Extend the fishermen a positive line of trust

Fishermen have played a key role in sustaining fishing stocks of certain species. Picture: PA
Fishermen have played a key role in sustaining fishing stocks of certain species. Picture: PA
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We’re the natural experts in sustainability, says Mike Park

TRUST is a concept that I think a lot about these days. Without it, relationships like those between fishermen on the one hand, and politicians and regulators on the other, cease to function.

For more than a decade, Scottish fishermen have been hard at work trying to rebuild trust with the people in the EU who determine how much fish they can catch and what they catch it with, where and when.

It has been a long and painful process. But we have travelled from a position where cod, for example, was once a byword for overfishing to one where it is on the cusp of being assessed for Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) status. (MSC accreditation is the gold standard for species that are regarded as sustainable.)

How did we get there? Well let me turn for a moment to one of the fishing industry’s staunchest critics, the writer Charles Clover, who recently interviewed my chairman, David Milne, a fishing skipper for 30 years.

The most important factor in the turnaround, Mr Clover wrote in a subsequent column in the Sunday Times, has been “an astonishing reversal in the mindset of the Scottish industry, which went out to prove the doomsters wrong and to restore its natural resource. And it has succeeded.”

The Scottish industry, he went on, “began to work with environmentalists on measures that went far beyond the best the EU had to offer at the time, the cod recovery plan”.

“They [the fishermen] chose to avoid areas with high densities of cod and where cod shoaled to spawn. They came up with a system of conservation credits that gave fishermen more days at sea if they fitted nets with bigger mesh that let small fish escape.”

It is worth reiterating that this is not me or anyone else in the fishing industry indulging in back-slapping, but someone who a few years ago wrote a book arguing that we were “nearing the end of the line for fish stocks and whole ecosystems”.

If our media critics can recognise the role we have played in preserving fish stocks – as well as our own livelihoods and way of life, don’t forget – so can politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels.

They can trust what we say, because we have delivered what we said we would.

From our point of view, it doesn’t stop there, of course. We now need to maintain the sustainability of stocks while coping with a discard ban which, if not implemented properly, will have a detrimental effect on those stocks.

But it’s a job we all need to do together, in a climate not of mutual suspicion but of respect and collaboration.

We all need to look and understand the nature of the fisheries we operate; they are complicated and diverse.

The northern North Sea is unique in that the main commercial species swim together. Catch one and you catch the others. Nowhere else in Europe do you find this sort of mixed fishery, a mix that continues to become more complex as a result of regime change.

In this context, the current single-species quota and national shares system, which is a reflection of historical distribution, is the equivalent of using a magnet to sort different metals.

As we move into the discard ban era, I make a personal plea on behalf of Scottish fishermen to the fisheries commissioner, MEPs and civil servants in the EU to put their trust in fishermen.

Trust them to help you understand the impact of changes that affect their livelihoods. Trust them to adopt a responsible, grown-up approach. And finally, trust them when they tell you that they want their fisheries to be sustainable.

• Mike Park is chief executive of the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association, www.swfpa.com

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