THERE’S been much said in Scotland lately about fishing, and how, potentially, Brexit might make the position of the fishing sector better. Tory politicians have even tried to pretend that if you’re pro-fishing you’re pro-Brexit, but this is just a typically cynical stunt and, sadly, the reality is far more complex. The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is, rightly, disliked by many people, and SNP MEPs from Winnie Ewing in 1979 to Ian Hudghton who currently sits on the Fisheries Committee, and myself, have called for it to be scrapped. But that does not mean leaving the EU, and MEPs have won significant reforms lately.
First published in The National, 18 May 2017
As I was travelling up and down the country during the EU referendum, I took in Shetland and a number of fishing communities on my travels to go and have that discussion. I was amazed at how little argument there actually was. There was considerable criticism of the CFP, but that did not translate into a desire to give up the other real benefits of EU membership for a (still, a year after the vote …) hypothetical gain. I’m not saying many folk were humming Ode To Joy as they cast their vote, but they weren’t convinced by the Leave campaign’s assurances.
And so it was no surprise to me that Shetland, one of the most fisheries dependent part of Scotland where more fish is landed on the islands than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined, voted Remain, as did every other counting region in Scotland.
Scottish vessels landed a total of 440 thousand tonnes of sea fish and shellfish worth £437 million out 708 thousand tonnes of sea fish UK wide and with a value of £775 million. Scotland accounts for 60% of UK fishing waters. So the catching sector is a vital industry to Scotland, accounting for a far greater amount of our wealth that the UK as a whole. The SNP will never let it down, and I’ll hear no lectures from other parties on fishing. And the catching sector is only one part of a complex industry. For every job at sea there are many more on land and there’s a lot more to the fishing sector than catching fish at sea.
The processing sector employs 5,000 people, almost half of all UK jobs in the sector. Acquaculture, shell- and fin-fishfarming are hugely important. Scotland is the largest producer of farmed Atlantic salmon in the EU producing 179,022 tonnes in 2014 worth approximately £733.4 million at the farm gate making over 90% of all EU production.
Last year Exports of Scottish farmed salmon into the European Union rose by 37% and this is where the importance of the EU and the risks of brexit begin. Access to the EU single market is of existential importance to Scotland’s seafood industry.
I think it is very likely - I put it at 80% - that we’re going to face tariffs on our fisheries exports to the EU, if we can access the market at all. Norway, with a hard negotiated relationship with the EU, pays 2% tariffs on whole salmon exports and a massive 13% on smoked salmon. We have no idea what our tariffs will be, they'll be negotiated by the UK Government. They may be a price worth paying, but where’s the upside?
If we lose access to the single market, or (more likely) tariffs kick in hard, there’s a calculation: is it more profitable to land direct into Danish, Swedish or French ports than ours? It may well be. Where’s our industry as a whole then?
Leaving the CFP leads to the question 'what comes next?' It won't be a free-for-all where our skippers can do what they like, whoever is in charge. We will still need to take scientific advice on managing stocks, or else we'll lose them forever, look at the Grand Banks off Canada where they overfished the cod grounds to extinction. We have an international fishery and we'll need to manage the seas somehow.
We’ll also lose a part of the CFP that people do like - money. Scottish seafood and marine sectors are to receive approximately €107 million in direct assistance supporting research, development and structural reform. This continues to create jobs here in Scotland. From 2008 to 2015, £18 million of funding has benefited 142 projects and created 61 jobs in Fraserburgh alone. This funding makes a real difference to the fishing industry locally, as well as the local community generally. Will those funds be guaranteed by the UK Government? The Tories won’t even make that promise.
And in the Brexit negotiations, I have absolutely no doubt the promises made by the Leave campaign to our catching sector will be betrayed by a Tory government that as far back as the 70s described our fishing industry as "expendable". The hapless DEFRA Secretary, Andrea Leadsom, the woman who said hill sheep farmers should farm butterflies, confirmed just last week that “No decision has yet been made on the extent to which the EU legislation governing the Common Fisheries Policy will be incorporated into domestic law.” The letter continues that the UK Government “are committed to ongoing cooperation with other countries over the management of shared stocks and ending discards”.
There's the real issue: the problem isn't just the CFP, it's that we've been represented in CFP talks by a UK government that doesn't prioritise fishing interests, neither Scottish nor UK. I've seen CFP negotiations where the Irish and the Danes have come out with more EU money for new boats, but we've had no money and our quotas cut. Because the Irish and Danes are member states that work with and for their fishermen, our UK government can be judged on its record, "blame Brussels" doesn't wash any more.
The UK will also face a number of fishing nations who have historical access rights to our waters and will defend them to the hilt. So our access to the single market is at risk, and the British Fishing Policy remains a pipedream. It is legitimate, of course, for various parts of the industry to promote their interests, but fishing is a complex industry and I fear they're going to be betrayed. Not by us, but by a UK government some are blithely hoping will look after them when all the evidence of the past 40 years says they'll be traded away.
The SNP, and any independent Scottish government, will prioritise fishing because it is in our national interest to do so. The UK won't. All Brexit has delivered for Scotland's fishing sector is a massive haul of present uncertainty and future heartache when times are actually pretty good right now. Our fishing sector deserves better.