Climate change: Scotland's fishing fleet doesn't deserve to be turned into a water-borne bogeyman by environmentalists – Elspeth Macdonald

Food is fundamental to human existence, and wild-caught seafood is universally recognised as contributing significantly to healthy living.
Sustainability is a way of life for Scotland's fishing fleet, says Elspeth Macdonald (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Sustainability is a way of life for Scotland's fishing fleet, says Elspeth Macdonald (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Sustainability is a way of life for Scotland's fishing fleet, says Elspeth Macdonald (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

In fact, official government advice is for people to eat at least two portions of fish per week, one of them oily, and the Scottish government has a dietary goal of increasing fish consumption among the population.

Meanwhile, the Scottish fishing industry has a lower carbon footprint than most other forms of food production, such as meat and even many vegetables.

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Yet with the United Nations’ Cop26 climate change conference due to be held in Glasgow this November, presenting many opportunities for cheap headlines, skippers, crews and coastal communities have been singled out by environmental NGOs for their perceived lack of progress towards achieving net-zero carbon emissions.

These misguided attacks have now been compounded by the Scottish government itself, with the coalition agreement between the SNP and the Green Party actively promoting restrictive measures that will have a severely detrimental impact on our ability to produce climate-smart food.

It is astonishing that the part of the policy co-operation document dealing with fishing makes not a single reference to fishing being part of Scotland’s food production – indeed part of our national food security.

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There is nothing in the agreement that recognises or seems to value what our sector is doing, or sets out any support for it. Instead, we have a litany of restrictions proposed on where and how we can fish, without any evidence presented as to why these measures are needed.

Certainly, like all sectors, we can do more, but it is important to put the industry’s activities into perspective and challenge the allegations being made, some of which are frankly ludicrous.

For example, in a recent report the WWF, RSPB and Marine Conservation Society complained that the UK fishing fleet emits the same volume of CO2 as 110,000 houses every year.

There are 29 million houses in the UK, so that’s equivalent to 0.38 per cent of household emissions, which themselves constitute 40 per cent of the country’s CO2 output.

While it is our intention to reduce emissions further – and the UK government’s desire to accelerate the development of zero-emission vessels as part of its hydrogen strategy is a helpful development in that respect – the current level is tiny compared to households, the energy sector and road transportation. There are quite literally much bigger fish to fry.

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But there is a more important point here, of the ‘careful what you wish for’ variety. If you halt fishing, as many greens seem intent on doing, people will have to eat something other than seafood. Protein equivalents such as chicken, pork and beef have much higher carbon footprints than wild-caught seafood.

Are environmental NGOs seriously suggesting displacement towards food production that drives climate change to a much greater degree than fishing? Or are they recommending mass starvation? That is the logical endpoint of the case they appear to be making.

As the marine biologist Professor Ray Hilborn states, “in general, eating fish that are sustainably harvested from the sea has a lower environmental impact than the alternatives of livestock or even a vegetarian diet. Therefore, well-meaning ‘precautionary’ reductions in fishing pressure will have inevitable consequences that lost protein from the ocean will need to be replaced by protein from the land. If not, famine follows.”

Another scientifically illiterate argument made by WWF et al is that taking fish out of the sea contributes to CO2 emissions because people exhale the carbon contained in them whereas fish left in the sea die naturally and sink to the seabed where they are buried in accumulating sediment, permanently locking away the carbon.

In reality, this process only takes place in the very deep ocean far from land. It certainly doesn’t occur in the North Sea and other shallow areas where most of our commercial fisheries take place. Any fish that sinks to the seabed in the North Sea will be eaten or scavenged, or if it decays the carbon will be stirred back up into the water column by storms and currents.

This claim also ignores the fact that fish consumption is part of a closed cycle, ie the carbon contained within fish came from the atmosphere in the first place. The volume of CO2 in the atmosphere only increases if, like coal or oil, the source is extracted from where it has been locked away for millions of years.

Another component of the threadbare dossier produced by the greens to attack the industry is “over-fishing”.

This myth really needs to be put to bed, once and for all. I have never understood the argument that fishermen whose livelihoods depend on healthy fish stocks would actively seek to exhaust those very stocks.

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And thanks to the good work done over many years by skippers and fisheries managers, innovating and adopting new technology, helping to protect vulnerable marine features including key carbon sinks, North Sea fish stocks are in a tremendously healthy state.

Overall whitefish biomass in our waters is at a record high level in modern times and catching or mortality is at an all-time low, according to analysis carried out for the Shetland Fishermen’s Association of data produced by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES).

Sustainability is more than just a watchword for the fishing industry – it is a way of life.

As with any human endeavour, we can raise our game, and we will, but from a very strong starting point as a low-carbon producer of nutritious and healthy food and not the water-borne bogeyman of the greens’ imagination.

Elspeth Macdonald is chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation

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