The German fishing fleet

Dossier

A full condend (© Rüdiger Schöne)

What is the structure of German fisheries? How much fish is imported and exported, which species generate which revenues? And how can brexit change the situation in EU seas? You will find answers in the following dossier.


Landings of the German marine fishermen fluctuate annually at around 250,000 tons. The domestic fish consumption is four times as high - around 1.15 million tons; per capita consumption in Germany in recent years has been around 14 kg of fish per year.

Development of the German fishing fleet, since 2012 (© Thünen-Institut)

The German fishing fleet consists of about 1,300 vessels in the hands of less than 900 enterprises. This seems little in view of the presence of fisheries in the media. Around a handful of high sea trawlers, owned by internationally-operating enterprises, account for about half of the German landings. The bulk of the German fishing fleet consists of around 1,000 small fixed netters of up to 12 metres in length. These vessels operate within sight of the Baltic shoreline and contribute less than 4% of the German catches. In between, there are around 200 shrimp trawlers, fishing exclusively in the North Sea, and 70 vessels between 12 and 40 metres in length, fishing with trawls or passive gear in the North and Baltic Seas for cod, flatfish, saithe and other species.

The number of people employed in marine fisheries throughout Germany is around 1,100. In addition, there are unpaid workers in fishing enterprises who are not recorded in the statistics of the Employment Agency, including 568 entrepreneurs plus family members (as of 2018).

We have compiled a brief characteristic of the German fishing fleet below:

High seas fishery – in good shape for global competition

Fischverarbeitungsfabrik unter Deck: In Hochseetrawlern wird der gefangene Fisch direkt verarbeitet und in Frostern aufbewahrt.
In high sea trawlers, the fish caught is processed directly and stored in freezers. (© Thünen-Institut)

High seas fishery can be divided into pelagic (= in the open water zone) and demersal (= close to the sea floor) fishing. In 2019, three large and two smaller high sea vessels were registered in the pelagic fishery, catching mainly herring, horse mackerel, blue whiting and mackerel in the North Sea and Western British waters. Fishing cruises to Mauritanian and Western Saharan waters have also been undertaken in recent years.

In 2019, four large and six smaller high sea vessels, operating almost exclusively in the North Atlantic, were assigned to the demersal fisheries. The main target species are cod and saithe in the northern North Sea and halibut and redfish in Greenland waters.

The trawlers compete with other global operators and all have very modern equipment – five of the demersal vessels are new constructions. Based on the average of recent years, the German high seas fleet is regarded as profitable.

Fixed netters – artisanal fishery with uncertain prospect

Rückkehr eines Stellnetzkutters.
Gillnet cutters are typically for the Baltic Sea (© Daniel Stepputtis)

The contrast could not be starker than between high seas trawlers and fixed netters. These latter operate almost exclusively in the Baltic Sea. Their number has decreased by about one third during the last decade. In 2019, 1,050 vessels were still registered.

One of the main reasons for the decrease is that fishing quotas for the important target species cod and herring in the Baltic Sea have fallen dramatically in recent years. For only a small proportion of fishermen is fishing their sole occupation. Often fishermen make a substantial living from other activities or pursue fishing simply as a hobby. A fisherman often owns several vessels, some of which are designed for different purposes.

So far, only on rare occasions is the catch of fixed netters advertised as a regional speciality, with the corresponding opportunities to generate added value. The economic situation has been critical for years and has become a threat to the survival of many of the enterprises still active. The quotas have been drastically reduced again for 2020. Currently, fishermen are being granted set-aside premiums for a limited period of time during which no fishing takes place. As the critical situation of the Baltic herring and cod stocks is unlikely to improve in the near future, the policy is providing support for the permanent withdrawal of cutters in addition to bridging aid. It is expected that this will also reduce the number of ports where vessels are moored, with negative effects on other economic sectors such as tourism.

Shrimp trawling – a profitable branch with fairly aged vessels

Krabbenkutter in Accumersiel.
Shrimp trawlers in the North Sea harbour Accumersiel (© Thünen-Institut)

Shrimp trawlers are almost exclusively operated as family enterprises – one vessel per owner. The catch consist almost exclusively of brown shrimp (Crangon crangon), a species without quota limitation which is abundant mainly in the German Bight. However, the marketable quantity is limited. Moreover, the wholesale trade is organised on a quasi-monopolistic basis and the power of fishermen in the market remains limited, despite the trend towards organising themselves into producer groups.

Shrimp fishermen using beam trawlers can only occasionally switch to other species of fish when fishing for shrimps is uneconomic, as most of them do not have quotas for them. The brown shrimp fishery has proven to be profitable over the years, with wide fluctuations. However, the number of enterprises is declining. 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 around 40 years. Since 2004, there has been less than one new construction per year on average. Hardly any fisherman dares to invest the sum of over a million Euros required for this, because the prospects are considered too uncertain. In 2019, there were still just under 200 shrimp cutters registered.

Trawlers <40m, vessels with passive fishing gear ≥ 12m – efficient medium-sized business in keen competition

Grundschleppnetzkutter Susanne.
Specialised in fish species such as cod and saithe: trawler Susanne (© Sakis Kroupis)

In 2019, 54 trawlers under 40 m in length were registered. In the North Sea, they mainly catch saithe, cod, haddock, herring and plaice, while in the Baltic Sea they mainly catch herring, cod and sprat. Fishing vessels using passive gear ≥ 12 m accounted for 15 vessels. In western waters they mainly fish anglerfish and deepsea crab, in the North Sea cod, plaice and sole, and in the western Baltic Sea herring and cod. With these species, fishermen are in competition both with enterprises from other nations operating in the same fishing grounds in the North Sea and Baltic Sea and with fish from other fishing grounds.

Demersal trawling is concentrated in a few producer groups, where fishermen can defend their interests in a concentrated manner. For example, 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. Thanks to modern management, the available quotas are efficiently distributed internally and fished out. In addition, some of these organisations process and market their catches themselves, thereby generating additional added value.

These measures have enabled demersal trawlers to improve their market position and cost structure. There has also been a major investment in modernisation.

As a result of the sharp reduction in cod quotas in the Baltic Sea in 2019 and 2020, the earnings situation of trawlers in the Baltic Sea has deteriorated dramatically. Fishermen will be able to apply for set-aside premiums. However, this measure cannot fully compensate for the loss of yield. As it is not foreseeable that the stocks will recover in the short term, there is a risk that several vessels will close down in the near future.

What are the trends in marine fisheries? Which import and export countries for fish are particularly important for Germany? How high were the landings of individual fish species in terms of quantity and value? And what capacities do German fishing ports have? Answers to these and other questions can be found in the current fact sheet on marine fisheries in Germany (Steckbrief zur Meeresfischerei in Deutschland, PDF, in German, 23 S.).

Brexit as an uncertainty factor

The brexit makes it difficult to predict the future development of fisheries in EU seas, as many high-yield fishing grounds are in British waters. However, it is as yet completely unclear what fishing arrangements the UK and the EU will agree on. However, even with a "hard", i.e. unregulated, brexit, the UK would not be able to make exclusive use of the fish resources in its sea area. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, they are obliged to conclude joint management agreements with neighbouring countries for straddling fish stocks and highly migratory species.