Make hay while the sun shines

Fuelling a trawler in Iceland. The drop in fuel prices has been a huge boost to fishing companies Fuelling a trawler in Iceland. The drop in fuel prices has been a huge boost to fishing companies

Fishing has emerged from a tough decade into a relatively bright landscape, and in many parts of the world, fish stocks are stronger than they have ever been.

Some species that were a few years ago touted as being on the verge of extinction now come over the rail like bunches of grapes. Fish prices are generally reasonable and quotas are…let’s just not talk about quotas here.

Then there’s fuel. Oil prices have dropped to a level nobody could have predicted not long ago, thanks to much bizarre political wrangling. The price of crude oil currently hovers around $40 a barrel, down from its $100+ peak a few years ago.

The oil business isn’t a happy one at the moment. There are oil industry support vessels tied up at quaysides around the world. But everyone else is delighted as business returns to something approaching normal.

Fishing has had to think on its feet during the years of spiralling fuel costs, making savings through adapting fishing gears and techniques, some new engine room technology in places, and a lot of the time, just easing back on the stick. In some parts of the world, it has paid off in spades as new approaches and more economic ways of working have been developed.

Dyneema was seen as crazily expensive prior to high fuel, but its use is now widespread as it contributed to lower fuel bills. Doors have been streamlined and we have a new generation of more energy efficient fishing vessels appearing. This stuff takes time – that’s why these boats are here now just as fuel is cheap again.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing – and it’s tacitly accepted that much of this development could have been done before the oil price crisis sparked by the second Gulf War.

There are two things to bear in mind. One is that engines burning marine diesel have largely reached the peak of their development. They can be coupled to more efficient stern gear and power management systems, but engines aren’t likely to see any revolutionary development. There were major changes in the 1980s when computer technology allowed everything to be recalculated and redesigned, so there isn’t going to be another leap forward. Any refinements in the basic technology from now on are going to be fractions of a percentage.

The other is that fuel isn’t going to stay cheap. This is a market that’s about supply and demand, like any other, and massively complicated by international diplomacy, alliances, conflicts and empires being built and lost.

We’ll be back to $100 a barrel at some point; maybe next year, maybe not for 10 years.

So now’s the time to continue the good work into all the alternatives that remain far from currently usable in fishing. LPG and hydrogen have both been mooted as possibilities. There are even a few electric boats in use, although it remains to be seen how practical they are. But the last thing fishing needs is to wait for another crisis to kick-start the process again.

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