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Belgian fleet under pressure

Belgium’s fishing industry has been through years of upheaval as its fleet has steadily declined in numbers...

Belgium’s fishing industry is now one of the smallest in terms of vessel numbers in the European Union with only around eighty vessels, the majority of them beam trawlers, plus a small number of static gear boats and an established fleet of shrimpers.

The Belgian fleet is also very widespread, with fishing rights across grounds from the Bay of Biscay to the Irish Sea and far into the North Sea, making it also one of Europe’s most far-travelled fleets.

This means problems of logistics, as much of the Belgian fleet’s fish is landed in ports as far from home as La Rochelle, Milford Haven and Thyborøn, and trucked to Zeebrugge or Oostende auctions to be sold.

The dockside feeling is that the fleet is under intense pressure. Vessel numbers have continued to decline. although the fleet that remains is now relatively efficient following some re-engining schemes.

“Fishermen seem to be simply concentrating on making a living, hoping the PO, the government and the scientists will be able to turn the discard ban into something acceptable,” one industry figure pointed out, and this is undoubtedly the next potential crisis that the Belgian fleet could be facing as the landing obligation becomes mandatory on the first of January next year – in spite of the fact that there are still a great many unanswered questions – while another consequence of the new CFP, the Production and Marketing Plan, has the potential to ratchet up the pressure still further.

Discard Ban approaching

The prospect of the landing obligation coming into force on the first of January next year is looming for Belgium’s fishing fleet made up predominantly of beam trawlers.

One of the smallest national fishing fleets in Europe, the Belgian fleet is now down to approximately seventy vessels, split roughly equally between a large and a small segment, mainly beamers with some vessels  fishing with trawl or static gear.

The fleet has continued to shrink with several vessels lost to the fleet over the last year, including one large vessel that went bankrupt and the loss of one smaller beamer with four crew earlier this year in the Channel.



Emiel Brouckaert, head of the country’s single PO, Rederscentrale, said that while fish prices have been fluctuating up and down as always, but averaging an acceptable level and they are currently enjoying the present relatively low fuel price, much of his energy is currently going into work on the impending discard ban.

“We are taking part in meetings and projects with the Belgian authorities and within the advisory councils, related to the member states groupings preparation of discard plans. We put what influence we can have on the process and to report back to the Rederscentrale members to explain the situation,” he said, commenting that for fishermen and skippers it remains difficult to accept what is going to take place in a few months.

“We are getting more and more information on this and the member states groupings plans should go to the EU Commission in May,” he said.

“In our case beam trawling is the main fishing method which is focused on sole as a target species. We are also looking at other issues, such as plaice as target species in the 120mm mesh gear north of 56°N. Generally we have set out as a condition that we have to avoid any increase in fishing mortality due to the landing obligation which will be the case if no exemption is obtained for high survivability.”

The situation with sole and mainly plaice caught in relatively shallow water is that survival rates are as high as 70 to 80%, so an obligation to land fish that have a high probability of survival is not acceptable to the fleet.

“Particularly from a Belgian point of view that we are putting forward to the authorities, survival is a priority and we are hoping for something manageable for the Belgian fleet,” he said.

“To begin with there are questions of the phase-in period and what will be in place on the first of January, with proposals that are being presented to the EU Commission. The next priority is the avoidance of mortality, and then the question of exceptions that may be applicable on the first of January. Will we be able to apply other exceptions? We are working with ILVO on projects and at seagoing level, we are hoping that we will manage to have in place something that is achievable.”

He added that there are additional issues that need to be addressed, as fish landed under the landing obligation that would otherwise be discards can not have a value attached to them, so crews are understandably less than willing to put effort into handling fish they will not be paid for, plus there is the unique Belgian situation in that the majority of the fleet’s landings are made elsewhere, with between 70 and 80% of fish landed in UK, Irish, Danish or French ports and trucked to auctions in Belgium.

The Belgian fleet has fishing rights in the Eastern and western Channel, the Bristol Channel, the Irish Sea, the Bay of Biscay and primarily for plaice in the North Sea above 56°N.

“There are questions of whether or not we have to pay transport costs for this fish that doesn’t have any value, or can we dispose of it in the ports where it is landed? We have already heard anecdotal reports from the Baltic where the landing obligation was introduced on the first of January this year, including reports that vessels have been turned away. Much of this appears to have been sorted out between the member states in that region, but it’s still not watertight.”

He commented that the landing obligation is not going to be an easy challenge to meet, but in spite of that, it should not be viewed as something entirely without benefits.

“There should be benefits overall in promoting avoidance and selectivity. That should be the objective – not the landing obligation itself,” he said.

Oostende facelift

Changes are taking place at the Belgian port of Oostende.

While on one side of the fish dock older buildings are being pulled down to make way for high-rise waterside housing, on the other side, there are ambitious plans afoot.

Some of the old fishmarket buildings have already been cleared away to make space for what will be stores and workshops for fishing businesses, while the next stage is for the present fishmarket building to go.

The first stage has already begun and construction of the new stores is about to start, while the market building is next on the list for demolition, with construction of the new auction to start early next year. The new auction is scheduled to open in early 2017.



The design of the new building reflects changing times. The present Oostende auction was built when a large local fleet was landing direct to it over the quayside. The new auction is built further back from the dock edge, 10m from the water instead of the present 3m.

Vehicle access is also much improved, both for buyers collecting fish and for deliveries, reflecting the fact that the majority of the fish today is trucked in overland from vessels landing their catches in France, the UK or Denmark.

What has not changed is that there is still a strong demand in Belgium for fish, so it remains important to be able to serve the local customer base, with operating company Vlaamse Visveiling running both the Oostende and Zeebrugge auctions, as well as handling sales for the smaller Nieuwpoort auction to the south.

Originally Zeebrugge Visveiling, the name was changed when the then-ailing Oostende auction was taken over after numerous changes of management over the years.

The Zeebrugge auction shifted from its original quayside location to its present site more than twenty-five years ago and Vlaamse Visveiling’s auction manager Johan van de Steene, who has been with the company the whole time, said that much has changed.

“At that time a new auction had to be developed and we moved here in 1988,” he said, commenting that big changes began to take place in 1998 when the then-revolutionary PEFA system of remote selling was introduced.

“Approximately 70% of our fish goes to remote buyers, mostly in Belgium but also in Holland, the UK and France. Plus we also have a large number of smaller buyers who collect their fish themselves from the auctions” he said, commenting that there is certainly a need for two locations as one is not sufficient to handle the volumes of fish.

“There won’t be any major changes at the Zeebrugge auction, but we have the experience of building a new auction and we can take those lessons with us in designing and setting up the new Oostende fish market,” he said.

More questions than answers

Hans Polet at research body ILVO agreed that some of the pressure has shifted.

Fuel prices have fallen and fishing is good at the moment for the Belgian fleet, but the approaching discard ban is now only months away, so the industry’s focus is on selectivity rather than the fuel saving measures that have dominated the last decade.

He commented that much of the work on mitigating fuel costs has already been done.

“Belgian fishermen have already done what they can with the gear and the boats they have.

A lot of boats have been re-engined with more efficient engines and there is a lot more awareness of sensible use of engine power. So now we see the traditional 1200hp beamers burning 2500-3000 litres per day instead of the 6000-7000 litres they used to consume.”

In addition, fishing gear has become more streamlined. Wing-type beams such as the SumWing are in widespread use and the heavy chain mat gear of the past with its thick nylon netting has all but disappeared to be replaced with lighter gear.

Thinner and lighter chains are used, as well as fewer chains in the gears, plus larger meshes are more common in top panels of beam trawls and low-drag Dyneema has been used to replace much of the heavy older netting. These measures in combination all contribute to reducing the overall drag of the gear significantly.

“Now the focus is on selectivity and this is an issue that the PO, Rederscentrale, and the government are taking this seriously. The industry is seeking to make the landing obligation something they can accept as it will be very difficult if this is imposed strictly. There are practical difficulties on board, especially in handling plaice and dabs which is where we expect to see the problems occurring, as well as with storing these fish,” he said.

He commented that stocks are in good condition and the beam trawl fleet is doing better now that fuel prices have fallen to a reasonable level, although fish prices could be higher.

“There has never been so much plaice in the North Sea,” he said, commenting that he has more questions of his own than answers in an industry that is under pressure and beset with uncertainty. “The problem is going to be with choke species, such as plaice that could become a limiting factor in the sole fishery.”

ILVO has been working on survival studies to determine the survival rates of discards, carrying these studies out in close co-operation with Dutch researchers, as well as with exchanges of information with CEFAS in the UK and DTU Aqua in Denmark.

“We find that survival rates vary from 20% to 80% and my feeling is that this depends on a variety of factors that includes tow length, catch volume and the composition on the catch. Depth is a factor, but is probably not so critical for flatfish,” he said.

“We have done survival trials on a Eurocutter fishing within the twelve-mile limit, with easily a 70% survival rate for discarded fish. That’s not to say that this is always the case, but this demonstrates that very high survival rates can be achieved and it’s an argument that the landing obligation should not necessarily be enforced with absolute strictness,” Hans Polet said and added that there is a concern that once discards are outlawed, data collection could suffer.

“We have quite good information on the volumes and composition of discards at the moment, but I’m concerned that the quality of the data we receive is going to get worse in the future.”

There is still a level of uncertainty about the landing obligation and what exemptions may or may not be in place when it comes into force in January 2016, although it is certain that it will apply to sole and the Belgian operators have already taken steps to address this.

There have been reductions in sole quotas, notably in the Channel in response to pressure to bring the stock in line with MSY rather than because of a problem with abundance.

Industry initiative

“In the middle of December we had a call from Rederscentrale asking if we could trial a 3m tunnel section in a beam trawl, replacing the standard 80mm mesh with 120mm, and we tested this at sea at the beginning of January,” Hans Polet said.

“The results were a 40% reduction in catches of undersized sole, against a loss of 15% of marketable sole. We were able to do the trials right away and get the results quickly, so this has been a requirement from April onwards.”

“We have done more trials since then, with slightly varying but still convincing results. It’s a positive outcome, an example of an industry initiative in which scientists, management and fishermen can work together.”

He commented that a problem facing the Belgian fishing sector is that it is composed of largely small companies with one vessel each and there are no operators with more than a few vessels at their disposal.

“There is an argument that a different business model is needed, possibly with companies merging into larger units or working together as co-operatives,” he said.

“Smaller companies don’t have the weight to invest in and experiment with new technology and ideas, as we have seen happening in Holland, notably with companies such as Jaczon that have been able to invest in seine netting and pulse trawling, and have been able to make a success of both. It’s an idea that is being discussed, but there’s a need to consider alternatives,” he said and commented that the pulse trawling that has been so successful and controversial for the Dutch fleet is still outlawed in Belgium and the Dutch pulse boats are limited to a section of the North Sea.

“What we would like to see would be a small number of pulse trawlers able to operate in the Channel and the Celtic Sea as an experiment, but not an experiment on the scale of what has been done in Holland, and this would have to be done in co-operation with French, UK and Irish scientists.”

“We have two PhD students here working on the effects of electricity on fish, testing different frequencies and pulses, testing at different life stages of sole and cod from eggs and larvae to egg-bearing adults. Most of the experimentation has been done and we see very little effect,” he said, but commented that the spinal injuries to cod are a problem and the effects on whiting are believed to be similar, although this is difficult to establish as whiting are so difficult to keep alive in captivity.

“In general, it’s positive and is less damaging than classic fishing gear with beam trawl or otter trawls. But what is lacking is the understanding of long-term effects,” he warned.

There is a single Belgian shrimp trawler, O-82, fishing with pulse gear on an experimental basis as a four-year project that has recently begun.

Another recent study carried out as part of the Benthic Ecosystem Fisheries Impact Study (BENTHIS) project compared three areas of inshore ground, one a control area, one trawled hard with conventional beam gear and one fished with pulse gear. Once fishing had come to an end, the three were examined in detail and there was no difference to be found between them in terms of seabed life or ground disturbance.

“We carried out the same trial in deeper water close to a Natura 2000 zone and found there that there that the area fished with pulse gear showed a ground disturbance around a centimetre deep and the conventional gear resulted in around three centimetre deep ground disturbance, while all three areas showed exactly the same levels of marine fauna.

“There was no difference in mortality One theory is that these grounds have been fished for so long that the marine life has adapted to fishing. But the result is that you have to ask yourself just how bad is seabed impact?”

Irish Sea questions

Due to the nomadic nature of the Belgian fleet with its fishing rights in many different areas, the Irish Sea is a concern and Hans Polet said that sole in particular there appears to be disappearing, according to the stock assessment date, while the CPUE for sole remains high, showing a marked discrepancy between what fishermen and scientists are seeing.

“What’s happening there? It’s not overfished, as while there has been fishing it has not been fished any more than the North Sea has.

It could be changes in climate, but we have not seen the same changes in the English Channel or the Bristol Channel, which are further south and which you would expect to be affected as well.” he said, pointing out that the decline of sole in the Irish Sea coincides with the arrival of the first wind farms in the Irish Sea and there is a possibility that nursery areas could have been disrupted or could be shifting to other areas.

“We want to investigate this with the UK and Ireland, starting by looking into the historical data, and then we would like to mirror the CEFAS surveys with a Belgian commercial vessel, plus possibly another commercial vessel to do additional sampling.”

“Cod and sole are both doing badly in the Irish Sea and there’s a lot going on in what is almost a closed ecosystem, so this deserves a study. We need to understand what’s going on there.”

Alive and well in Zeebrugge

Fishing gear supplier Pakhus 5 is on the move, although the company is shifting only a hundred metres across the street to a different unit next to Zeebrugge’s fish dock.

The company’s managing director Jacques Melkenbeke explained that his neighbour, Gardec, recently bought the remains of winch manufacturer Brusselle and is now in the process of moving all of Brusselle’s facilities from Nieuwpoort to Zeebrugge – and needed to expand. The result was an arrangement for Gardec to take over Pakhus 5’s unit and for Jacques Melkenbeke and his team to move into a Gardec unit across the road.

“This is important for the Belgian fleet, as there are plenty of Brusselle winches in use and this means that Gardec will be able to continue to maintain and service them,” he said.

“So now we’re actually moving back to the unit I built twenty years ago.”

Pakhus 5 has been increasingly busy with exports in addition to supplying the local fleet in Belgium, with netmaker Noël Dugardein rigging specialist trawl gear for UK operators in Brixham and Plymouth in particular, both beam trawl and multi-rig trawls.

“Exports are expanding and this is becoming an increasingly important part of what we do here,“ he said, but added that for a couple of reasons, the company’s business with France has been less easy recently.

“We work with Deeside Marine to distribute their scallop gear in Normandy, but the exchange rate is a huge problem at the moment. We supply both standard gear and N-Viro dredges to customers in Normandy. This is good gear and it’s becoming increasingly popular there, but the exchange rate is terrible right now and we’re hoping the Euro will gain some strength to bring the price down again.”

“We were already busy with trawl gear for customers in Normandy and now we are seeing more borders from Boulogne and Dunkerque as well,” he said, adding that he had noticed a drop in orders from France over the last year or so and was not able to explain why this had been happening, until Noël went to Boulogne and a longstanding customer was amazed to see him there.

“They thought he was dead. Somehow there was a rumour that had been going round that Noël had died. It was a surprise and Noël told them that for a dead man, he was doing pretty well, and since then the orders from France have started to come back to Pakhus 5 now that people know he’s alive and well.”

Noël Dugardein commented that the selective veil nets he has been working on for both beam and trawl for shrimp continue to be very successful and one skipper who claimed he had been losing shrimps in the veil net was persuaded to try a selective net and a conventional net side by side; with the result that he rapidly switched the standard trawl for a veil net as it fished better.

“We make mostly beam trawl veil nets for the Belgian fleet and I’ve worked with French skippers to develop their twin-rig veil nets for a long time. Now there’s a Dutch twin-rigger using these as well and one of our French customers is using these trawls to fish for shrimps that are landed live.”

He commented that the reason for the success of the veil nets is that there are two escape routes, one for benthos, starfish and suchlike to be dropped back through one exit while another exit allow sprats, whiting and other fish to escape.

“There’s no discard with these trawls. No whiting, no small soles. Just clean shrimp, and there’s no loss of target species,” he said, adding that these nets are also due to be trialled on the English side of the North Sea.

“It doesn’t need large exits in the gear, as long as what you want to get rid of goes in the right direction. It can be a simple solution, but it has to be right.”

Noël Dugardein said that it is also noticeable that the most effective doors with these trawls are old-fashioned square wooden doors rather than high-tech modern doors, as the old wooden doors will stay upright and effective at very low towing speeds when more modern designs no longer function and fall flat.

“I’m convinced these are the best doors for shrimping and outrigger trawling,” he said. “They always stay upright and they work in a cross tide. It’s interesting to see the plans and ideas for old gears coming back. We still have to catch fish,” he said.

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