial operators - such as supermarkets - should also move to ensure that the fish they sell is legally sourced to prevent an erosion of the Barents Sea fish stock.

"After climate change, the threat to fish stock is the area consumers care the most about," he tells BBC News.

Yet, as Professor Oleg Alekseevitch Andreev of the Baltic Institute for Ecology, Politics and Law in Murmansk points out: "This is not just an economic question. It is not just an environmental question. It is a social question".

"We would be lucky if there was no collision here."

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