Brian Wilson: Will Brexit actually help Scotland’s fishing industry?

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The Scottish fishing industry is in the hands of a wealthy few – but will Brexit, whatever form it takes, change anything, asks Brian Wilson

Let’s be honest – the vast majority know little about the fishing industry while evincing general sympathy towards those who go to sea in order to put food upon our tables.

Brexit could offer a golden opportunity to revive the Scottish fishing industry on a basis that respects the diversity of Scotland's fishing communities. Picture: PA

Brexit could offer a golden opportunity to revive the Scottish fishing industry on a basis that respects the diversity of Scotland's fishing communities. Picture: PA

When fishermen protest about the Common Fisheries Policy they tend to benefit from that empathy because it is easier to concur that “Brussels is to blame” than look for villains closer to home.

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Such benign ignorance has worked well for powerful people who conflate their own considerable interests with those of “the Scottish fishing industry”. Tory and Nationalist politicians in the north-east have long competed in dancing to their tunes.

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The net result is what the “Scottish fishing industry” now consists of – a vast aggregation of wealth in very few hands while most of Scotland’s traditional fishing communities witness decline, disillusionment and diminished access to their own waters.

This scenario needs to be understood before discussing Brexit can, in this context, make sense. Indignation is pointless if nobody knows what they are being indignant about – and I doubt if defending the Scottish fishing industry status quo should be a popular cause.

For the moment, forget Brussels. The key to understanding where power lies is quota – i.e. the share of legitimate catch attributed to any vessel or company. Quota can be traded and, over 30 years, the pattern has been for little guys, operating from smaller ports, to give up and sell their quota to rich guys.

As Greenpeace reported last month, 45 per cent of the entire Scottish quota is now held by five families, all based in north-east Scotland. Whatever other downsides these gentlemen see in the EU’s CFP, it has certainly not prevented them from growing even richer.

Nor has there been much interest among buccaneering Buchanites in inconveniences like conservation. Greenpeace found that of the 20 biggest holders of Scottish quota, “13 have directors, shareholders or vessel partners who were convicted of sea fishing offences in the black fish scandal” when the law finally caught up with a sophisticated operation to evade quota by landing fish illegally in industrial quantities.

There is a good case for seeing Brexit as an opportunity for the Scottish fishing industry. However, this will not happen if the post-Brexit regime takes the current structure as its template. For the Scottish Government, there will be no hiding place on that fundamental issue and crying “betrayal” at Westminster or Brussels will no longer be a substitute for policy.

It is doubtful if the EU was ever responsible for dictating how quota accrued not only to the rich and powerful but also to foreign owners. Once outside the EU, however, the option of blame-shifting would be replaced by a golden opportunity to revive the Scottish fishing industry on a basis that respects the diversity of Scotland’s fishing communities. It would be interesting to know whether a single Edinburgh man-hour has been devoted to planning a post-Brexit future for the industry, around options like community quotas (as in Norway) and regional management.

There is bound to be a trade-off between access for EU vessels and open markets for UK products. Where I live, in the Western Isles, there is real enthusiasm around options like catching valuable tuna which pass down the west coast in great numbers but cannot currently be caught until they reach France.

However, history has taught that the benefits will only be realised if there is protection for developing a local fishery, as opposed to opening it to the external forces which in the past destroyed the herring industry and much of the white fishery on the west coast.

The Scottish Nationalist position is that we must stay in the EU, which means staying in the CFP. The UK government’s position is that we are leaving the EU and fighting for the best available deal on fisheries. So far, so straightforward.

But the real question – which will be determined in Edinburgh rather than London or Brussels – is whether Brexit, whatever its other downsides, will usher in a completely new approach to Scottish fisheries management, in which the rich no longer inherit the seas.