Beta Files

16 May 2016
Captain Olaf Olsen

Captain Olaf Olsen

Captain Olaf Olsen, whom I'm proud to call a friend, was born in the Faroe Islands in 1935.

At the age of 16, he began a career in fisheries as a deckhand on trawlers. At 22 he went to the Tórshavn Navigational School, graduating with a mate’s certificate. At the age of 29 he earned a captain’s certificate in Denmark.

From 1959-1971 Captain Olsen served as skipper on fishing trawlers. Then, with four other trawlermen, they launched a trawling company named Beta Co., which they ran for over 30 years. When they sold it in 2005, their company had an annual turnover of about €54m. Twice, between 1980-1994, Captain Olsen served on the Faroese Government as a Minister.

Data
Between 1977 and 2006, Beta scrupulously recorded data and operational documentation. Eventually, nearly 400,000 documents had been scanned, including all book-keeping documents, letters, drawings and most of the trawlers logbooks, and archived as pdf files – the Beta Files.

Undoubtedly, the almost 30 years’ worth of data and information may serve as a source for comprehensive research and guidance for fishery ecologists, sociologists, anthropologists, ethnologists, ichthyologists, historians, fishery biologists and other related scientists, economists, technologists, nutritionists, and more.

In a booklet produced in the Faroes, Captain Olsen, who initiated the Beta Files, provides an excellent description of the contents of these archives in words, graphics and photos, and their value for improving fishing practice. It is quite remarkable for a man to have had the foresight and wisdom to document the operations of eight trawlers so thoroughly over such a long period, and make it all accessible for research.

The eight were sister vessels: two trawling and six pair trawling, the latter burning a third less fuel with approximately the same catch and 15% less gear expenses. Beta Co. was first to set the course also for other Faroese boat owners, who followed within a few years until all of them had shifted to pair trawling. Crews and skippers were doubtfull at the start, but it took them only a few months to convince themselves. Later, some large trawlers were also adapted for pair trawling, especially blue whiting in midwater.

Pair trawling was employed in the 1950s by Spanish fishermen for cod on Grand Banks and West Greenland, and by Danes for herring in the North Sea. Otherwise there has been very little pair trawling in Northern Europe and Canada. In the Mediterranean, this method was known as ’paranzella’. It had been applied traditionally, in many variants and in many countries all over the world, and evidently as far back as over 3,000 years ago, in ancient Egypt.

Cooperation
Shifting from single to pair trawling requires good cooperation between the respective skippers, best if one of them is recognised by the other as the leader of the pair, which in most cases would be owned by a single owner.

In 1981 the Faroese fishermen started pair trawling. Six of the trawlers did it in three pairs, but two continued regular otter trawling for about one year, to see any differences in the results between the pair trawlers and the single ones.

A study performed for The Nordic Council showed that, in comparison with regular trawling, also because trawl doors are not used, while the pair trawling catch was approximately the same, it was consuming at least 35% less fuel. The trawl gear cost was also around 15% less.

The main value of the study consists in the fact that the vessels, all identical sister ships, have been operating throughout the whole period of the study, under the same operator and ownership, active in the same kind of operation, and within the same limited area. All records of fish species and landings data are reliable and verifiable.

During the whole period the fishing took place under an effort-based (i.e. days-at-sea) system, not limited by pre-set quotas, on fishing grounds situated east of the Faroe Islands beween 61 deg. 30 mins N and 63 deg. N, and 06 deg. 20 mins W and 2 deg.s 40 mins W. It is approximately 3,000 square nautical miles, equal to 5,400km2 of mostly hard and stony bottom, at depths between 100 and 350 metres. The weather is often windy and the currents strong, and 85-90% of trawling catch comes from that area.

Study material
In my opinion, the Beta Files represent excellent study material and plenty of research data for both Master’s and Ph.D. theses. Such researchers could analyse the data and then synthesise them in a cross-disciplinary manner, while correlating them with any external (whether included or not in the Beta Files) economic (including the effect of fishing pressure changes due to market situation) environmental and climatic shifts and fluctuations, to achieve better understanding of the ecology of the Faroese groundfish resources.

This unique inventory of data built by Beta over a period of nearly three decades offers an ocean of information on the composition of equipment and materials used in the company´s trawler operations. Although known among some fisheries scientists outside of that circle, the Beta Files have remained largely unnoticed. Perhaps this column will raise awareness of its existence and inspire respective research.

The Faroe Islands Trade Council has high hopes of the knowledge that can be gained, in cooperation between Faroese and foreign researchers, from this vast collection of files and other directly related files. It seems that in spite of the lengthy period covered by the Beta Files there was not much technological creeping during that time, for almost all reported technical parameters of the boats and their gear remained unchanged.

This is of special interest in the Faroe Islands, where the fishery is regulated by an allowed number of days fishing, rather than on catch quotas.

I'd conclude that in my opinion Beta Files carry a great potential value to international fisheries researchers in countries around the world.