The german fishing fleet

Dossier

A full condend (© Rüdiger Schöne)

There are fishers and there are fishers. Like the equipment – ranging from top-notch high seas trawlers to small artisanal cutters – the economic situation for fishers as well as their long term perspectives vary broadly.


Landings of the German marine fishermen fluctuate annually at around 200,000 tons, accounting for about one sixth of inland consumption. Regarding the attention gained in the media, the German fleet, consisting of about 1,500 vessels, is surprisingly small. About a handful of high seas trawlers, owned by internationally-operating enterprises and fishing worldwide, account for about half of the German landings. In terms of numbers of vessels, the bulk of the German fleet consists of about 1,100 small fixed netters ranging from 4 to 10m length. These vessels operate within eyeshot of the Baltic shoreline and contribute less than 4% to the German catches. In the middle, there are about 200 shrimp trawlers between 9 and 27m length, fishing exclusively in the North Sea, and about 70 ground trawling cutters, 10 to 45 m in length, targeting cod and saithe, amongst others.

What are the characteristics of these German fishing fleet sections, and how do they fare competitively? Here you can find some interesting background information.

High seas fishery – in good shape for global competition

Fischverarbeitungsfabrik unter Deck: In Hochseetrawlern wird der gefangene Fisch direkt verarbeitet und in Frostern aufbewahrt.
Fischverarbeitung unter Deck: In Hochseetrawlern wird der gefangene Fisch direkt verarbeitet und in Frostern gelagert. (© Thünen-Institut)

German high seas trawlers operate from the Northern Atlantic to Western Africa, sometimes even in the South Pacific. Only a small amount of their catch is landed in Germany. Competing on the global market, they come with top-notch equipment and regularly undergo modernisation. Due to a high capital input, a high degree of utilisation and sufficient catch opportunities (=quota) are prerequisites for profitable operation. A structural change could be observed in the 1990s, when the number of high seas vessels decreased considerably due to increasing efficiency and limited catch opportunities. Overall, the German high seas fleet is regarded as profitable.

Fixed netters – artisanal fishery with uncertain prospect

Rückkehr eines Stellnetzkutters.
Stellnetzkutter – typisch für die Ostsee. (© Daniel Stepputtis)

The contrast could not be starker than between high seas trawlers and fixed netters. The latter operate almost exclusively in the Baltic Sea. Their number has decreased by about one third during the last decade. This is to a large extent due to both decreased quota and revenues for the important target species cod, which halved from 2003 to 2013. When accounting for the value of landings only, this fishery is of minor importance, as total revenues reveal (2003: 6.4 Mill. Euros - 2013: 5.3 Mill. Euros). Only a minor share of these vessels is operated by full-time fishermen. The majority is utilised on a side-line basis, or as hobby, with fishermen having another main source of income. Often an enterprise owns more than one vessel, each with distinct specialization.

Thus far, only on rare occasions is the catch of fixed netters advertised as a regional specialty to create some added value. Thus at the market the catch is not distinguished from fish caught on other fishing grounds or by different gear (trawls), which is often performed at lower cost and can thus be offered at lower prices.

For years artisanal fishermen using fixed nets have been facing a tight economic situation, and given the current circumstances the outlook is not favourable for the near future: investment is low, and retiring fishermen have problems finding successors. The number of ports which are home to small fishing vessels is likely to decrease further.

Shrimp trawling – a profitable branch with fairly aged vessels

Krabbenkutter in Accumersiel.
Krabbenkutter in Accumersiel. (© Thünen-Institut)

Shrimp trawlers are almost exclusively operated as family enterprises – one vessel per owner. The catch almost exclusively consists of brown shrimp, a species without quota limitation which is abundant mainly in the German Bight. Brown shrimp are a unique product which cannot be substituted by any other species. However, the market for brown shrimp is rather constrained. Moreover, the buyer market mainly consists of two dominant wholesalers. Thus, the market power of shrimp fishers is limited, even though there has been a movement towards grouping in producer organisations. Lacking quotas, shrimp fishermen are usually bound to brown shrimp with no option to switch to other target species in case of, e.g., low shrimp prices. In contrast, certain demersal trawlers can enter the shrimp fishery when regarded as beneficial, as there is no quota.

Over the years, the brown shrimp fishery has proven to be profitable, despite considerable variability. However, the number of vessels and of enterprises shows a decreasing trend also for shrimp trawlers. Vessels are fishing more and more efficiently, while the marketable volume for brown shrimp is stagnant. The average age of a shrimp trawler is now 35 years. Since 2004, on average less than one vessel per year has been newly built.  However, engines and equipment are being modernised. But fishermen are simply reluctant to invest more than 1 million Euros for a new vessel. Their future expectations are just too uncertain.

Demersal trawling – efficient medium-sized business in keen competition

Grundschleppnetzkutter Susanne.
Spezialisiert auf Fischarten wie Dorsch und Seelachs: Grundschleppnetzkutter Susanne. (© Sakis Kroupis)

The number of demersal trawlers is in decline as well. Main target species are cod and saithe. These trawlers compete with vessels from other states at the same fishing grounds for the same species. Moreover, the same species are on the market from other regions where they might be caught at lower expense. In recent years, demersal trawlers have been grouping together into producer organisations in order to pool their interests. Thus certain fisheries could be certified by the MSC (Marine Stewardship Council), a label for sustainable seafood which is gaining more and more importance for marketing. Producer organisations have developed an efficient internal quota management system, assigning quota to the most appropriate vessel. Moreover, producer organisations are to some extent vertically integrated; they are processing and marketing the catch themselves and thus generating added value.

Hence, demersal trawlers have been able to improve both their market position and their cost structure. Investment in modern equipment could be performed. The demersal fishery is expected to be economically viable also for the near future.