Government must act to help our inshore fleet

fishing fisheries

By Nick Underdown, Head of Communication and Campaigns, Open Seas, for The Herald

The scallop wars involving Scottish dredgers off the Normandy coast reveal a damaging resource conflict, but is the Scottish Government finally limbering up for serious reform of fisheries amidst the Brexit mess?

After early calls for a Brexit fishing bonanza, the consequences of departing the EU are now unravelling. Some of the loudest Brexit cheerleaders were big fishing companies, but Scotland’s diverse fishing fleet has diverse views. It transpires many are seriously concerned about knock-on effects on tariffs and trade disruption. The majority of active fishermen in Scotland run small-scale inshore operations exporting shellfish to Europe.

Scotland’s scallopers are particularly vulnerable to Brexit, according to a recent report, irrespective of whether it’s a hard or soft scenario. Almost all our scallop exports go to the EU-27 and if wider trade barriers are relaxed, cheaper imports may flood the market, depressing domestic prices. Scallops are a non-quota stock so there would be no Brexit quota boon.

Profitability of scallop dredging, which grew rapidly in the 1970s, has declined dramatically in recent years. Many boats now dredge harder for less. This has not only forced industry to slash crew costs, but led to widespread ecological damage. Scraping our seabed habitats is bad for business and the environment.

Our fleet teeters on Brexit’s uncertain cliff-edge, but Nicola Sturgeon’s Programme for Government arrives in this broader context of economic and environmental change. For centuries, fisheries shaped our rural economy: entire villages and transport links were planned around harvesting of herring and white fish.

Abandoned railways and empty harbours are now sad testimony to the often boom-and-bust exploitation of our stocks, as well as the creeping consolidation of fishing quota concentrating profits in fewer ports and even fewer pockets. Meanwhile, intensification of inshore fishing methods, hard-ground bottom-trawling and dredging, have severely damaged our environment.

Political Vision

The Government’s promise of a national discussion paper on the future of fisheries management may seem like procrastination, but will run in parallel with Brexit and likely see Holyrood carving a distinct path from Westminster. Let’s hope political vision addresses the systemic problems afflicting our diverse fleet.

One is that we don’t actually know where much of our fishing takes place: astonishingly, small vessels (under 12m) are not required to carry vessel monitoring systems, meaning the damaging extent of dredging remains unknown. The Government’s modernising commitment to bring in vessel tracking for the entire inshore fleet by 2020 is vital for both traceability and sustainability.

Good management requires money and industry must shoulder some burden of this cost. Until we deepen investment in governance, poor management will continue.

Take the wrasse fishery: salmon farmers’ demand for “cleaner fish” to combat sea lice infestations has bankrolled record landings of wrasse in recent years, but government oversight is woeful: no stock assessments, no spatial measures, just a voluntary code concocted by the salmon farming industry. Meanwhile fishermen report fewer wrasse catches, and sea anglers catch lice-ridden mackerel – a sad consequence of removing “cleaner fish”’ from the wild?

Another huge issue is fair access to fisheries. In 2016 19 super-trawlers caught 65 per cent of Scotland’s fish. Around 80 per cent of Scotland’s fleet is “non-sector”, but share less than one per cent of available quota. The accumulation of quota has marginalised many fishermen.

One fishermen told us pessimistically: “It’s too big to change now”, but the Scottish Government must, gradually if necessary, do just that – reallocating fishing opportunity to those who fish with greatest community and environmental benefit. If Fishing Minister Fergus Ewing addressed social and environmental fairness, he would truly champion the business interests of fishermen and our seafood sector, making it sustainable in every respect.

This article was originally published as Agenda: Government must act to help our inshore fleet at The Herald on 14/09/2018.

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