Fishermen must dive in and grab opportunity that Brexit presents

A fleet of fishing boats at Peterhead
A fleet of fishing boats at Peterhead
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Here is a question – what nation would ever trade away a rich and everlasting natural resource? Well, the answer is easy, no sensible country would because nationhood is all about protecting your natural assets and the citizens that live there.

If you are blessed with great scenery– such as Scotland and the rest of the UK – then you look after your landscape and built heritage to encourage tourism. If you are rich in oil and gas, then it is a resource that you nurture and make the most of. It is all about protecting the fundamental wealth of your country.

Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation

Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation

Our fisheries are no different, and as a country we are surrounded by some of the richest and most productive fishing grounds in the world. Our seas are abundant in fish and shellfish, which produce a bountiful harvest that is in demand around the world. It is a renewable resource and one which is crucial to our food security. Seafood is also one of the most nutritious and healthy-to-eat types of food around. A natural asset worth protecting? Absolutely yes!

So, there you have it, and with Brexit now looming, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to regain control of our fisheries and our 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). For fishing and its associated industries, there is no doubt that these opportunities are immense. Indeed, this sea of opportunity is one that will domino down to everyone in the UK by putting our waters back under our own control.

At the moment, we are in the lamentable situation whereby our fisheries are managed by the EU as common grazing. Here is the key point; under international law, on Brexit the UK will become a Coastal State with rights and responsibilities for harvesting the seafood resource in ourEEZ, just like Norway.

This is no small matter; presently 58 per cent of the EU catches of natural seafood resource in our waters is taken by non-UK EU nations under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) arrangement of common access. This equates to about 650,000 tonnes of fish and shellfish worth more than £400 million each year being caught in our waters. In contrast, UK boats fishing elsewhere in EU waters, landed on average 90,000 tonnes of fish and shellfish, worth about £100m. Our EEZ comprises some of the world’s best fishing grounds – a resource to cherish and look after, and because it is sustainable and renewable, even more important in the long-term than oil and gas.

It is a no-brainer; regaining control of our EEZ will deliver immense benefits. Yet we as an industry have real fears that during Brexit negotiations this priceless national asset will end up as a bargaining chip. If it does so, then we will be in danger of throwing away one of our greatest natural assets. What kind of government would do that?

The spin-off for regaining control will be the rebalancing of catching opportunity in favour of the nation in a return to the norm enjoyed by all other Coastal States in the world. On Brexit the much-derided and failed CFP will fall, creating the opportunity to put in place a 
reactive, effective fisheries management system tailored to our own needs. Fishing communities and the downstream supply sector will benefit, Scotland and the UK will benefit – and so too will our marine environment.

The key message is that there must be recognition at the highest level of government that our fisheries are a fundamental and fantastically valuable natural resource, which will last into perpetuity if properly looked after.

It is a real opportunity and any attempt to trade away this sustainable resource would be an act of economic irresponsibility, as well as a betrayal of our future generations.

Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation