Our industry has a chance to prosper again, writes Bertie Armstrong
It’s embedded in human nature to be nervous of change – our thoughts tend to default to potential drawbacks rather than opportunities. Scottish coverage of Brexit has seen a fairly severe example of this glass-half-full approach – were we all really that much in love with Brussels?
Much of the media coverage and political positions adopted since the Brexit vote has viewed the prospect of leaving the EU as being negative – bad for business, bad for the economy and bad for stability.
But for Scottish fishing, nothing could be further from the truth. Brexit provides a once in a lifetime opportunity to restore normality and give our industry a real chance to prosper once again. But what do I mean by restoring normality? Well, leaving the EU returns us to a position enjoyed by coastal states around the world in giving us control of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around our coast.
We already have such control with our oil & gas industry, but perversely not for fishing, which was traded away when we joined the European Economic Community in 1973. Our waters became “common grazing”. Just look to Norway to see how its seafood industry has prospered outside the EU whilst ours suffered from being within.
The central point is that on Brexit the UK will be in charge of its own EEZ. We will have the critical mass to control the bulk of fishing on the northern continental shelf, with some of the best fishing grounds in the world.
Nobody will suggest that we should overfish, ignore the science, immediately refuse access to other countries or suddenly abandon co-operation, but we will at last be a normal coastal state under international law, forging regulation, access and opportunity to fit our newly recovered rights. In other words, we will be the managing partner of our EEZ and will be able to lead the way in developing fit-for-purpose management that will enable fishing to sustainably develop. It has the potential to deliver a fishing management structure in our EEZ that supports communities, jobs, sustainable fishing and proper environmental protection. It also gives us the chance to deliver fairer shares of catching opportunities in UK waters; our fish, our rights. That surely is a prize worth pursuing.
The kindest thing we can be say about the Common Fisheries Policy, given 28 Member States, the existence of the European Parliament of 751 MEPs and the decision-making processes of the European Union, is that if a least-worse option is achieved on any issue affecting the Scottish fleet, then it’s a matter for celebration. Over the past 40 years the management of our fisheries through the CFP has been lamentable with this distant, centralised and monumentally inefficient management regime producing an endless stream of largely dysfunctional rules and regulations.
There is no doubt that the Brexit negotiations will be a difficult process, and the transition process will prove challenging. Indeed, we have real fears that during the complex negotiations that a ‘conciliatory’ settlement will be made on fisheries with the aim of securing concessions elsewhere. Such form of double jeopardy would be unacceptable – having been seriously damaged in the cause of EU entry, the fishing industry must not be damaged at EU exit, especially when there is so much potential to deliver economic benefit to the UK.
But make no mistake, the size of the prize is enormous, and if the right deal is reached on Brexit, it will turn us back into a world-class seafood harvesting and exporting country.
• Bertie Armstrong is chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation.