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Last Updated: Friday, 19 December, 2003, 09:13 GMT
A graveyard for the Scots fleet

By Andrew Cassell
BBC Scotland Correspondent

What was left of the Uberous rose stubbornly from the sea, her blue steel hull, stripped of her wheelhouse and superstructure but still displaying the Saltire, shuddered briefly as if reluctant to part company with the water.

Then, inch by creaking inch, she yielded to the massive floating crane brought in to lift her clear.

Within half an hour she had completed her final journey from quayside to scrap yard, taking her place alongside the five other Scottish vessels awaiting the attentions of the wrecking crews.

Uberous
The Uberous is lifted into the yard
Paul Stewart watched the operation glumly, his mood matching the grim December drizzle scudding across the Danish port of Grenaa.

He gestured towards a red rusting hulk, the Norlantean from Stromness in Orkney, and to the Buckie boat, the Altair and said: "I know the guys who used to skipper these vessels. It's heartbreaking to see them end up here."

Soon his own boat, the Poseidon, will join them. For this is where Scottish fishing vessels have come to die. The European Union calls the process decommissioning - taking vessels out of the fleet to reduce the number catching fish and so preserve the rapidly dwindling stocks.

Paul Stewart says it's more like bereavement: "I'm going to a friend's funeral. This vessel is my life's work, now it's going to be cut up. The boat's nine years old but there's still 20 or 30 years' life left in her and yet she's going to be ripped to pieces and melted down. This is just a waste of money - it doesn't make sense."

The decision to give up the job he's been doing since he was 16 was not his. Like others he was forced to seek decommissioning by the bank which loaned him the money to buy his boat but then decided his business was no longer viable.

Bounteous Sea
The remains of the Bounteous Sea lie on the ground
The hundreds of thousands of pounds Paul will receive from the government plus the proceeds of the sale of the Poseidon to the Danish ship breakers will all go towards paying off some of his sizeable debts.

He says most fishermen accept the need for European governments to limit the amount of fish caught, but he feels decommissioning is killing the industry.

By early in the new year, almost 30 Scottish trawlers will have been scrapped at the Grenaa yard. Last year, double that number was destroyed.

In the main white fish ports of Fraserburgh and Peterhead the results of decommissioning are obvious: the size of the fleet has been halved.

From 2004, just 125 vessels will be chasing the cod, haddock and whiting in the North Sea and beyond. Fishing capacity will be reduced by a third.

In Denmark, they've seen it all before. The ship-breaking firm which is buying up the Scottish boats was started by two fishermen who went through the same painful process at the beginning of the nineties.

'Totally crazy'

Now they make their money by selling on the wheel houses, engines, winches and other equipment salvaged from the vessels they decommission.

But even they despair when they see some of the boats they have to reduce to scrap.

"To scrap a 30-year-old boat, that's okay," says Egun Dam, "it's done its job. But a three-year-old boat? That's criminal. She could be used somewhere else in the world. The system is totally crazy."

The party of Thai fishermen we stumbled across in Grenaa agreed. They were scouring the yard for equipment they could use to update their own less modern fleet.

They would have preferred to buy whole vessels but the EU insists that the hulls of decommissioned fishing boats must be completely destroyed.

Paul Stewart
Paul Stewart considers a bleak future for the industry
This is why the likes of the Uberous end up at the scrap yard. Once ashore, their hulls are attacked by machines which tear and rip them apart. Nothing is spared.

In the space of two days, a 120-tonne vessel simply disappears to be replaced by a small mountain of scrap metal and trash.

For British fisheries ministers, scientists and environmentalists every boat that's scrapped represents a small step forward in the fight to save fish stocks, but for the skippers who used to own them the future is uncertain.

Some will work on at sea as crew on other trawlers. Some will simply retire. Others, like Paul Stewart, will try to learn new skills to get a job away from the sea.

As we watched the decommissioning process in Denmark last week, I wondered out loud what became of the piles of metal fragments formed from the destruction of Scottish fishing boats.

"They are recycled," came the swift reply from one of the wrecking crews. "They go to be smelted down for the German car industry."

Paul Stewart was not impressed.


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