Cold war or not, Soviet ships process Scottish mackerel

Despite troubled waters between the Soviet Union and the West, a significant part of the Soviet fishing fleet is bobbing calmly off the coast of Scotland. The fleet is on the receiving end of a line of Scottish trawlers depositing thousands of tons of mackerel for processing.

According to a Coast Guard check last month, at least 37 Soviet and East-bloc vessels had gathered off the northwest Scottish fishing port of Ullapool in their annual pilgrimage to load and process mackerel for Eastern Europe.

It is known that the large Russian factory ships that process mackerel export the fish to Africa, marking the produce as a food prepared in Scotland. But Scottish fishery experts have reckoned that East-bloc vessels carry at least 100 ,000 tons of mackerel back to Eastern Europe, where this North Atlantic fish appears to be held in higher regard than in Western Europe.

(British housewives have traditionally preferred cod, but the United Kingdom has been showing more interest in mackerel since its long fishing dispute ended with Iceland in the 1970s and resulted in Britain losing considerable cod fishing grounds around the Icelandic coast.)

There is a Common Market agreement covering how much mackerel can be fished in the Atlantic and North Sea. Though both Scottish and East-bloc vessels are checked, scientists say there is gross overfishing of mackerel in Scottish waters.

These experts, who say that anything up to 600,000 tons are taken by trawlers annually, maintain that mackerel-fishing stock will be almost nonexistent by the 1990s. Others discount the figure of 600,000 tons as greatly exaggerated, but there is general agreement about the need to conserve.

Two Scottish businessmen at Ullapool port supply the foreign fishermen with food and have established friendly relations with East-bloc skippers over the past few years. Ullapool fishermen complain that the annual autumn fishing operation upsets their prawn and lobster catching, but the East-bloc seamen appear to get on well with most of the local population.

Much as the Russians have developed a very lucrative trade in buying vast quantities of mackerel and have cleverly exploited the market in recent years, Scottish trawler skippers appear to be glad of the opportunity to sell the keenly sought fish.

Yet there is much concern in northwest Scotland that the British government has not sufficiently helped Scotland's ailing fishing industry to build mackerel-processing plants at Ullapool. Why is the processing of thousands of tons of fish left to the Russians, many in the west Highlands ask.

The answer could be that the mackerel season lasts only about eight weeks and building fish-curing factories requires a large capital outlay.

Meanwhile the Russians and East-bloc skippers are quite happy to fill their holds with the prized mackerel. It is believed that around 5,000 Russian workers earn a living from this trade, and it is a valuable protein source for people in the East bloc.

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