The North Atlantic Fisheries College

Located in the Shetland Islands, at the centre of the northern European fishing grounds is the North Atlantic Fisheries College, an institute dedicated to supporting the development of the fisheries industry which is also managed by the industry. The College is a centrepiece of the Shetland Islands Council’s strategy to secure the future of this important local industry, but is also developing a national and international reputation as a centre for fisheries training and development.

Although many people have heard of Shetland most are, at best, rather unsure about where (or even what) Shetland is, an uncertainty maintained to a large extent by the cartographers who insist on (mis)placing Shetland in a box in odd corners of their maps rather than in its correct location, about 160 km (100 miles) north of the British mainland and 400 km (250 miles) west of Bergen in Norway, where it forms the most northerly part of the United Kingdom.

Shetland (never “The Shetlands”) is actually a group of about 100 islands stretching some 160 km (100 miles) north-south and 80 km (50 miles) east-west. With a tortuous and beautiful coastline some 1500 km (930 miles) in length no part of the islands is more than a few kilometres from the sea which dominates all aspects of Shetland life. Today 15 of the Shetland islands are inhabited, with a population of about 22,500 people, most of whom (17,500) are concentrated on the largest island, Mainland. Shetland is quite different from the rest of Britain, and even from the rest of Scotland (there is no Gaelic and no tartan here) - it has a distinctive landscape, a wealth of sea birds and other wildlife, its own dialect (based on a mixture of Norse and Scots), it own culture, and a relatively prosperous economy.

Shetland is perhaps best known to most people today for its association with North Sea oil and in particular as the site of Europe’s largest oil terminal, at Sullom Voe, from where oil brought ashore through pipelines is shipped all over the world. It is difficult to deny that oil has undoubtedly brought substantial benefits to the islands, particularly in the form of high levels of employment and the oil-revenues which have funded a massive programme of public spending on inter-island transport links, leisure centres, community facilities, etc., by the Shetland Islands Council (the local authority).

Despite these benefits, and the high profile of North Sea oil, most people (including more than a few islanders) are surprised to learn that there is another industry which is of much greater importance to the islands. Of greater significance, not only because it employs more than a quarter of the islands’ workforce, and contributes more than £100 million per annum to the local economy, but (most importantly) because in these remote and resource poor islands it is the only industry that offers a realistic potential of supporting the islands’ when (as it inevitably will) the oil runs out. This is the fisheries industry, a combination of fish catching, aquaculture and fish processing.

The Fisheries Industry

Fish catching has a long tradition in Shetland, having been practised on a commercial basis in the islands since at least the 14th C., when German and northern European merchants first visited the islands to barter for dried salt fish, and on a subsistence basis for ten times that long. Following centuries of slow and hesitant progress this century has seen rapid advances in the islands’ fish catching industry, and today Shetland has one of the world’s most modern fishing fleets. It is illustrative of the rapid changes which the fish catching industry in Shetland has seen that her fishing fleet has developed from small open boats to the sophisticated multi-million pound vessels of today in little more than a century. Despite the challenges being faced by the fishing industry today, Shetland remains at the centre of some of the most prolific fishing grounds in Europe and the industry is positive about the future, provided the fisheries can be managed responsibly. Recent years have seen a marked rise in the quantity of fish being processed in the islands, increasing the value of fisheries to the local economy, and this sector has considerable potential for future expansion.

The importance of fish catching to Shetland stems from the islands’ location at the heart of the rich northern European fishing grounds, but historically the islanders were probably driven to exploit the seas around them more from necessity than from inclination. Shetland’s generally infertile soils and cool, wet and windy climate are not favourable to agriculture, but with the addition of the sea’s resources it was possible to make a modest living. This blending of two occupations, fishing and crofting (small scale subsistence farming), created the crofter-fisherman, who has dominated Shetland life since prehistory. Another important factor in the islander’s exploitation of the waters around their islands has been the long seafaring heritage handed down from the Norsemen who ruled Shetland until the 15th C. and whose influence dominates the islands to this day.

Aquaculture is a much more recent innovation in Shetland, with the islands first salmon farm established as recently as 1982. Despite its relative youth salmon farming in Shetland has developed rapidly over the last decade, and notwithstanding the current international over-production of salmon the revenues from the industry have outstripped those from the traditional fish catching sector.

Recognising the importance of the fisheries industry to Shetland, both today and in the future, the Shetland Islands Council has invested large sums of its oil revenues in the industry, providing grants and loans for the modernisation or replacement of fishing vessels, for establishing fish farms, and providing funding for development projects aimed at diversifying and securing the future of the fisheries industry.

The North Atlantic Fisheries College

A centrepiece of the Council’s strategy for the future development of the fisheries industries is the North Atlantic Fisheries College. The College, located in the village of Scalloway, the historical capital of Shetland and major fishing port, grew out of a growing awareness that training and qualifications were becoming important, and in many cases essential, in the changing and increasingly sophisticated and regulated fisheries industry. The College, which was opened in 1992, is intended to provide, through training and research, a highly and specifically trained human resource, and development capacity, to help the fisheries industry meet the challenges of the future.

The College is unique in the UK and, so far as is known, in the world in that although it was built by the Shetland Islands Council (with financial assistance from the European Union), it is managed and run by an independent charitable trust, the Shetland Fisheries Training Trust, which is controlled by the local fisheries industry. Of the five trustees two are drawn from the Council whilst three represent the fisheries industry (one each from the fish catching, aquaculture and fish processing sectors). This management structure gives the College great flexibility, enabling it to respond rapidly to the needs of the fisheries industry, to which it is ultimately answerable.


The College offers a wide range of vocational training courses in Maritime Studies, Marine Engineering, Fish Processing, Aquaculture, Fisheries Science, Fisheries Business Studies, and miscellaneous subjects, ranging in length from one day to a full academic year. The courses offered by the Maritime Studies and Marine Engineering departments are primarily aimed at providing students with the knowledge to pass the examinations set by the UK government’s Department of Transport to obtain the certification which they need to act as skippers, mates or engineers on fishing vessels. Both departments also offer courses aimed at merchant navy seamen and at amateur seafarers. The Maritime Studies department has navigation and fish catching bridge simulators, a wide range of modern navigational and marine communications equipment, an inshore fishing vessel, and a newly acquired navigation training vessel available for the instruction of students.

The Fish Processing department has a fully equipped fish processing factory, product development facilities, and a culinary laboratory within the College and has a wide range of practical training packages suitable for staff, supervisors and managers and others involved in the fish processing industry. The department is also active in the development of new added-value fish products and has co-operated with local companies in the development of a number of new lines including fish soups and salmon nuggets.

The Aquaculture department runs two one-year courses in fish farming and fish farm production management, which offer a comprehensive training in all aspects of fish farming and provides an entry for successful candidates into the fish farming industry or into relevant university courses. It also offers short courses for fish farmers in a variety of subjects. The College currently operates two commercial salmon farms which provide opportunities for students to acquire hands-on training in all aspects of fish farm operation, as well as for research and development work.

Fisheries Science is a relatively new avenue for the College and that department is currently developing a one year course in this subject. It will provide students with training in a broad range of subjects which form the basis of the commercial fish catching industry, including oceanography and marine biology, fish biology, fisheries technology, fisheries management, fish processing, nautical science, fish farming, marketing, business management, computing, and health & safety. Finally, Fisheries Business Studies provides short courses in subjects such as computing, marketing and accounting for fishermen, fish farmers and others in the fisheries industry.

The College also offers miscellaneous short courses of relevance to the fisheries industry, including first aid at sea, fire-fighting at sea, sea survival, etc., and manages Youth Training programmes in both fish catching and aquaculture. Under these schemes young school leavers receive on-the-job training over a two year period whilst working on a fishing boat or fish farm, interspersed with short periods of tuition in the College.

The College’s courses are aimed not only at local people but are also intended to draw in students from outwith the islands, and from beyond the UK. The College currently has students from as far afield as Holland and South Africa, while applications have been received from Norway, Ireland, Canada, Ghana and St. Helena (one of the remotest of all inhabited islands) for courses in 1996/97. To help attract students from outside the islands the College intends to add an accommodation block to its facilities within the next year. This will provide 20 study bedrooms with en-suite facilities as well as a study area and self-catering facilities in a modern purpose built building.

Research and Development

As well as providing training, the North Atlantic Fisheries College has a growing programme of research and development. In aquaculture the College has developed a new humane killing technique for farmed salmon. This kills the fish instantaneously preventing the stress caused by traditional methods and resulting in a significant increase in the quality of the salmon carcasses. An automatic killing machine utilising this technique and capable of killing 1500 fish per hour has been developed locally and will be entering production later this year. The College has also carried out research into the effects of high oil content feeds on salmon growth rates and flesh quality, following problems experienced by local salmon farmers, and will be carrying out a larger series of comparative trials of different salmon diets this year.

As part of its programme to encourage diversification of aquaculture in Shetland away from salmon the College is establishing a shellfish farm which will enable it to carry out research and demonstration work on shellfish suitable for farming in Shetland. It is also working with halibut, regarded by many as the natural successor to salmon for aquaculture in colder northern waters. A considerable amount of work has been undertaken in the U.K. and in other countries to develop hatchery techniques for halibut, and the College plans to take this work forward by carrying out ongrowing trials in sea cages to assess the economics of rearing halibut commercially. There are also plans to build a marine fish hatchery to allow the College to further development and demonstration work on this and other potential cold water aquaculture species.

A pilot scale lobster rearing project was carried out last year to evaluate whether it would be practical to rear juvenile lobsters in Shetland for release into the wild. Such programmes have proved beneficial at increasing lobster populations in other parts of the UK, and it is hoped that in Shetland the release of juveniles could help re-establish lobster stocks which have never recovered from severe overfishing in the 1960s. The pilot project proved very successful, and work is now in progress to scale the programme up to release about 30,000 juveniles a year. Equipment is being developed to automate as much of the rearing process as possible as it has proved to be a very labour intensive procedure.

The College also sees considerable potential for involvement in the collection of fisheries management data. Located as it is in the centre of some of Europe’s richest fishing grounds, and with substantial quantities of fish being landed in Shetland, the College is well placed to collect the basic fisheries data which is required to enable assessments of stock sizes and fisheries management decisions to be made in a cost effective manner. The College was involved this year in the monitoring of the Shetland sandeel fishery (with financial support from the European Union) and of the new Atlanto-Scandian herring fishery, and is planning to increase its range of activities in this field in the future. Closely related to this work is the College’s involvement in an application by the Shetland Fishermen’s Association to obtain control over the local shellfish fisheries, allowing them to manage these fisheries so as to ensure their long term sustainability. It is planned that the College will carry out the work needed to monitor the state of the shellfish stocks and to provide the scientific advice which will be required for their effective management.

The College is also active in a number of key fields which offer potential for increasing the future benefits to Shetland of its fisheries industry, including expanding the range of species exploited, increasing the amount of secondary, or 'added-value' processing carried out in the islands, and developing new markets. The College is, for example, working with local fish processors to develop processing techniques for the local sea urchin in order to export them to Japan, and has helped develop new techniques for the air transport of live crabs to overseas markets. It is also involved with local processors in developing a new range of high value seafood products. Increasing the level of processing carried out in the islands, and the value of products created, will enhance the benefit of the fisheries industry to the local economy.


The North Atlantic Fisheries College sees a bright future as a training and development centre for the fisheries industry, not only in Shetland or the UK, but throughout the world. The College is keen to form links with other institutes engaged in similar training, research or development work and offers considerable potential for collaborative partnerships.

Any persons interested in forming such links, or in obtaining further information about the College and its training or development programmes should contact the College’s Administrative Officer at:

North Atlantic Fisheries College,
Port Arthur,
Shetland ZE1 0UN.
United Kingdom.
Tel. +44 (0) 1595 880328
Fax. +44 (0) 1595 880549

Further information about the College’s activities can also be found on the internet at: